Am I Co- Dependent? The Consequences of the Codependency Myth in Abusive Relationships

Claiming co-dependency is a form of victim shaming that delays the possibility of the abuser getting any real help..jpg

It can be hard to make sense of the relationship dynamics in an abusive marriage. There’s a natural tendency to think in terms of cause-and-effect logic, in which the wife is given some responsibility for her husband’s abuse, due to being a “low performing” or co-dependent spouse.

Not only does that kind of thinking hurt victims, it isn’t biblical. 2 Corinthians 5:10 says, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” (ESV). Each one of us will be 100% accountable to God for our own behaviors. A man’s wife does not bear any accountability for her husband’s abusive actions at the judgement seat of Christ, so why do we ascribe it to her here?

Abuse is not a relationship problem but rather the abuser’s individual problem, and often stems from his own unresolved trauma and/or unhealthy upbringing. But an important concept to take hold of in understanding abusive dynamics is the fact that while a wife is not responsible for causing the abuse that happens to her, the consequences of not addressing it are dire.

Abuse is not a relationship problem, but rather the abuser's individual problem..jpg

Codependency is NOT a Diagnosis

Co-dependence is a popular psychological concept, but it hasn’t garnered full support in the clinical realm. For one, co-dependence is not an official diagnosis according to the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders. One of the major reasons why it has not been classified as a personality disorder is that a person cannot be co-dependent all by themselves (whereas a person who is experiencing a disorder like depression or anxiety will exhibit symptoms whether they are in a relationship or not).

So if co-dependency isn’t an individual disorder, we can better comprehend the victim’s experience by realizing what we’re describing is a relationship dynamic. In abusive relationships, an abuser comes into the relationship with his own disordered behavior patterns and then systematically attempts to destroy the individuality of his victim through control tactics like deception, isolation, bullying, and blaming.

However, many women will report periods of time in which the abuser seems to be charming and considerate. It may even appear that he’s changing. But it’s all part of the game of mental manipulation, as the abuser adeptly uses confusion to keep the victim off balance and unable to accurately assess what is happening to her. And when she’s unstable, she’s hampered in her ability to confidently make decisions about the relationship.

But that doesn’t mean she’s co-dependent.

The psychological weaponry abusive men use to control women is akin to brainwashing tactics experienced by prisoners of war. No wonder so many women come out of these situations with PTSD. But would we ever say that POW’s are co-dependent?! Stockholm syndrome, battering fatigue- maybe. But not co-dependent. Same idea.

Furthermore, many abused women aren’t the typical “shrinking violets” we think of (I see you, my strong-willed sisters!). They don’t all fit the “co-dependent” profile. They haven’t all experienced significant childhood traumas that keep them tied to an abuser. They may have actually come into these relationships with relatively high self-esteem. And when women in these situations try to avoid the abuser or stand up to him, these are not co-dependent behaviors.

The psychological weaponry abusive men use to control women is akin to brainwashing tactics experienced by prisoners of war..jpg

Claiming Co-Dependency is Victim Shaming

Claiming co-dependency is a form of victim shaming that delays the possibility of the abuser getting any real help. A core weakness of abusers is the inability to take responsibility. That’s why joint marriage counseling is a bad idea in these situations. Does a wife have things she can work on to improve herself? Absolutely. We all do. But whatever she’s doing is not what’s causing the abuse, and we can’t give the abuser the impression that it is. If he can blame her for any part of his behavior, it holds him back indefinitely as it keeps him from examining his own heart problems.

The REAL Misplaced Dependency

We also can’t give either the abuser or the abused the impression that her godly character alone will make an abuser change. Now abused women absolutely should seek godliness and dependency on the Lord, especially as a means to fortify themselves and their children against their husbands’ evil ways. Abuse is a serious form of spiritual warfare and the Lord goes before us when we line up on His side.

But sadly, within the Agape Moms community, we’ve heard countless testimonies of women who were advised to maintain a godly demeanor and remain in abusive marriages for decades, only to see the abusers themselves become hardened adulterers, drunkards, and even murderers.

You don’t have to be a Bible scholar to realize with outcomes like these, we may have got the Bible wrong here.

An emotionally healthy (yet unbelieving) man may be encouraged by watching a strong, righteous woman in her walk with the Lord (and himself become inspired to do the same). However, abusers often struggle with feelings of shame and insecurity that can be traced back to unresolved trauma in their formative years. Traumas can (but don’t always) lead to unhealthy thought patterns and poor coping skills, which include defensiveness and controlling behaviors. Witnessing a wife’s sufficiency in the Lord may actually end up increasing an abuser’s fear of losing control as she relies upon her husband less, and turns to God instead.

Despite his wife’s best efforts to set a godly example, the abusive husband often can’t see the truth because, as Proverbs 4:19 says, “The way of the wicked is like darkness; They do not know what makes them stumble.” (NKJV) Put simply, the evil in an abuser’s heart confuses him about his wife’s godliness, so that he interprets it as a threat. In turn, he may retreat to maladaptive, abusive behaviors to control the situation and deal with his emotions.

In the larger scheme, the enemy uses this deception to keep the abuser from understanding his true heart issue: instead of resorting to control, he needs to learn to depend on the Lord.

Encouraging an Abuser to Depend on the Lord

So how can we reorient our minds to develop a better way to deal with these situations? Proverbs 22:24-25 says, “Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare.” (ESV). 1 Corinthians 15:33 says, “Do not be deceived: Evil company corrupts good habits.” (NKJV). In relation to God’s people in evil Babylon, Revelation 18:4 says, “Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues” (NKJV). Moses and Aaron warned the congregation to get away from rebels contending against the Lord, “lest you be consumed in all their sins” (Numbers 16:26 NKJV).

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The Bible is full of references to avoid evil people, yet this is not the advice most abused women receive. And yet, safely creating distance between the abuser and the abused may be the most effective way to force him to release his dependency on controlling his wife, and instead lead him to seek dependency on the Lord.

{At the very least, it protects a woman and her children from the husband’s evil influence (which, it appears, the Bible says we should have great concern about)}

These are not things an abused woman should attempt to undertake on her own. To get to a safe place, an abused woman should consult with local domestic violence resources to develop a plan. Furthermore, her church must be willing to step in on her behalf, confront the abuser, and offer accountability and discipleship support to him. Whether or not the husband responds is up to him, but both Jesus and Paul are clear about separating such an individual from the church congregation if that happens.

In our next post, we’re going to discuss how codependency differs from enabling, and what the Bible says about stopping enabling behaviors. Have you ever been told that you were causing the abuse you received? Has this post given you any new insights?

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