When our needs for love, security, worth, or significance are not met, we attempt to meet these needs through depending on ourselves, relying on others, trying to control others, or using substances or things to make us happy. Today, in the recovery movement, this is called codependency. This term was originally coined to refer to a person married to an addict who was somehow dependent on the addict continuing to drink or use drugs. However, this excessively dependent or independent pattern is now recognized to be much more widespread in our society and has been identified as the underlying cause of numerous other problems.
Probably everyone in our society has a number of codependent characteristics, but for at least one-fourth or more of our population, these characteristics have become a predominant pattern of coping that result in dysfunctional relationships. In the United States and much of Europe, we teach codependent principles from the cradle up with nursery stories like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, our romantic and Country Western music, and our movies. After discussing codependency, one pastor who primarily works with lower income families stated, "That's everyone in my congregation." Codependency makes up a large part of the psychological dysfunction that occupies a position between normal or healthy, and the mental disorders described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV).
Irresponsibility and Procrastination - Codependent Responsibility Avoidance
The codependent responsibility avoidant uses a strategy for life that minimizes failure at all costs. If he only does what he knows he can succeed at, he will be a success. Of course, for this strategy to succeed he needs someone else who will do whatever tasks he wishes to avoid. For this job he usually enlists a codependent dependent rescuer either in the form of a mate, a parent, or a friend. His strategy is to avoid doing what he should or procrastinating until some else des it. In order to understanding this problem from a biblical perspective and learn how to assist clients with this problem, let us examine the familiar story of Jonah in the Book of Jonah.
1. The codependent avoidant sees himself as powerless, defenseless and overwhelmed by life. Jonah's name means "dove." Doves are weak, powerless, and defenseless against anything that might attack them. Their only hope is to escape by flying away.
2. He does not see the untapped potential in his life. Jonah was the son of Amittai which means “faithful, right, sure, and truthful.” This was the untapped potential that was in Jonah.
3. He had a victim mentality based on all the hurt he has experienced. In 2nd Kings 14:25 we find out that Jonah was from Gathhepher, which means "winepress of digging." I interpret this to mean that just as it takes work to dig a winepress and as grapes are crushed in a winepress, he had worked hard only to have a crushing experience. This verse also suggests that one of his prophesies did not take place until the time of the kings of Israel. Possibly, when his prophecy was not immediately fulfilled, he came under sharp criticism.
2 Kings 14:25 He restored the coast of Israel from the entering of Hamath unto the sea of the plain, according to the word of the LORD God of Israel, which he spake by the hand of his servant Jonah, the son of Amittai, the prophet, which [was] of Gathhepher.
4. A codependent sees the challenges of life as overwhelming. Jonah was called to go to Ninevah, the capital of Assyria, whose God corresponded to Hercules—a man-god of great size and strength. The codependent avoidant feels like a dove asked to take on Hercules. Life just requires too much to bear. The avoidant usually feels inadequate to do almost anything.
5. He responded by fleeing into fantasy (Tarshish means contemplation) to get away from God, who he believes required too much from him. The avoidant is usually angry with God because he believes that God expects too much of him and that God should have made things work out the way he wanted them to be. Consequently, Jonah ran from God to try to find a nicer, easier, protected life (Joppa means bright, beauty, fair) and, in doing so, he cut himself off from the very thing he needed—faith and trust in God.
6. The codependent avoidant will try to get others to meet his needs. Ships usually stand for the capability to accomplish things. Jonah tried to use someone else's capability (a hired ship) to escape from what he saw as the overwhelming demands of life. He expected someone else to take care of him.
7. The avoidant is overwhelmed by the problems of life, many of which he has created through his attempt to escape his fears. Jonah was the one who chose the ship for his attempt to escape from God. Even though the tempest was life threatening, Jonah was asleep, trying to ignore his problems. He was awakened by others (usually the codependent’s relatives and friends) who saw the destruction coming on all their lives. Because the codependent does not carry his own weight in life, his problems affect and threaten everyone involved.
8. He will frustrate all the attempts of others to really help him. The last thing he wants to do is call on God, whom he blames for the overwhelming demands of life. Others, especially relatives or friends who unsuccessfully try to help him, eventually realize that it is the codependent avoidant (Jonah) who is the root of their problems.
9. When all attempts to help fail, he will eventually be abandoned by family and friends. When the sailors were finally forced to throw Jonah overboard the seas became calm. In the same way, those who finally give up trying to help the codependent avoidant find their lives returned to normal. When they finally quit trying to help, the family and friends may feel guilty because they have abandoned the codependent avoidant (just as the sailors of Jonah's ship did).
10. The underlying problem is that he expects others to do for him what he is capable of (but afraid of) doing for himself. The codependent's extreme neediness, combined with fear, results in dysfunctional ways of coping with life, which result in further rejection and hurt.
11. The underlying cause is that the codependent avoidant feels unloved and unworthy. To understand this, we must turn to the end of the story of Jonah. Jonah was exceedingly angry at God, because God did not destroy Ninevah when its people repented of their sin. The codependent avoidant becomes very angry because he perceives that others are more blessed than he is. He sees this "mistreatment" as a sign that God must love others more. This triggers feelings of being unloved, worthless, and inadequate, which most codependents have experienced in past relationships, especially in their families of origin.
12. A predominant trait is that he is overly concerned about what people think about him. If God spared the Ninevites, others might think of Jonah as a false prophet because he prophesied that in 40 days the city would be destroyed. He did not care as much for the 120,000 people of Ninevah as he did for his own reputation.
13. He sees himself as a victim and is totally focused on his own problems. The codependent avoidant is in a perpetual pity-party. He believes that the world owes him a living because of all that "God" and others have done to him. It is almost as if he is challenging God to prove that He loves him, just as other types of codependents attempt to manipulate others around them into showing love in order to meet their needs.
14. The codependent avoidant sees everything as catastrophic. Jonah was so mad at God for being so kind to the Ninevites by sparing them, that he asked God to kill him. He felt it was better for him to die than for his prophecy not to come true, or for others to be blessed instead of him.
15. The codependent avoidant is really codependent on God. We find this final insight into the problem in the episode about the gourd. The sun was hot. This represents the difficulties of life. The codependent avoidant sees himself as a victim because of all the problems in life that have happened to him. God made a gourd grow which protected Jonah from the sun. When a worm killed the gourd, Jonah became "angry enough to die," and said that he felt justified in his anger. Jonah expected God to do for him what he is capable of doing for himself. God makes it plain that He will not do this. An example of this would be a 15-year-old who still wants his mother to tie his shoelaces because he is afraid he might do it wrong. God expects us to do our part and take responsibility for our own life, just as any healthy parent expects his own child to do what he can to meet his own needs.
The Biblical Solution
1. Helping the codependent avoidant begins with refusing to do for him what he can do for himself. This is based on a correct Greek translation of Galatians 6:2, 5 (see the earlier chapter on boundaries) which tell us that, as Christians, we should assist other people with "mountains that are about to crush them," but that we are to "let everyone carry their own backpack." As long as "helpers" enable the codependent so that he does not have to face his own consequences, he will not be motivated to face his fears and deal with his problems.
2. The codependent avoidant must repent! After being cast overboard, God prepared a fish to swallow Jonah. I believe that the fish stands for the problems of this world that seem to engulf but are unable to digest the codependent avoidant. He must get so sick of his pity-party and victim mentality that he loses any hope of ever getting his needs met through his dysfunctional manipulations. Only then will he turn in desperation to God for help.
3. He must recognize that dying to his selfishness and trusting Jesus is the answer. The Bible tells us that Jonah's three days and three nights in the fish are a type of Jesus' death and resurrection. Matthew 12:40 states, "For as Jonas (Jonah) was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." The client must learn to trust in God for his needs as Jesus did, and be willing to die to himself (delay gratification). His fears will dissipate only as he relies on Christ's provision for him instead of relying on his ability to manipulate others.
4. The client must choose to call out to God for help. Most clients will not cry out to God for help until they are absolutely overwhelmed by their circumstances. Jonah to finally cry out to God for help when he had run out of options:
Jonah 2:1 Then Jonah prayed unto the LORD his God out of the fish's belly, 2 And said, I cried by reason of MINE AFFLICTION unto the LORD, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, [and] thou heardest my voice. 3 For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me. 4 Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple. 5 The waters compassed me about, [even] to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head. 6 I went down to the bottoms of the mountains (problems); the earth with her bars [was] about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God. 7 When my soul fainted within me I remembered the LORD: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple.
5. The codependent avoidant must realize that, without God, his own attempts are futile. Until he is willing to do his part and trust God, God will not have mercy on him and deliver him from his codependency. This is clear from Jonah 2:8: "They that observe vanities (fruitless attempts to deal with his problems themselves) forsake their own mercy."
6. He must see God on his side, be thankful for all God has done for him, and be willing to obey God. Unless a person is willing to obey, God cannot help him because God will not override an individual’s free will. When Jonah repented, the fish vomited him out onto dry land. I believe the dry land stands for the security that the client will have when he chooses to trust God to meet his needs through faith.
7. The client must do what God directs in spite of his fears. Jonah had to go back to Ninevah and do exactly what God had directed him to do. In the same way, the codependent avoidant must go back to face the same fears he has tried to avoid and, this time, do as God directs. Forty (days) stands for testing in human life. This usually includes the process of overcoming fear through progressively trusting God to deal with those fears, as discussed in the conquest of Jericho. A slow, systematic desensitization process is required for reentering life as faith and trust in God grow. It took Jonah three days to cross the city. Three stands for completeness. The codependent avoidant is not done until he has faced all of his fears and has overcome them in the real world. The people of Ninevah repented. The very people, and even the leaders, that Jonah feared so much, heeded his prophecy. In the same way, the fears that have bound the codependent avoidant have to yield to God's wonderful word of deliverance when the codependent avoidant trusts God and faces them.
8. He must speak what God tells him to speak. The client must learn to speak faith about his future (prophesy) and to not speak anything God does not say (negative self-talk). Speaking what God says about our future builds faith.
9. The client must start doing what he can do for himself. Jonah built a booth to shadow himself from the sun. God responded by preparing the gourd to show that he did love him and would respond when Jonah did his part. Jonah was "exceedingly glad." The codependent's emotions are very much tied to his circumstances. Jonah had made some progress, but he was not yet completely recovered. God prepared a worm (which stands for degraded men) and it destroyed the gourd (God's provision). Men and circumstances in life will attempt to destroy the client's blessings. Jonah was able to function in good circumstances, but reverted to codependent behavior when circumstances became unfavorable.
10. The codependent avoidant must learn to face even negative circumstances without a victim mentality. A very hot wind came up and made Jonah almost faint. Codependent avoidants usually see any reversals of circumstances as a sign that God does not really love them. Jonah again wished to die. The final victory will come only when the client realizes that he is not a victim, and that God loves everybody equally, treats everyone with mercy, and loves His children unconditionally no matter whether he succeeds or fails. The codependent avoidant should also understand that the mercy of God does eventually end if we continue to refuse to repent. The people of Ninevah later returned to their sin and the city was destroyed and never rebuilt again. (Nahum 3)
Because codependent responsibility avoidants fear failure and believe that life is too difficult for them, their relationship and trust in God needs to be rebuilt. Experiencing God : Knowing and Doing the Will of God (1990) by Henry Blackaby and Claude King, is an excellent resource. Through the use of boundaries, the client needs to be forced to take more and more responsibility for their own lives. This should be done slowly, starting with areas where success is more probable. In the case of an over-under responsible marriage, boundaries are also required for the dependent rescuer to stop her from trying to require him to meet her perfectionistic standards and from being overly critical of her mate. Many times the mate will have to refuse to enable the avoidant in a particular area. He or she must be willing to suffer whatever consequences result before the responsibility avoidant realizes that if he does not do it, he will fail. This realization is key to motivating him to take on the responsibilities that he wishes to avoid.
Steps for Overcoming Codependent Responsibility Avoidance
1. The overall problem is a fear of failure, which causes the client to avoid situations in which he might fail or not perform as successfully as he wishes.
2. He must take responsibility for his own life and others must refuse to do for him what he can do for himself.
3. The client must repent of his desire to protect himself at all costs by refusing to do things which might result in failure.
4. The client must quit blaming others and trust God to meet his needs.
5. He must realize that his attempts to manipulate others to meet his needs are futile and that, without God, he is powerless to meet them.
6. The client must cry out to God for help to make him adequate for the tasks he is called to do.
7. The client must understand that God is on his side, be thankful to God for what he has done, and be willing to obey God.
8. The client must do what God directs in spite of his fears.
9. He must speak to himself only what God tells him to speak.
10. The client must start doing what he can do for himself and trust God to make him adequate for every task.