Unbiblical, Part 5 – Self-Sacrifice v. Codependence

“The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.”

– Mother Teresa

Self-sacrifice is natural to Christians, and encouraged. Christians are to put the legitimate needs of others ahead of their own, in imitation of Christ. Mother Teresa was a shining example of this. For abuse victims, however, self-sacrifice can become confused with codependence.

Codependence as an After-Effect of Abuse

Individuals suffering from codependence will allow the emotions and behavior of others to dictate their view of themselves. Those with codependence will tolerate – even, unconsciously, seek out – relationships that are “one-sided, emotionally destructive and/or abusive verbally or physically” [1].

Codependent characteristics include low self-esteem; fear of anger; denial of any problems with the relationship; and an exaggerated sense of responsibility for the feelings, choices, and actions of the loved one [2].

While on its face, codependence may resemble Christian self-sacrifice, there are distinct differences between the two.

The codependent individual may forego his/her goals and desires to meet the perceived “needs” of a loved one. But the underlying motive for this is not the welfare of the loved one.  It is fear.

Actually, the codependent individual is attempting to shore up his/her fragile sense of worth, strike an unspoken bargain for love and affection, and maintain the relationship at all costs (however abusive or unsatisfying it may be). An overly solicitous mother might be a crude illustration.

By comparison, Christian self-sacrifice is not the attempt to manipulate (or placate) an individual perceived as more “important” or powerful. It is, or should be, truly selfless.

Clinging to an Imitation

None of this is meant to imply that abuse victims cannot love and love intensely. The problem lies in the fact victims have not seen healthy love modeled. What feels familiar is a flawed version of love, an imitation. The real love and support victims need seem out of reach, so we cling to the imitation with all our might, confusing pain for passion.

Reality Check

Codependence does not have to be a permanent state. What can loosen its grip is reality, in liberal doses.

  • What would a third party identify as problems in the relationship? Putting aside the excuses victims have always made for him/her, what attitudes and behavior on the loved one’s part cause victims pain?
  • Why is it victims feel unworthy of a satisfying relationship?
  • What would the consequences be, if victims expressed their dissatisfaction or anger? What was the response to their anger in childhood?

Notice that the list of our supposed failures and inadequacies is not included here. That, for the most part, is a work of fiction. But abuse victims are not likely to recognize the fact until the foundation for the fiction has been undermined.

The reality is victims are no longer children. We are entitled to have needs, and express them. We are entitled to have negative emotions, and express them. We will not be annihilated, if the abusive relationship ends.

The reality is victims are not responsible. Not for the feelings, choices, or actions of the loved one – much as victims might like to believe that. An exaggerated sense of responsibility provides only the illusion of control. That illusion may be necessary to the child; it is crippling to the adult.

The reality is victims can survive. The proof is – astoundingly enough – that we have. Despite the dire predictions of those who should have loved us. Despite childhood insults, curses, and neglect; despite adult scars. Despite even the flawed relationships into which we have fallen, thinking we deserve no better.

Only when abuse victims understand the concept of self-love will we be able to put the needs of another before our own, freely.  Till then, victims will continue playing out the tragedy of abuse.

[1] [2] The Diversified Intervention Group, Education, “The Latest Definition of Codependency”, http://interventiontreatmentrecovery.org/education/codependency/?gclid=CPSfiK3-_8MCFdgYgQodshIARw.

This series will conclude next week with Forgiveness v. Victims’ Rights




Filed under Child Abuse, Christianity, Emotional Abuse, Neglect, Physical Abuse, Religion, Sexual Abuse

7 responses to “Unbiblical, Part 5 – Self-Sacrifice v. Codependence

  1. Q's Corner

    I have spent the majority of my life NOT understanding relationships, with God, others nor with myself, it has been most perplexing and exasperating situation for me; I could never get it right! So I finally quit trying and quite literally gave up ALL efforts, ALL hope that healthy relationships were meant for me. Especially after being so ruthlessly attacked by both family and church family!!! I died inside! But, I thank my god and Lord Jesus Christ for reviving me!!! Life, hope and encouragement are returning to my spirit. Praise the Lord for this most remarkable experience. He is doing an amazing job at restoring me to HIM.

    • I can only imagine the pain you endured — not only abused, but criticized and rejected by the very people who should have treated you with love and understanding. How wonderful that the Lord is restoring your spirit, dear Q! Thank you for sharing your experience with others who may, at this moment, feel alone and hopeless.

  2. Q's Corner

    Bless you my friend, may your day be bright with the love of God shining down upon you.

  3. Anna, it is a double edge sword. A sacrifice must be made by the abused. Never an easy decision- one they’ll have to live with the rest of their lives. Your constant vigilance of those who are considered outcasts by society offers them hope through your work!

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