Sketch for mural “The Spirit of Self-Sacrificing Love” by Kenyon Cox at Oberlin College, Smithsonian Museum (1983.114.15), Source https://americanart.si.edu (PD-Art, PD-Old-95)
“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. Continue reading