“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” .
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 .
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.
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.
  The Diversified Intervention Group, Education, “The Latest Definition of Codependency”, http://interventiontreatmentrecovery.org/education/codependency/?gclid=CPSfiK3-_8MCFdgYgQodshIARw.
Originally posted 4/5/15
This series will conclude next week with Forgiveness v. Victims’ Rights
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