Healthy relationships are free and generous with both friends eager to include others in their activities. They are joyful when their friend forms relationships with others. Furthermore, good friends desire to see the other reach their full potential even developing new knowledge, skills and abilities. While they are affected by the things their friends say or do; nevertheless, their reactions to the friend's behavior is not extreme but rather balanced. (2)
Have you ever been in a relationship where you or the other person:
- Experiences frequent jealously, obsessiveness, a desire for exclusivism including viewing other people as a threat to the relationship.
- Prefers to spend time alone with this friend and/or becomes frustrated when this does not happen.
- Becomes irrationally angry or depressed when this friend withdraws slightly.
- Loses interest in friendships other than this one.
- Experiences romantic or sexual feelings leading to fantasy about this person.
- Becomes preoccupied with this person’s appearance, personality, problems and interests.
- Is unwilling to make short or long-range plans that do not include the other person.
- Is unable to see the other’s faults realistically.
- Displays physical affection beyond that which is appropriate for a friendship.
- Refers frequently to the other in conversation; feels free to “speak for” the other person.
- Exhibits an intimacy and familiarity with this friend that causes others to feel uncomfortable or embarrassed in their presence. (2)
If so, Emotional Dependency (also called co-dependency) was/is likely taking place in this relationship. Emotional Dependency occurs when the ongoing presence and nurturing of another is believed to be necessary for personal security. This nurturing might take many forms (e.g., attentiveness, listening, admiration, counsel, affirmation and time spent together). Emotionally dependent relationships are ingrown creating mutual stagnation and limiting personal growth. A person in an emotionally dependent relationship can have a passing remark from one friend send the other into heights of ecstasy or the dungeons of despair. Healthy relationships are joyful and uplifting where emotionally dependent relationships produce bondage. (2)
Anyone can fall into an emotionally dependent relationship with those coming from families with abuse (e.g., alcohol, drugs, physical, emotional) being especially vulnerable. Furthermore, the typical pairing is when one person who "appears" to have it all together teams up with one who needs the attention, protection or strength the other offers. This pair appears to have one strong person and one weak person; however, the reality is they are both needy people. The strong appearing person typically has a very deep need to be needed. Ironically, the weaker appearing person typically controls the relationship. For example, a person "helping" a substance abuser ends up being controlled by the drinker's mood swings and abusive behavior. Emotional dependency can occur between males, females or male and females. (2) Emotional dependency can even occur between employer and employee.
Manipulation is the method that is used to control and hold together emotionally dependent relationships. Manipulation being defined as - attempting to control people or circumstances through deceptive or indirect means. For example:
- Provoking insecurity – withholding approval, picking on partner’s weak points, threatening to end the relationship.
- Flattery and praise – “You are the only one who understands me.” “I don’t know what I would do without you.”
- Needing “help” – creating or exaggerating problems to gain attention and sympathy.
- Guilt – making the other feel guilty over unmet expectations: “If you love me, then … “I was going to call you last night, but I know you are probably too busy to bother with me.”
- Time – keeping the other’s time occupied meeting their needs so as not to allow for separate activities.
- Pouting, brooding, cold silences – when asked, “What is wrong”, replying by sighing or saying, “Nothing”.
- Threats – threats of suicide and backsliding can be manipulative.
- Clothes – wearing each others’ clothing, copying each others’ styles.
- Failing to be honest – repressing negative feelings or differing opinions.
- Undermining partner’s other relationships – convincing him others do not care about him, making friends with partner’s other friends in order to control the situation. Ending other relationships for the friend.
- Physical affection – body language, frequent hugging, touching, roughhousing, back and neck rubs, tickling and wrestling.
- Gifts – giving gifts and cards regularly for no special occasion (such as flowers, jewelry, trips, gifts symbolic of the relationship).
- Romanticisms – using poetry, music, or other romanticisms to simply provoke an emotional response.
- Eye contact – staring, giving meaningful or seductive looks; refusing to make eye contact as a means of punishment
- Conversational triggers – flirting, teasing, using special nicknames, referring to things that have special meaning to both of you. Secret language or inside jokes that are only understood by each partner.
- Finances – combining finances and personal possessions, moving in together outside of marriage. (2)
Many of the things listed above are not wrong in themselves. For example, genuine praise and encouragement, giving of special gifts and hugging and touching are elements of healthy relationships. Furthermore, romantic gestures and certain kinds of exclusivity are very appropriate for marriage, engagement and sometimes even in serious dating relationships. However, it is the motive for doing these things that determines if it is manipulation or motivation. (2)
“It is not what a man does that determines whether his work is sacred or secular; it is why he does it.” A.W. Tozer
Even after both individuals realize the relationship is unhealthy they may experience difficulty in breaking the emotionally dependent relationship. Many times they will start to separate only to run back to each other. Even after the dependency is broken effects can linger. Listed below are some potential explanations for this behavior:
- Emotional security. A dependent relationship gives us the sense that we have at least one relationship we can count on. This gives us a feeling of belonging to someone. Our need for intimacy, warmth, and affection might be filled through this relationship. Egos are boosted when someone admires or is attracted to us. We appreciate feeling needed. Without excitement and romance our life would otherwise be dull. Furthermore, the stressful ups and downs of the relationship can become addictive. Focusing on maintaining the relationship can provide an escape from confronting personal problems and responsibilities. Familiarity, many people do not know any other way of relating. They are afraid to give up the “known” for the “unknown”.
- We cannot see them as sinful. Our culture has taken “God is love” and twisted it to “Love is God”. Romantic or emotional love is viewed as a law unto itself. When you love someone anything you do with that person seems okay. It can make a relationship look beautiful and even noble, especially when there is no overt sexual involvement. Genuine feelings of love and friendship might be used to excuse jealousy and possessiveness. Mainly, we may not be able to see how having love as an idol separates us from God (1).
- Root problems are not dealt with only the fruit (i.e., the symptoms are dealt with but not the cause). We might end it by breaking it off or moving away, but if the hurts or needs are not dealt with we will fall into another dependent relationship or go back to the one we left. Not dealing with root problems leaves the door open to future stumbling. The fruit is the emotionally dependent relationship where the root is often caused by our feeling of rejection (1). Indeed the issue of feeling rejected (1) is the root issue in the majority (approximately 80%) of peoples lives.
- Those who willingly enter dependent relationships are candidates for spiritual deception. When we ignore the Holy Spirit’s correction and conviction we are open to Satanic oppression. Wrong begins to sound right. Truth begins to sound like a lie (1) and we overlook spiritual warfare (1). If emotional ties have gone deep into the person’s life, especially if a sexual relationship has evolved, ungodly bonds (i.e., ungodly soul ties) need to be broken that have formed between the two partners. If its been a lifelong pattern of dependency with others than those ties need to be broken. If not dealt with the pattern will continue.
- We do not want to give up the relationship. In dependent relationships we may say we want out but what is meant is to be free of the consequences or problems. Meanwhile the desire and intent is to continue on with the relationship. (2)
Exiting an Emotionally Dependent Relationship (2)
The tendency to find security in another person is something nearly everyone faces. But with a dependent relationship the endless frustration and sorrow leaves a longing for something more satisfying. Realize, there is no formula that leads to a transformed life (1). Lifelong tendencies toward depend relationships cannot be changed by simply following easy steps. Jesus wants to do an intimate and unique work inside of each of us by the power of his Holy Spirit. Change comes when we submit to Him and cooperate with that work. The following guidelines are ways God has worked in various people’s lives to deliver them from emotional dependency but they are part of a bigger picture – turning away from relationships which are based on serving our own needs, our old sin nature demands, and learning new ways of relating as new creatures in Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:17).
1. Make a commitment to honesty. Spiritual deception that can set in but when we are honest with ourselves the deception is broken and we are able to admit we are involved in a dependent relationship and the sin of that relationship. Then we are ready to be honest with God and there is no need to hide our confusion, or feelings. He sees it all, He already knows it. We only need to pour out our heart to Him and ask Him to give us the willingness to obey Him. This honesty should lead us to repentance. Repentance is simply confessing in agreement with God that what He says is wrong is wrong and what He says is right is right and then turning from the wrong to the right - turning from the way of sin to the way of God (1 John 3:4. 1 John 1:9).
2. Be honest with another person. Reach out to a mature brother or sister in Christ and confess to them what has happened (James 5:16). This is someone who is a stable, trustworthy Christian not emotionally involved in the dynamic (Galatians 6:1). This person can intercede and hold us accountable. Especially if we give him/her the freedom to follow-up and ask how we are doing. One word here...accountability only works when we are totally honest and do not expect our accountability person to read our minds. It is up to us to speak out what is going on inside of us. For example, saying “Look, I am really struggling with my feelings for so and so and I am getting way too attached. Could you pray with me about this?” If we are aware of manipulation to promote dependency this is a great time to talk about it. The deeper the honesty the deeper the cleansing. Use extreme caution when expressing feelings to the person whom we are dependent on. It is best to get wise counsel and prayer before even approaching the person we are dependent on to express feelings of dependency. Even then it is wise to ask the Lord to show us what are motives are in going to the other person.
3. Begin to gradually separate yourself from your partner. To some extent our lives have been wrapped around the person we are dependent on. That may even be in the same church. Quitting the church may not be the best solution but there must be a parting of ways (unless this is a marital relationship). Placing ourselves in that persons presence only prolongs the pain and delays God’s work in our lives.
4. We must allow God to work. This is not as obvious or as easy as it sounds. If we allow God to come in and confess to the Lord we are attached to this person, powerless to do anything about it and invite God to work in the situation He will not overlook our prayers. Cooperating with the Holy Spirit (1) gives the quickest healing from broken relationships.
5. Prepare for grief and depression. Letting go of a dependent relationship can be as painful as going through a divorce. Allowing ourselves to hurt for a season lets us heal faster. If we repress pain and deny the time we need to recover we can carry unnecessary guilt and bitterness. We may become numb, emotionally unresponsive, avoiding healthy relationships and eventually setting ourselves up for another fall into dependency in the future. It is much better to allow ourselves to grieve (1) during the letting go period.
6. Cultivate other friendships. Even if it is difficult, scary, we are not into it, we still need to step out to develop new friendships. Our feelings will catch up later and we will be glad we made the investment. Trust that the Lord will lead us into friendships. He knows just the right relationships we need to draw out of special qualities.
7. Discover God’s vision for relationships. If we love others the way Christ loves them we will want to see them conformed to the image of Christ. The Lord Jesus wants to bring out qualities in us that reflect His character (1) and gifts so we can do His work. Desiring exclusive emotional involvement with any friend is a desire in conflict with what the Lord wants. Ask yourself - am I working with God or against Him?
8. Begin resolving the deeper issues. The compulsion to form emotionally dependent relationships is a symptom of deeper spiritual and emotional problems that need to be faced and resolved. One way to start is bringing the whole thing before God in prayer saying - Lord, you alone know what makes me so vulnerable to dependent relationships. Show me where this need comes from and lead me out of it. Prayer (1) and fasting breaks bondage and draws us to God like nothing else will. Another way is to seek counsel and prayer of those in authority. For some that is long-term counseling to face the issues that require change and healing. For others it may be a small accountability group that meets regularly for deep prayer and sharing.
9. Prepare for the long haul. Sometimes victory eludes us because we prepare for a battle and not a war. In overcoming dependency, whether a specific relationship or a lifelong pattern, we need to gear up for long-term warfare. Knowing ourselves: vulnerabilities, types of personalities we are drawn to, the times when we need to be especially careful. Know your adversary, Satan (1). Understand the lies Satan is likely to use to tempt and how to reject that, even when they sound good to us . More than anything….. we need to know our Lord! (1) Willingly believe God loves us (1) even if we cannot feel his love. That is, we need to take a stand of faith that He does love us and thank Him for it. Realizing that He grieves with us over the hurtful events of our past and the effects of a fallen world. Making Jesus everything safeguards us against emotional dependency. (2)
IS THERE LIFE AFTER DEPENDENCY?
Yes, it is painful to overcome but it helps to realize this is one of the most curable ailments to humanity. Some people are so completely healed of this tendency that they cannot even conceive of their former bondage to dependent relationships. There is an immediate reward of peace with God. Even in the midst of pain and loss there is peace, relief and joy. Fellowship with God is restored. It is like waking up from a bad dream (Psalms 126:1) . Peace with ourselves is another reward. It is easier to like ourselves when we are not scheming and striving to maintain a relationship we know God does not want for us. And in letting go of a dependent attachment we are no longer tormented with the fear of losing the relationship. And there is the reward to have the freedom to love others. As members of the body of Christ, when our focus and attention are wrapped up with one individual the others in our lives are suffering for it. They are not receiving the attention and involvement with us that God intends for others around us to have.
Others have discovered a new caring and compassion not based on sexual or emotional attraction. They are also less critical of people and less defensive. They notice their lives are founded on the real security of their walk with Christ, not on false security of a dependent relationship. Lastly we have a freedom to minister to others. We can lead others where we ourselves have been willing to go. When we have stopped rationalizing wrong attachments we have clearer discernment. Truth becomes easier to understand and accept. We become clean vessels fit for the Lord’s use. In our desire to remain free from emotional dependency remember that hiding from people is not the alternative to this problem! Dependency is a subtle (and highly convincing) counterfeit for the fulfilling relationships God wants us to have through Him. Remember, Jesus is not harsh with us and wants to teach us how to love people in a holy way and that takes time to learn. Realize, Jesus is the one bringing his body together and teaching us how to grow and mature in Him. (2)
(1) Left click on underlined phrase to open another article in a different tab with more explanation.
(2) This blog adapted from Emotional Dependency by Lori Rentzel, ISBN-13: 978-0877840848 (only 31 pages yet profoundly insightful)