Some thoughts on co-dependency

Someone pointed me towards some resources on co-dependency a few weeks ago with the comment ‘I never knew what this was, but then I read this stuff and thought “this sounds just like me!”‘

[NB: co-dependency is misleadingly named – the term arose because it was first described in the families of addicts/alcoholics who found they were dependent on their relative’s addiction (co-dependent) because it meant they were ‘needed’ to look after their relative and mend the chaos and damage they created. If you are – as I was – completely clueless about what co-dependency is then here is one option for an introduction. It’s probably not the most well-written, informed etc. but it turned up near the top of my google search on ‘co-dependency’.]

Reading through the stuff I got sent, I was struck by a few uncomfortable resonances myself, and  I’ve also started recognising these traits in many of the people around me, too. I guess it comes with the territory of working in one of the ‘caring professions’…and also with being part of the church. The essence of co-dependency is needing to be needed, and where do we who ‘need to be needed’ go? To places where we know we will be needed, where we can ‘help’, where we can ‘make a difference’: teaching, medicine, social care, pastoral ministry…

I’ve posted a bit about a Christian response to low self-esteem before, which I think is a related issue, but I think a Christian response to co-dependency is pretty necessary too, and for many of the same reasons. The world’s attempts at responding to co-dependency run the risk of a pendulum swing into selfishness. How can we, as Christians, affirm that true life really does consist in giving ourselves away – first to God, and then to others – while tackling the pathological tendency to continually over-commit, give more than we really can, and take on responsibility that rightly belongs to others, all in an attempt to ‘save’ them?

There’s an excellent website (the link to which I’m stealing off Glen Scrivener’s christthetruth) which gives some helpful ways forward:

I don’t see the point in rehashing it, but one thing that did strike me from it was this line: “[Co-dependents] must realize and acknowledge that God is in control, and that He loves them and the people around them much more than they do.” It’s a truth we tend to know in our heads and not in our hearts. It reminded me of a lovely ‘parable’ of this truth that I came across in a novel by George MacDonald.

In the Seaboard Parish he contrasts Mr & Mrs Coombes. Mr Coombes is a gravedigger who always worries that his ‘people’ (i.e. those he has buried) are uncomfortable in stormy weather, and feels it is his job to make them less so. Mrs. Coombes, on the other hand, is able to have peace during the worst of storms, even though she has 3 sons at sea and has lost another two to it already, because she knows Who it is who looks after them.

Here’s the vicar talking to Mr. Coombes

“Then I suppose he likes making people comfortable if he makes people like to be comfortable.”

“It du look likely enough, sir.”

“Then when he takes it out of your hands, you mustn’t think he doesn’t look after the people you would make comfortable if you could.”

“I must mind my work, you know, sir.”

“Yes, surely. And you mustn’t want to take his out of his hands, and go grumbling as if you would do it so much better if he would only let you get your hand to it.”

Later the vicar explains to his daughter who has witnessed the conversation:

 ….To get people’s hearts right is of much more importance than convincing their judgments. Right judgment will follow. All such fixed ideas should be encountered from the deepest grounds of truth, and not from the outsides of their relations. Coombes has to be taught that God cares for the dead more than he does, and therefore it is unreasonable for him to be anxious about them.”

And finally, here’s Mrs. Coombes talking to the vicar about her sons:

“And your boys?”

“One of them be lyin’ beside his sisters–drownded afore my eyes, sir. Three o’ them be at sea, and two o’ them in it, sir.”

At sea! I thought. What a wide where! As vague to the imagination, almost, as ‘in the other world’. How a mother’s thoughts must go roaming about the waste, like birds that have lost their nest, to find them! As this thought kept me silent for a few moments, she resumed.

“It be no wonder, be it, sir? that I like to creep into the church with my knitting… Somehow, I feel safe in the church.”

“But if you had sons at sea,” said I, again wishing to draw her out, “it would not be of much good to you to feel safe yourself, so long as they were in danger.”

“O! yes, it be, sir. What’s the good of feeling safe yourself but it let you know other people be safe too? It’s when you don’t feel safe yourself that you feel other people ben’t safe.”

“But,” I said–and such confidence I had from what she had already uttered, that I was sure the experiment was not a cruel one–“some of your sons were drowned for all that you say about their safety.”

“Well, sir,” she answered, with a sigh, “I trust they’re none the less safe for that. It would be a strange thing for an old woman like me, well-nigh threescore and ten, to suppose that safety lay in not being drownded. Why, they might ha’ been cast on a desert island, and wasted to skin an’ bone, and got home again wi’ the loss of half the wits they set out with. Wouldn’t that ha’ been worse than being drownded right off? And that wouldn’t ha’ been the worst, either. The church she seem to tell me all the time, that for all the roaring outside, there be really no danger after all. What matter if they go to the bottom? What is the bottom of the sea, sir? You bein’ a clergyman can tell that, sir. I shouldn’t ha’ known it if I hadn’t had bys o’ my own at sea, sir. But you can tell, sir, though you ain’t got none there.”

And though she was putting her parson to his catechism, the smile that returned on her face was as modest as if she had only been listening to his instruction. I had not long to look for my answer.

“The hollow of his hand,” I said, and said no more.

All the ones dearest to us are kept in the hollow of Hands much greater than our own.

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