Nearly every chaplain has encountered unhealthy relationships during counseling sessions. Curiously, a badly mistreated husband or wife will often explain that they are willing to remain in their marriage because, "I still love him (or her)." Although their justification appears laudable, it is also puzzling -- why are so many people willing to be horribly misused?
Love, of course, is desirable. God has given humanity the ability to develop deep emotional attachments. Nevertheless, that which is good can -- according to our inclinations -- be transformed into something harmful. Individuals learn to love at all cost - even despite the poor treatment they might receive in return. Desperate husbands, wives, parents, and children anxiously attempt to cure the ills of those they adore. Their smothering affection creates enabling behaviors, disappointment, destruction, and unhappiness. Chaplains recognize that these behaviors do not reflect God's intent for successful relationships. In the current secular lexicon, love can become "codependent."
Codependency is a dysfunctional -- and common -- relationship model. Its origin is usually linked to childhood. Children who are raised to believe that their feelings aren't significant learn to live through other people's emotions, leading to codependent behavior. The prevalence of codependency is difficult to ascertain. Some estimates suggest that over 90 percent of the American population demonstrates codependent behavior. A study by Crester and Lombardo (1999) found that nearly half of surveyed college students displayed middle or high codependent characteristics.
Codependency's prevalence is difficult to determine, in part, due to its uncertain definition. While there is no single, universal description of codependency, most clinicians agree that a "codependent" is someone who alters their behavior in order to enable or support the unhealthy behavior of another person. Melody Beattie, writer of the seminal work on codependency "Codependent No More," describes a codependent person as someone "who has let another person's behavior affect him or her, and is obsessed with controlling that person's behavior."
Accepting Beattie's definition, we can begin to differentiate between an individual who tries to cheer up a distraught colleague (low level codependent behavior) and a spouse who alters their behavior to support the dysfunction of an alcoholic husband or wife in the hope of saving them (high level codependency). Low level codependency almost certainly exceeds a prevalence of 90 percent, while middle or high level dependency may be present in less than 50 percent of the American population.
Again, in "Codependent No More" Beattie describes some codependent characteristics and activities. Codependents:
• think and feel responsible for other people's feelings, thoughts, actions, choices, wants, needs, well-being, lack of well-being, and ultimate destiny
• feel anxiety, pity, and guilt when other people have a problem
• feel compelled -- almost forced -- to help that person solve problems
• feel angry when their help isn't effective
• anticipate other people's needs
• do things other people are capable of doing for themselves
• feel bored, empty, and worthless if they don't have a crisis in their lives, a problem to solve, or a person to help
• believe deep inside that other people are responsible for them
• get superficial feelings of self-worth from helping others
• try to catch people in acts of misbehavior
• become afraid to let other people be who they are and allow events to happen naturally
• think they know best how things should turn out and how people should behave
For the purpose of counseling, it is beneficial to recall that codependency is usually compulsive behavior. A person with codependency is codependent because they believe they must be codependent -- they do what they do because they genuinely feel they have no other choice. Even when their actions are demonstrably self-destructive, they will not cease their behavior -- a codependent person will destroy themselves to maintain their relationships. People with codependency believe that they must be responsible for someone else; they often feel attracted to people who have problems that need to be "fixed."
Chaplains can remind counselees that people who practice codependency are almost always unhappy. They expect that their enabling behavior will make the dependent person "better" when, in fact, enabling reinforces dependency. Codependents expect that their kindness will be repaid and fail to recognize that dependents will not, by the nature of their relationship, acquire supportive habits. Additionally, dependents typically grow to resent the codependent person who is sustaining them.
Chaplains can offer numerous methods to conquer codependency. Codependent individuals detach from dependents by creating strong boundaries. People in codependent relationships will often describe behavior that they will not tolerate from others -- until tested. Once the dependent person violates the codependent person's boundaries, the codependent will move their boundaries to protect the relationship. Instead, codependent people can be encouraged to form and maintain boundaries and hold themselves accountable.
Additionally, people living with codependency often lack personal goals; living through and for others, they have lost some sense of ambition. These individuals can rediscover themselves by listing desired, achievable personal objectives. Goals help people in codependent relationships to envision a life free from the constraints of codependency. Also, goals reinforce the notion that one's ambitions matter apart from the ambitions of others.
Clients struggling with codependency can also be encouraged to catalog their emotions. Codependency separates individuals from their feelings -- many people claim that they have learned, since childhood, to remain silent and "bury" emotions. By recording their emotions and describing them to the chaplain, people with codependency rediscover their feelings as well as a sense of self.
Finally, given the prevalence of codependency, chaplains must improve their knowledge of it and its treatment. God wants us to love and love is meant to be shared. However, often we fail to live and love in keeping with God's wisdom. Chaplains are well-positioned to assist clients and help them recover their ability to love according to God's will.