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Codependency - Causes

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III. Causes of Codependency

What draws people into destructive, codependent relationships? The answer is most often found in their childhood pain—a past pain that impacts their adult choices. In reality, codependent people are grown-ups who have never grown up.
The Bible refers to immature grown-ups by using the analogy of infants feeding on milk instead of on solid food.…
“Though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness.”
Hebrews 5:12–13 ESV
12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child.

A. What Causes Codependency to Develop in Children?

All children progress through five developmental stages on their way to maturity and adulthood. God designed the family to provide the necessary structure for the healthy completion of each of these stages. If as children we fail to progress successfully from one certain stage to another, our development will be stunted at that stage, and we will grow up to be emotionally immature adults. We will develop adult bodies, but—like children—we will be underdeveloped emotionally. As a result, we will be inclined to be drawn into codependent, needy relationships. Out of tender concern for the protection of children, Jesus gave this general, but strong, warning to adults.…
“If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”
Matthew 18:6 ESV
6 but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.

Five Stages of Childhood Development

God bestows on parents the major responsibility of nurturing their children so that they will not be love-starved—an emotional state that sets them up to “look for love in all the wrong places.”

#1 The Helpless Stage

Babies need to bond with their parents because they are helpless and totally dependent for all of their basic needs (including the three inner needs for love, for significance, and for security). If your parents did not meet your needs, you may have grown into a needy adult who feels “empty” inside—as if there is a hole in your heart.

#2 The Pushing Away Stage

Toddlers need to begin to push away from their parents as a way of exploring their environment and setting boundaries. If your parents did not allow separation, you may have grown into an adult who manipulates others in order to gain some sense of control.

#3 The Conflict Stage

Young children need to learn proper ways of resolving conflict as they begin to test their parents’ rules. If you did not learn healthy conflict resolution skills, you may have grown into an adult who lacks problem-solving skills in your adult relationships.

#4 The Independent Stage

Preadolescent children need to grow in independence, but they still need direction and support from their parents. If your parents stifled your assertiveness, you may have grown into a needy, unassertive adult who is dependent on others to validate you.

#5 The Sharing Stage

Adolescents need to learn mutual give-and-take and even sacrificial sharing from their parents as they begin to pursue involvement within their own groups. If you did not see a healthy give-and-take between your parents or see ways of sacrificially helping others, you may have grown into a self-focused adult who forms unequal relationships in order to feel some sense of significance.
Children who grow up being emotionally needy and who are not allowed to learn the skills necessary for forming healthy, adult relationships never learn healthy independence. They have difficulty speaking the truth, asking for what they want, and setting boundaries. They become codependent adults who are addicted to unhealthy relationships because they never learned anything different. Ultimately, they are desperately trying to finish what they started in infancy—to grow up!
Question: “As a parent, how can I keep my children from having an unhealthy dependence on me?”
— Teach your children to pray about their decisions and to depend on God to guide them.
— Begin early to train your children to make their own decisions.
— For example, early on, allow them to choose between two or three options regarding the clothing they would like to wear.
— Praise your children for making good decisions—they will want to repeat actions that are praiseworthy.
— Allow your children to experience the repercussions of making bad decisions. Rather than finding a way to rescue them, maintain the boundary line—some of the most memorable lessons are learned the hard way.
— Teach your children the practical principles of decision making in regard to age-appropriate topics, such as boundaries, chores, friends, curfews, money, dating, and goals.
— Encourage your children to develop friendships with other children and to learn to give and take in relationships.
— Teach your children to take care of their possessions, to perform routine household chores, and to prepare meals.
— Show your children how to budget their money and how to establish spending priorities.
— Enroll your children in group activities or clubs that will expose them to new experiences, enhance their life skills, and develop their self-confidence.
— Identify your child’s strengths and find avenues in which your child can succeed in developing those strengths.
“Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” ()
Proverbs 22:6 ESV
6 Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.
God meant for us to grow. By God’s design, you can change and grow in maturity. You can have mature relationships. By God’s power, what has been ravaged can be restored. What has been ruined can be redeemed. Ask the Lord to transform your mind with His truth. Realize that the tree rooted in truth will bear much fruit.
“He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.”
Psalm 1:3 ESV
3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.

B. What Causes Repeated Cycles of Codependency?

Have you wondered why some people go from one bad relationship to another? Your friend escapes one “controller” only to be attracted to another “controller.” Why move from one negative relationship to another? Have you been caught in the cycle yourself? If so, you may have spoken these perplexing words of the apostle Paul.…
“What I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”
Romans 7:19 ESV
19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.

What Childhood Setup Leads to Adult Love Addiction?

• As a child, I had a “love bucket” that was empty.
No one sets out to be emotionally addicted to another person … to constantly crave love from another person. These cravings were created in childhood because there was “no water in the well”—their “love buckets” were and still are empty.… They are truly love-starved. When unloved children receive a rare moment of attention or affection from their unloving parents, the result is both exhilarating and confusing. They feel confused as to why they can’t be consistently loved, and they become fixated on how to get that feeling of love again. Rejected children live for any moment of acceptance. Any hint of love becomes an emotional high that temporarily relieves their pain. These children may become adult love addicts because they …
— did not receive enough positive affirmation as children
— grew up feeling unloved, insignificant, and insecure
— experienced a traumatic separation or a lack of bonding
— felt and continue to feel intense sadness and a profound loss at being abandoned
— experienced repeated rejection from their parents
— felt and continue to feel extreme fear, helplessness, and emptiness
• As an adult, I find that my “love bucket” has holes in it.
Children with empty “love buckets” create a fantasy about some “savior” who will remove their fear and finally make them feel whole. But no matter how much love they receive, it’s not enough because they themselves are not whole.
As adults, they are still emotionally needy “children” who …
— believe that being loved by someone—anyone—is the solution to their emptiness
— enter relationships believing they cannot take care of themselves
— assign too much value and power to the other person in a relationship
— have tremendously unrealistic expectations of the other person
— try to “stick like glue” to the other person in order to feel connected
— live in fear that those who truly love them will ultimately leave them
The plight of a love addict would seem without solution were it not for the Lord, who is the only true Savior, the One who loves them unconditionally and eternally. The Bible gives this assurance.…
“I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness.”
Jeremiah 31:3 ESV
3 the Lord appeared to him from far away. I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.

The Cycle of the Weak One

Scenario #1

A woman appears weak because as a child her emotional needs were never met. She fantasizes about her “knight in shining armor,” who will one day sweep her away into romantic bliss. This love addict constantly yearns for someone to “complete” her as a person. She is drawn to “caregivers,” yet at the same time, she is terrified at the thought of true intimacy.

The Cycle of the Strong One

Scenario #2

A man appears strong because as a child he was in an enmeshed relationship with his mother. He was his mother’s “caregiver” and surrogate husband. (His father was emotionally or physically absent.) Now, as an adult, he is drawn to women who need to be “taken care of,” but he is terrified at the thought of being smothered again.
Codependent relationships are formed by two people who are addicted to each other, but who are in denial about their addiction. Both the weak and strong persons can be either male or female. Both have abandonment issues and enmeshment issues. They generally flip-flop between being the weak one and the strong one—sometimes even within the same relationship. The intensity of their relationship and the intensity of their pain are immense as they swing from one extreme to the other … from suffocating one another to distancing from one another. They fail to focus on this simple, but wise, counsel.…
“Avoid all extremes.”
Ecclesiastes 7:18 ESV
18 It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them.
Question: “Why do I keep getting into codependent relationships? I’m now wondering whether it is possible for me ever to break free and stay free?”
Answer: When two people are in a codependent relationship, each has a history of feeling both abandoned and controlled. First, recognize how afraid you are of being abandoned, and then realize how you resent being controlled. Your relationship is intense and unstable, full of conflict and chaos, with repeated cycles of “come close” and “go away.” Oddly enough, you cannot live peaceably together or apart. You are caught in the destructive ups and downs of codependency and feel you cannot get off the unrelenting roller coaster. But this is not true. When you apply the biblical steps to freedom, it is possible to be set free, because …
“With God all things are possible.” ()
Matthew 19:26 ESV
26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

C. What Is the Most Dangerous Dependency?

If you live your life with a misplaced dependency on others, you will miss the extraordinary relationship God planned for you to have with Him—you may even miss salvation and heaven.
When God created you, He planned for you to enter into a tender, trusting relationship with Him, for He is so trustworthy that you can totally depend on Him to meet all of your needs. He designed you to live in dependence on Him—not on anyone else—to complete you, to fulfill you.

How to Begin Depending on God Alone

If you have struggled with codependency, God has a solution for you—a solution that can be spelled out in four points.

#1 God’s Purpose for You … is Salvation.

— What was God’s motive in sending Christ to earth? To condemn you? No … to express His love for you by saving you!
“God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” ()
John 3:16–17 ESV
16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
— What was Jesus’ purpose in coming to earth? To make everything perfect and to remove all sin? No … to forgive your sins, empower you to have victory over sin, and enable you to live a fulfilled life!
“I [Jesus] have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” ()
John 10:10 ESV
10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.

#2 Your Problem … is Sin.

— What exactly is sin? Sin is living independently of God’s standard—knowing what is right, but choosing wrong.
“Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” ()
James 4:17 ESV
17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
— What is the major consequence of sin? Spiritual death, spiritual separation from God.
“The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” ()
Romans 6:23 ESV
23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

#3 God’s Provision for You … is the Savior.

— Can anything remove the penalty for sin? Yes. Jesus died on the cross to personally pay the penalty for your sins.
“God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” ()
Romans 5:8 ESV
8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
— What is the solution to being separated from God? Belief in Jesus Christ as the only way to God the Father.
“Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ ” ()
John 14:6 ESV
6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

#4 Your Part … is Surrender and Obey.

— Place your faith in (rely on) Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior and reject your “good works” as a means of gaining God’s approval.
“It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” ()
Ephesians 2:8–9 ESV
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
— Give Christ control of your life, entrusting yourself to Him.
“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?’ ” ()
Matthew 16:24–26 ESV
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?
The moment you choose to believe in Him—entrusting your life to Christ—He gives you His Spirit to live inside you. Then the Spirit of Christ gives you His power to live the life that God has planned for you. If you want to be fully forgiven by God and become the person He created you to be, you can tell Him in a simple, heartfelt prayer like this:
“God, I want a real relationship with You. I admit that many times I’ve chosen to go my own way instead of Your way. Please forgive me for my sins. Jesus, thank You for dying on the cross to pay the penalty for my sins. Come into my life to be my Lord and my Savior. Help me to depend on You alone to meet my needs. Through Your power, make me the person You created me to be. In Your holy name I pray. Amen.”
If you sincerely prayed this prayer, look at what God’s Word says that He will do for you!
“The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.”

D. What Is the Root Cause of Codependency?

Everyone is created with three God-given inner needs—the needs for love, for significance, and for security. If we expect or demand that another person meet all of our needs or if we become dependent on another person to do so, we have a misplaced dependency. The Bible makes it plain that …
“God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”
Philippians 4:19 ESV
19 And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.

Wrong Belief for the Dependent:

“I need to be connected to a stronger person who will provide me with a sense of love and emotional security.”

Right Belief for the Dependent:

“While God often expresses His love through others, He doesn’t want me to live my life depending on another person. I need to live dependently on Jesus, who will meet my needs, give me healthy relationships, and make my life fruitful.” Jesus said,
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” ()
John 15:5 ESV
5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.

Wrong Belief for the Codependent:

“I am responsible for meeting all the needs of this person whom I love, and that gives me a real sense of significance.”

Right Belief for the Codependent:

“If I try to meet all the needs of any other person, I’m taking the role that God alone should have. My need for significance cannot be met by pleasing another person, but it is met by pleasing God and finding my significance in Him.”
“We make it our goal to please him [God].” ()
2 Corinthians 5:9 ESV
9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.
Question: “As a counselor, how can I keep my clients from developing an unrealistic dependency on me?”
— Don’t have a session without first praying for God’s wisdom. Then let your client know that you will be depending on the discernment God will give you.
— Don’t allow yourself to be your client’s “savior”—there is only one Savior, and you are not Him!
— Don’t always be available—you have other responsibilities that will need to be given high priority levels.
— Don’t pull your client to yourself, but rather present and model how to have an intimate relationship with the Lord.
— Don’t rely on your own sufficiency based on your education or experiences. Instead, rely on the Lord’s sufficiency and encourage your client to do the same.
“Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God.” ()
Psalm 146:5 ESV
5 Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God,
Hunt, J. (2008). Biblical Counseling Keys on Codependency: Balancing an Unbalanced Relationship. Dallas, TX: Hope For The Heart. Page . Exported from Logos Bible Software, 12:11 PM August 15, 2017.
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