Christian Living


Growing Up Co-dependent

Dr. David Hawkins - Marriage 911 Blogger

Linda was the oldest of seven and decided while still a child that it was her responsibility to bring harmony to the family. Partially due to her temperament, partially due to the circumstances of her family, she became a people-pleaser, a trait she has carried since childhood.

Linda, now 43 years old, came to see me for counseling following a painful divorce. She shared with me how she gradually lost her individuality in childhood, and then perpetuated the problem in her marriage. She shared how she went into her marriage ready to take care of others—being a mother came naturally as she had “mothered” her six younger siblings. She easily fell into the role of caretaker of her husband and their three children. Now that he has left her for another woman, she was particularly troubled.

“I don’t know what to do with my life,” Linda said during her first session. “I never imagined being in this situation. I was married for life. I only have a part-time job, and it isn’t all that gratifying to me. I’ve spent most of my time and energy focused on my husband, children and friends. Most of my decisions were based on bringing peace to my husband and family. Now that our kids are grown, and my husband is gone, what in the world do I do?”

Linda is facing a significant crisis. Not only is she facing life as a single woman, recovering from an unwanted divorce, but she has a lifetime of codependent traits from which to recover. She is tired of being codependent, a “people-pleaser,” and wants to change.

The term “codependent” has been used for years, yet many of us are still confused about what it means. What exactly is codependency? I will offer a few definitions taken from my book, When Pleasing Others is Hurting You: Discovering God’s Patterns for Healthy Relationships. Codependency has been defined as:

  • An absence of relationship with one’s self—codependents don’t know much about their inner life
  • A dependency on external fixes—they try to fix and care for others, or manage other’s opinions of them
  • A lack of clarity about what you are responsible for, and what is not your business
  • An excessive dependency on others, or relationships, at the expense of the self
  • A pattern of pleasing others by setting aside your own needs and well-being, to your detriment.

In counseling, Linda and I explored how her early life had set her up for problems with codependency as an adult. How did this happen? In a codependent, dysfunctional family, children learn to set their own dependency needs aside in favor of their parents’ needs. While children may believe their parents are there for them, in fact the parents depend on the children to meet their needs. Listen again to Linda’s story.

“My dad was a heavy drinker, and so he was either out drinking or he and my mom were fighting. I used to think my parents were available to me, but as I look back I can see that I learned not to cause them any problems, because they had enough of their own. I learned to be a caretaker for my younger siblings, because my parents couldn’t take care of them. So, I was the “good kid,” the one who never caused problems.”

So, Linda became overly pleasing at her own expense. She became “lost,” losing sight of her own passions and dreams, and carried many of these traits into her marriage. She learned to discount her feelings, thoughts and beliefs. She became a chameleon, making sure everyone around her was happy.

Linda learned many codependent “rules” that have not served her well since childhood. (These rules served a purpose in childhood, but are extra baggage now.) She learned:

  • Don’t feel or talk about feelings
  • Don’t think about yourself
  • Don’t identify or talk about problems
  • Don’t be who you are—be good, right, strong and perfect
  • Don’t be selfish—take care of others and neglect yourself
  • Don’t have fun—don’t be silly or enjoy life
  • Don’t trust other people or yourself
  • Don’t be vulnerable
  • Don’t get too close to people
  • Don’t grow, change or do anything to rock this family’s boat.

We are told in the scriptures that “the sin of the fathers” will be passed down for generations. (Exodus 20: 5; 34: 7) The weaknesses in our personalities affect the people around us. Families become dysfunctional and children lose their way. Each generation is stacked up like a multilayered cake. Each layer impacts the next. The boundaries between generations are porous, with values and beliefs seeping through to the next tier.

Fortunately, these patterns can be broken, once we recognize them and set out, with God’s help, to change them. The key is to be mindful of these dysfunctional patterns and the impact they currently have on our lives. Thankfully, God lays out His design for families in which children are loved and nurtured and don’t carry the burden of becoming codependent by caring for the needs of the parents. If we have grown up in codependent families, we can grow beyond these dysfunctional traits with the help of good counseling and biblical wisdom.

“But aren’t we supposed to “honor one another above yourselves” Linda asked. (Romans 12: 10) Certainly, many of us face tension when applying this scriptural advice. We feel the apparent contradiction and wrestle with “thinking too highly of ourselves.” But, many of us lose ourselves for the sake of others and then, feeling exhausted and depleted, feel angry and guilty when we try to replenish ourselves in some meager way. Many of us have discovered the hard way that meeting the need of another person is sometimes irresponsible stewardship of our time and talents. How do we sacrifice ourselves and appropriately care for ourselves at the same time?

In the next three weeks we will explore codependence and the “Pleasing Personality,” and how this impacts you today. We will look closely at the traits of the Pleasing Personality, how one becomes “lost” in the family, marriage, workplace or even church. We will explore how to free yourself from these debilitating traits and yet live the Christian life fully and dynamically.

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