Editor's Note: Names have been changed to protect anonymity.
After 11 years of conflict, turmoil and tears, Patricia found the courage to end an on-again/off-again relationship with her abusive boyfriend. Yet instead of feeling relieved, she was overwhelmed with sadness and entertaining ideas about taking him back. Seeking direction, she called Hope In The Night, my live 2-hour call-in counseling broadcast:
"I know I did the right thing by walking away, but all I can feel is sorrow. Why can't I feel angry for how he treated me? Why can't I just say, 'Thank you, God' because he's finally gone?"
When I asked Patricia to explain more about her relationship, she described an enmeshed bond with a man whose substance abuse caused conflict and chaos. Early in their relationship, Patricia began regretting their choice to live together and asked him to move out. He moved alright – straight into another woman's apartment. But four months later, he was back on Patricia's doorstep. …
"He vowed he'd always love me, so I allowed him back into my life. But he still smoked marijuana and abused pills. One day I finally told him I couldn't do this anymore."
Clearly, Patricia yearned for God's strength as she tried to make a fresh start, but her emotions had overtaken her reasoning, erasing memories of all the pain he had caused her. She said …
"In my head, I know breaking up was the right thing … but I can't get my heart to follow. I still love him. How can I get to the point where my heart follows my head?"
I shared John 12:35 with Patricia: "Walk while you have the light, before the darkness overtakes you" and then added, "True love – in its highest form – seeks the very best for the other person. As long as you support him in his destructive lifestyle, you are not loving him. To make matters worse, he will drag you down with him."
For Patricia to experience lasting peace, I explained that she would need to deal with codependency – her role of obsessing over and being compulsively driven to help, fix, please, and rescue her boyfriend. Like so many codependent relationships, Patricia's was founded on control and manipulation. She had formed an unbalanced, unhealthy attachment that had become obsessive. Her childhood history of being controlled and abandoned served as the perfect setup for her future dysfunctional relationships.
I reminded Patricia of God's first commandment: "You shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3). To expand on this, I said:
"The message is clear. We must not allow any person to become our 'god' … to take the place that He alone must occupy in our heart. A life excessively focused on another person's needs, desires and well-being causes a misplaced dependency, which leads to a destructive cycle of control and manipulation."
Patricia's story illustrates a dynamic that's common in codependent relationships – the cycle of the "weak one" and the "strong one." Here's how it works:
The Weak One
As a child, the weak person had emotional needs that were never met by their parents. Later, as an adult, the weak person dreams of meeting and being swept away by a responsible, strong, take-charge fantasy mate. A woman may fantasize about her "knight in shining armor," while a man may dream of finding a woman who idealizes and nurtures him. Weak people tend to be "love addicts," continually yearning for someone else to complete them – to fulfill their emptiness and longings. Although they are strongly attracted to caregivers, they are terrified at the prospect of true emotional intimacy.
The Strong One
As a child, the strong person was enmeshed in an unhealthy relationship with a parent – often serving as the parent's caregiver, confidant and/or surrogate spouse. (Typically, the other parent was absent, either emotionally or physically.) As an adult, the strong person needs to be needed and is drawn to struggling, vulnerable people who seem to need rescuing. Deep down, though, the strong person is terrified of being smothered in an intimate relationship.
When a strong person enters into a relationship with a weak person, they can easily become "addicted" to one another and yet live in denial about the addiction. To break the cycle, at least one of them must recognize the misplaced dependency and seek to become God-dependent.
Replacing an unhealthy need for another person with a healthy need for the Lord accomplishes two things: As individuals, their foundation becomes the love of God – an unconditional love that will never be taken away. Also, they need no longer fear being unloved or abandoned, and they are empowered to stand alone and grow as individuals, while encouraging the other person to reach their highest potential.
By the end of our conversation, Patricia confirmed her desire to begin a new life without her abuser, giving full control of her life to God and recognizing that, with Christ in her, she'd never be alone … never overlooked … never forgotten. She affirmed that, whenever she started to feel controlled by emotion or to be drawn back into codependency, she would fill her mind with truths from God's Word-using it to counter her fear of abandonment. She also committed to joining a codependency support group at her church, and to seeking out godly women in her life who could support her in her journey.
Patricia and I prayed together, thanking God for His promise, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you" (Hebrews 13:5). As our call ended, I reminded her that gaining freedom from codependency represents one of the highest and best thing we can do for ourselves … and for those we love.