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).
It is difficult to produce a specific list of codependent characteristics because codependency includes a number of different styles for coping within the same basic problem. However, one of the predominant patterns is that of rescuing others, especially those that are addicts, irresponsible, or dysfunctional in some way. By rescuing or fixing them they hope that they will be appreciated, told how wonderful they are, and eventualy be rescued themselves and "taken to the castle to live happily ever after."
The Codependent Dependent Rescuer
If the type of dependent passive relationship has failed in her life or in the lives of her parents, a client will many times adopt a performance coping strategy and become the rescuer of a dysfunctional mate or addict. This type, I call the Codependent Dependent Rescuer. She believes that if she can rescue another, he will be grateful to her and will meet her needs in return. Unfortunately, for the dependent rescuer, this almost never happens. Deep within, she still would rather have him be the leader and rescue her. Many codependent dependent rescuers are nurses or members of other helping professions. Helping people just comes naturally to them. Of course, most of the time they do not realize that they are doing too much to help others, and are actually enabling them to continue in their dysfunctional lifestyles.
It was not until I read The Way Out of the Wilderness by Henslin that I understood the story of Abigail in the book of 1st Samuel as a model of a codependent dependent rescuer. Until then, I had seen her as a model of how to deal with difficult circumstances. This is how most codependent rescuers initially view themselves—as the heroine or rescuer in a bad situation. Both Abigail and her husband, Nabal, were codependents. Abigail was a codependent dependent rescuer. Nabal was an alcoholic and a codependent independent worldly failure (which will be discussed later in more detail.) Most codependents have at least two addictions. (Hemfelt, Minirth and Meier, 1989). The story begins 1st Samuel 25:2.
1. Codependent dependent rescuers almost always marry someone who is also codependent and dysfunctional in some way. Unresolved issues from the family of origin result in a reparative drive (we naturally want to try to fix our past) which influences the selection of a mate to recreate the unresolved problems in the new marriage. As already discussed, every damsel (codependent dependent) needs a knight (codependent independent) to rescue her. If the knight fails in the task, many times it is the damsel who ends up trying to fix her dysfunctional knight so that he will meet her needs. Abigail was married to Nabal. Her name means “my father is joy” indicating her desire in life is to be happy. Unfortunately, Nabal, whose name means, “fool,” was stubborn, severe, evil, wicked, disagreeable, and a drunk. His underlying problem was feeling worthless (he was from the house of Caleb, which means "dog").
2. Most mates of codependent dependents are incompetent, controlling, or abusive in some way. Initially the codependent dependent rescuer is the "perfect" mate to enable a dysfunctional, abusive, or controlling husband. In order to please him, she avoids dealing with offenses and buries her emotional pain. Many times, she has had abusive or alcoholic parents, has "chosen" a husband to work out unresolved issues in the family of origin, and has learned codependent ways in order to cope with her husband’s behavior. We are told that Nabal, instead of appreciating what David and his men had done to protect his sheep, "railed on them" and directly insulted David as a servant who "broke away from his master." (1 Sam 25:10)
3. The codependent dependent usually becomes the family "rescuer" protecting the mate from the consequences of his actions. The young men did not go to Nabal when they realized that they were in danger, but to Abigail because "a man cannot speak to him (Nabal)." Clearly, things like this had happened before, and she had stepped into the gap to rescue the family time and time again.
4. She believes that her mate is the problem and that if she could just fix him everything would be fine. Note that Abigail in no way defended her husband when the young man called him “a man of belial"—an extremely derogatory phrase. They all saw Nabal as the problem, but no one was willing to confront or help him with his problems.
5. Rather than deal with the situation directly by expressing her feelings, codependents just fix the problem. Without asking her husband, Abigail loaded up enough food for 400 men and left to meet David and his men.
6. They see themselves as the real hero or savior of the family. In the times recorded in the Bible, it was almost unbelievable that a woman would attempt to confront 400 armed men and even expect them to listen to her message. She had numerous other options. She at least could have sent one of the young men as a messenger with the food to apologize, but it appears that she saw herself as the only one competent enough to handle the situation. Clearly, she had to do something at this point; or her family would have been destroyed. However, it was because she had enabled Nabal for so many years, rather than allow him to face his consequences, that this problem occurred in the first place. Without her, he would have had to face numerous less-critical consequences on other occasions and possibly would have learned from them.
7. The codependent tries to cope with life herself in her own strength in worldly ways. Abigail took two (division) hundred loaves (human efforts), and two bottles of wine (a worldly way to have joy), five (human weakness and infirmity) sheep (our own foolish ways) ready dressed, five measures of parched corn (temporal, earthly prosperity) and a hundred clusters of raisins (dried up fruits of human life and thoughts), and two hundred cakes of figs (our human attempts at righteousness), and laid them on asses (our own capabilities).
1 Sa 25:18 Then Abigail made haste, and took two hundred loaves, and two bottles of wine, and five sheep ready dressed, and five measures of parched corn, and an hundred clusters of raisins, and two hundred cakes of figs, and laid them on asses. 19 And she said unto her servants, Go on before me; behold, I come after you. But she told not her husband Nabal.
8. The codependent fails to communicate and resolve issues with her mate out of fear of rejection. Abigail did not tell Nabal what she was doing. She even had the servants leave first in order to hide it from her husband. The codependent fears her husband’s anger and disapproval. It is as if he becomes a “false God” to be feared.
9. Trying to completely meet a codependent’s needs will fail. Because of the codependent’s intense need-deficit, no amount of loving support will ever completely fill her needs. She will only turn on you, not appreciate what you did, and demand more. Nabal was also codependent. David states, "Surely in vain have I kept all that this [fellow] (Nabal) hath in the wilderness." We are not told to what extent Nabal ever tried to meet Abigail's needs; but if he had tried, his efforts would probably never have been enough.
10. The codependent either is under- or over-responsible for others. When Abigail met David, she initially claimed complete responsibility for what happened, and then degrades her husband Nabal (calling him a man of Belial or worthless one) and puts all the responsibility on him; since she was not there when David’s messengers came. She avoids the thought that she had never confronted Nabal about his actions and had enabled him to remain like he was.
1 Sa 25:24 And fell at his feet, and said, Upon me, my lord, upon me let this iniquity be: and let thine handmaid, I pray thee, speak in thine audience, and hear the words of thine handmaid. 25 Let not my lord, I pray thee, regard this man of Belial, even Nabal: for as his name is, so is he; Nabal is his name, and folly is with him: but I thine handmaid saw not the young men of my lord, whom thou didst send.
11. God does not want the church to take vengeance on codependents even though many times they deserve it. I believe that David, here, represents the church. Codependents cause much havoc in churches, demanding love and an excessive amount of the pastor's time, and spreading gossip when someone fails to meet their needs in the way they want them to do. Eventually they will attack the church and pastor as unloving, and move on to another church. The answer is not excluding, ignoring, or putting them down. David did not degrade Abigail or even Nabal.
12. The codependent is many times extremely critical and derogatory toward his or her mate. Abigail cursed those who seek evil for David with the curse that they would all become as bad as her husband!
1 Sa 25:26 Now therefore, my lord, as the LORD liveth, and as thy soul liveth, seeing the LORD hath withholden thee from coming to shed blood, and from avenging thyself with thine own hand, now let thine enemies, and they that seek evil to my lord, be as Nabal.
13. The codependent thrives on people pleasing. Much of her conversation with David was flattery. She told him that she knew he would be king and that his house would succeed. She said that she believed that God fought his battles and that Saul, his enemy, would be "slung out, [as out] of the middle of a sling." She even told him that she believed that he had been without evil all his days.
1 Sa 25:28 I pray thee, forgive the trespass of thine handmaid: for the LORD will certainly make my lord a sure house; because my lord fighteth the battles of the LORD, and evil hath not been found in thee all thy days. 29 Yet a man is risen to pursue thee, and to seek thy soul: but the soul of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of life with the LORD thy God; and the souls of thine enemies, them shall he sling out, as out of the middle of a sling. 30 And it shall come to pass, when the LORD shall have done to my lord according to all the good that he hath spoken concerning thee, and shall have appointed thee ruler over Israel;
14. In truth, the codependent is only interested in taking care of herself. Although they profess to love and care for others, everything they do has the ultimate aim of taking care of themselves. Abigail tried to protect herself, her family, and her prosperity from destruction by David and his men. When she asked for forgiveness, she only asked for herself and not for her husband. The last thing she requested was "when the LORD shall have dealt well with my lord, then remember thine handmaid."
1 Sa 25:31 That this shall be no grief unto thee, nor offence of heart unto my lord, either that thou hast shed blood causeless, or that my lord hath avenged himself: but when the LORD shall have dealt well with my lord, then remember thine handmaid.
15. The church is to help the codependent by giving unconditional acceptance and love but not enable her so that she can learn from her own consequences. David thanked Abigail for her advice that he should not take vengeance. He accepted what she had to offer and stated that he would accept her person, indicating that he unconditionally accepted her.
1 Sa 25:32 And David said to Abigail, Blessed be the LORD God of Israel, which sent thee this day to meet me: 33 And blessed be thy advice, and blessed be thou, which hast kept me this day from coming to shed blood, and from avenging myself with mine own hand. 35 So David received of her hand that which she had brought him, and said unto her, Go up in peace to thine house; see, I have hearkened to thy voice, and have accepted thy person.
16. The codependent usually is also addicted in some way. Nabal handled his emotional problems by feasting, drinking, and taking false pride in his achievements. The Bible says that he was "very drunken." Trying to fix inside feelings with outside means, leads to addiction. We are not told what addictions Abigail might have had. The most common addictions for women are eating and buying things.
1 Sa 25:36 And Abigail came to Nabal; and, behold, he held a feast in his house, like the feast of a king; and Nabal’s heart was merry within him, for he was very drunken: wherefore she told him nothing, less or more, until the morning light.
17. The codependent becomes skilled in manipulating people. Abigail had learned not to try to deal with Nabal while he was drunk. She waited for the next morning to tell him of his folly and her rescue. As is usually the case, instead of taking responsibility for his deadly error, he withdrew inside of himself, and became "as a stone." I believe that the phrase "his heart died within him" indicates that he gave up on life—the internal pain of feeling worthless that he had desperately tried to hide had become too great.
1 SA 25:37 But it came to pass in the morning, when the wine was gone out of Nabal, and his wife had told him these things, that his heart died within him, and he became as a stone.
18. The codependent's enabling eventually leads to the mates continuing dysfunction and many times death, especially when an addiction is involved. Because Nabal had been protected from the consequences of his actions by Abigail and others, he was never forced by those consequences to change his life. The codependent many times actually believes that she is doing the right thing, but in fact is only selfishly protecting herself. Henslin, in Out of the Wilderness, suggests that Nabal died of an alcoholic seizure, stroke, or heart attack related to his alcoholism. (Wilderness, p. 55)
1 Sa 25:38 And it came to pass about ten days after, that the LORD smote Nabal, that he died.
19. The problems of codependency do not go away just because she remarries. Most codependents believe that if they could just get out of the current situation or marriage, then things would be better. Abigail was still codependently people-pleasing when summoned by David to be his wife. She states, "Behold, [let] thine handmaid [be] a servant to wash the feet of the servants of my lord." She took five damsels with her. Five stands for the weakness of every human being. (Wilson's, p. 192) Even marrying David, a man after God's own heart, did not totally resolve Abigail's codependent problems. David also had some of these tendencies, as is clearly seen in the later part of his life. As I have stated before, codependents usually marry another codependent.
1 Sa 25:39 And when David heard that Nabal was dead, he said, Blessed be the LORD, that hath pleaded the cause of my reproach from the hand of Nabal, and hath kept his servant from evil: for the LORD hath returned the wickedness of Nabal upon his own head. And David sent and communed with Abigail, to take her to him to wife.
20. Although it is only the first step, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and His church is one of the most important steps to recovery. Again, I believe that David, in this story, stands for the church. Abigail married David. The answer to codependency is a personal relationship with Christ, since He alone can heal the deep hurts within and provide the infinite supply of unconditional love needed by the codependent.
21. Just because a codependent is saved and joins a church does not necessarily alleviate all the codependent's problems. Salvation is the process of complete wholeness, but it helps only to the degree the codependent yields her flesh to the lordship of Jesus Christ. Abigail, due to David's error of trying to escape from Saul by joining the Philistines, was captured by the Amalekites (the flesh). Because the church many times has had almost no understanding of codependency; it has mishandled its relationship with many codependents, and, as a result, many of them have been overcome again by the flesh. Many codependents end up feeling rejected by the church and continue to have issues with church leaders and members.
1 Sa 30:3 So David and his men came to the city, and, behold, it was burned with fire; and their wives, and their sons, and their daughters, were taken captives. 4 Then David and the people that were with him lifted up their voice and wept, until they had no more power to weep. 5 And David’s two wives were taken captives, Ahinoam the Jezreelitess, and Abigail the wife of Nabal the Carmelite.
22. Each time the codependent relapses and is again controlled by the flesh, the church is to do what it can to help. David strengthened himself again in the Lord, and rescued his wives and children from the Amalikites (the flesh). Codependent support groups in the church provide one of the best ways to assist the codependent through unconditional love, acceptance, and support. Care must be taken for the church in doing this, just as David cared first for the 200 men who were too weary to continue.
1 Sa 30: 6 And David was greatly distressed; for the people spake of stoning him, because the soul of all the people was grieved, every man for his sons and for his daughters: but David encouraged himself in the LORD his God. 18 And David recovered all that the Amalekites had carried away: and David rescued his two wives. 19 And there was nothing lacking to them, neither small nor great, neither sons nor daughters, neither spoil, nor any thing that they had taken to them: David recovered all. 21 And David came to the two hundred men, which were so faint that they could not follow David, whom they had made also to abide at the brook Besor: and they went forth to meet David, and to meet the people that were with him: and when David came near to the people, he saluted them. 24 For who will hearken unto you in this matter? but as his part is that goeth down to the battle, so shall his part be that tarrieth by the stuff: they shall part alike.
23. The codependent must eventually turn all judgment over to God, instead of judging themselves or allowing other people to judge them. Codependents are devastated emotionally by their own judgments of themselves and their perceptions of the judgments of others. They need to learn to accept God's judgment of them; that they are very good and that there is nothing they can do to change that, good or bad. David and Abigail's son was named Daniel which means "God is my judge." It is critically important for codependents to turn from pleasing people to accepting God as the only judge of their worth.
24. The codependent must deal with her own codependency or their children will also become codependent. What we are is passed on to the next generation. We are not told why, but God and David chose Solomon over Chileab (Abigail’s son), who was next in line to be king after the death of Amnon. Possibly Chileab was too codependent, or maybe Bathsheba convinced David to choose Solomon, and Abigail did not protest. We do not even have an indication that Abigail protested about David's adultery. Maybe, like many codependents, she felt too unworthy to be treated with respect; or she had so many boundary violations in her marriage with Nabal that she did not know how to assertively stand for her rights.
Recovery from codependency is a process that usually takes a significant period of time. One secular counselor has estimated that it takes a period of five to six years. With God's help and answers, we usually expect therapy to last at least six months and that the client should remain in a support group for one to two years. After helping the client understand what codependency is and identifying her particular type of codependency, I always encourage them to start attending church and support group meetings immediately. Learning from others who are recovering or have recovered from codependency builds hope that recovery is possible, and provides the relationships and a source of unconditional love to assist in the recovery process.
As a primary resource I use Conquering Codependency (McGee and McCleskey, 1993). I believe it is more appropriate for the codependent dependent rescuer while Love is a Choice (Hemfelt, Minirth, and Meier, 1989) is more appropriate for the codependent dependent passive. I conduct Marriage and Family Therapy for couples, and some time during the recovery process, I assign the book Boundaries (Cloud and Townsend, 1989) and its associated workbook (1995). This helps the client develop healthy personal boundaries useful in correcting current relationships and developing new healthy ones.
Steps for Overcoming Codependent Dependent Rescuing
1. The root of the problem is over-dependence on people instead of God to meet personal needs.
2. The codependent is desperately seeking love and approval because of a low self-image and will control, manipulate, rescue others, or allow the violation of personal boundaries in order to get her needs met.
3. She will do for others what they should be doing for themselves, become overwhelmed with all she is attempting to do, and eventually become bitter when other people do not meet her needs in return.
4. She tries to overcome feelings of inadequacy by people pleasing, rescuing, or enabling. She believes that if she could just fix her mate then he would meet all her needs.
5. The client must repent of her selfish efforts to meet her needs through people and learn to meet her needs through a close personal relationship with God.
6. The codependent must overcome her low self-image and feelings of inadequacy by accepting God’s evaluation of her and her position in Christ.
7. She must understand that controlling others is sin and learn to use personal boundaries to develop healthy relationships with others.