Codepedence is not just an issue for partners of addicts

Many of us struggle with codependency. When addiction is present in a relationship, the old model was that the addict was “dependent” and his or her spouse was “codependent.” But today we know that usually both the addict and spouse struggle with codependency in its various forms.

Codependency happens when we lose touch with our sense of self, and become over-dependent on how other people are doing, and/or how they perceive us. Since we are not “okay” with ourselves, we have to work overtime to ensure that other people around us are doing okay, and/or that they feel good about us.

So we wind up tolerating things we shouldn’t tolerate, feeling responsible for things we shouldn’t feel responsible for, and compromising what we want simply in order to please someone else. This inevitably leads to distress and frustration, which causes the addict to move deeper into their addiction, and for the addict’s spouse to cope in other ways.

The issue of codependence is complicated for Christians, because it gets mixed up with our desire to love and serve other people. The Bible tells us to “consider others better than ourselves.” But the same Bible also tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves, which presupposes some sort of healthy self-regard. The Bible also portrays Jesus himself taking time away from the crowds – not being “nice” and doing what they want him to do – in order to rest and reconnect with God the Father.

The trick to living a recovery life in relationships with others is to know how to separate healthy love with unhealthy codependence.

Melody Beattie has been a great help for me over the years with her many books on this topic. One of her best books on this topic is a daily meditation book called “The Language of Letting Go.”

In another article on this blog, I wrote about codepedence, and quoted at length from her book. But it’s so good and helpful that I want to quote some more! What follows are some excerpts about the issue of “Property Lines”:

A helpful tool in our recovery, especially in the behavior we call detachment, is learning to identify who owns what. Then we let each person own and possess his or her rightful property.

If another person has an addiction, a problem, a feeling, or a self-defeating behavior, that is their property, not ours. If someone is a martyr, immersed in negativity, controlling, or manipulative, that is their issue, not ours.

If someone has acted and experienced a particular consequence, both the behavior and the consequence belong to that person.

People’s lies, deceptions, tricks, manipulations, abusive behaviors, inappropriate behaviors, cheating behaviors, and tacky behaviors belong to them, too. Not us.

People’s hopes and dreams are their property. Their guilt belongs to them too. Their happiness or misery is also theirs. So are their beliefs and messages.

If some people don’t like themselves, that is their choice. Their choices are their property, not ours. What people choose to say and do is their business.

What is our property? Our property includes our behaviors, problems, feelings, happiness, misery, choices, and messages; our ability to love, care, and nurture; our thoughts, our denial, our hopes and dreams for ourselves. Whether we allow ourselves to be controlled, manipulated, deceived, or mistreated is our business.

In recovery, we learn an appropriate sense of ownership. If something isn’t ours, we don’t take it. If we take it, we learn to give it back. Let other people have their property, and learn to own and take good care of what’s ours.

Today, I will work at developing a clear sense of what belongs to me, and what doesn’t. If it’s not mine, I won’t keep it. I will deal with myself, my issues, and my responsibilities.

If you want to learn more about codependence, consider signing up for the Recovery Journey, an e-course for people in recovery from sexual struggles. If you are the partner of someone who struggles, note that we have a special module with materials just for the partners. You can learn more about this program at the website:

8 thoughts on “Codepedence is not just an issue for partners of addicts”

  1. Wow Mark! I would really love to have “coffee” with you sometime. You have hit on some issues that I have been struggling with. A lot of what you and your mentor say makes sense, but how to do that? We could probably spend a couple hours catching up and trying to fix my head. 🙂 It’s a good article. Your prayers would be appreciated–it’s been an extremely difficult first quarter of a year.

    Your “old” classmate

    1. Thanks for getting in touch Sheila. Sorry to hear that things have not been going so well. By all means, let’s talk. You can reach me by sending an email through the “contact us” portion of the site. I think this issue of codependence is a really big challenge for many people, and is often overlooked. It’s become one of those words that has been over-used and watered down, which is unfortunate. Blessings!
      – Mark

  2. One of the best posts I’ve read on Christians and codependence. I hope you don’t mind, but I curated it on my blog for my readers. Codependence is a constant battle for me and it has made made my wife’s vacation in Italy even more difficult than the simple logistics of trying to run a business and hold down the fort with 4 boys while she’s gone but by the grace of God, with the help of Celebrate Recovery, my good friends Sandy and Steve and Melody Beattie’s good thoughts. we are winning on this trip!

  3. My experience, both personal and with other men with whom I work, has been that
    codependence on your spouse in a marriage, particularly in an immeshed relationship,
    can be a form of idolatry that blocks access to God’s healing power. I spent _years_
    with my (now ex-)wife as my judgemental, punishing god, because I _deserved_ the
    verbal and emotional abuse she heaped on me out of her own pain. My Christian beliefs
    couldn’t develop into faith and trust in Christ because I was in bondage to my wife’s
    contempt and judgement.

    And the last thing the spouse of a sex addict that isn’t in her own recovery program wants
    to hear is that she “owns” anything having to do with his disease.

    One thing over which I had no control was whether the marriage could/should/would continue.
    For a Christian, that’s an especially hard consequence to have to face. In my case, it took the
    ending of a marriage of 19 years to free me from the idolatry/codependency prison. God immediately
    took over in my life, and I’ve not looked back for ten years.

  4. Todd and Greg — thanks so much for your comments. It’s great that you both recognize codependence in yourselves … and it seems like you’re finding change from it. Recognition and the ability to name it is super-significant in the process of change. I want to especially highlight your comments Greg … you put into words something that I see a LOT in my work with married sexual strugglers. Too many men stay stuck in their recovery, and live with chaos and insecurity because of their inability or unwillingness to create boundaries with their wives who are responding in unhealthy and destructive ways. This is a tricky business, because MOST male sex addicts are married to women who are responding in normal, healthy ways (which will include anger, sadness, and even a certain amount of harsh, “judgmental” sounding language). Some of the sex addicts married to them will respond defensively to their anger and pain, and use what we’re talking about here in this article – and what you’re sharing from your story – as ammunition to shut their wives down. I’m not talking about them. The issue we’re talking about here — what you’re referring to — is when spouses never move beyond the anger, hurt, judgmentalism, and even vintictiveness … and there begins a very unhealthy patters of a wife verbally, spiritually, (and sometimes even physically) beating up her husband over and over again. That’s unhealthy and dangerous. It sounds like you did what you needed to do. Blessings.

  5. So, how do you break free from the cycle when your wife can’t/won’t move past the anger, hurt, etc? As the perpetrator I feel obligated to do everything I can to bring healing, but after 2 1/2 years of sobriety there’s really no measurable healing in our marriage. My wife feels that she’s done everything she needs to and won’t do anything else until I change. Meanwhile, changing when all the hurt is being vented out continually is a very difficult process. Suggestions? Thank you!

  6. Gene,

    The issue you raise is not uncommon – when spouses seem stuck. To understand what to do, it might help to imagine the situation from a different perspective. Imagine we were talking to the wife of a sex addict. She has been doing her part to be a good and supportive wife for 2 and 1/2 years. He is making no changes, and is not willing to seek help or own his part of the problems in marriage. What would you tell that wife she should do? Keep trying? Work harder to be a good wife? Probably not. At some point she needs to do what she can do for her own well-being, and let her spouse experience some consequences. Otherwise he will never change.

    I think the same thing is true here. There is a dynamic that gets set up in the aftermath of disclosure of sexual betrayal / addiction where the perpetrator seemingly loses all rights. The offended spouse needs to vent her sadness and anger, and there is a definite “one up/one down” feeling in the relationship. This is normal, and is part of the healing process.

    But sometimes – for one of a host of reasons – a spouse stays stuck in that hurt and anger phase, and beings to sort of like being in the “one up” position. After a season of making amends, working to build a solid recovery … the “perpetrator” has the opportunity to hope and expect that things would change. If the hurt/angry/judgmental attitude persists, it’s because other issues are clouding things. It’s not a matter of addiction anymore, it’s something else.

    The only way to change that is to force some change … withdraw from the relationship in some way unless / until you are able to have some kind of mutual marriage counseling / restoration. In the meantime, you will likely want to get more support and accountability for yourself to stay strong, focused, and sober during this time.

    – Mark

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