‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Matthew 22:38
Recovering codependents who believe strongly in Christian ideals are often confused. They want to know if recovery means disowning such Christian concepts as sacrifice, unselfishness, dying to self, loving thy neighbor, putting yourself last, laying down your life, and staying married “as long as you both shall live.” They also find that some Christian ideals are hard to understand. At first glance, they seem contradictory, confusing, or inconsistent with the concepts of recovery from addiction to love. Because of this, some recovering codependents are tempted to abandon Christianity altogether. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. Christian codependents just need to be willing to sort the wheat from the chaff—to look more deeply into the meaning of Christian ideals and to make personal decisions about how to integrate them into their intimate relationships.
One of the most common mistakes codependents make is to confuse Christian love with romantic love. Christian love, what Kierkegaard calls “eternal” love, is the love of God, ourselves, and our neighbor. This love operates under its own principles or laws. It is of God. It is unconditional. It is forever. It causes no pain, but can only fulfill us. When given away, it comes back to us, somewhere along the way. Romantic love operates from a different set of laws or principles. It is object-oriented or based on “passionate preference” (attraction). It promises “forever” but rarely delivers. It can be euphoric, but it can also turn to hate; and for all the pleasure it brings, it also fosters suspicion, jealousy, despair and anxiety.
When codependents do not understand the difference between these two forms of love, they often try to use spiritual love to promote romantic love. For instance, St. Francis of Assisi said that “it is in giving that we receive.” This implies that if we give love we will receive love in return. This is true. The Christian love we give away does come back to us, not necessarily from the people we give it to or at the exact time we want it to be returned, but eventually it does come back to us through other people we meet along the path of life and from God.
However, this spiritual principle of giving love to receive love does not work with romantic love. When codependents don’t understand this, they fall in love with someone who does not return their affection and suffer for a long period of time hoping that the spiritual principle of giving love to receive love will begin to work its magic and their faithfulness will be rewarded. Also, relationship addicts will take care of their partner only to find themselves receiving more contempt than love or gratitude in return. They see as much “biting the hand that feeds them” as they see love begetting love. This is because giving love to receive love does not work with romantic love. Romantic love requires attraction or passion, and spiritual love cannot make this happen. It just has to happen on its own.
Christianity also teaches us the concept of “dying to self” or being unselfish. To many people this sounds like an order to abandon themselves in order to focus on meeting the needs of others. Many Christians recovering from their addiction to love struggle with this concept of “dying to self.” They don’t want to ignore it, and yet it seems contradictory to their attempt to build up their self-esteem. I usually tell these recovering codependents that when asked by a scribe to proclaim God’s most important commandment, Christ replied “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:38-39).
Note that this commandment does not say to love yourself less than your neighbor, but to love others as much as you love yourself. This implies that love for others should be in balance with self-love. Kierkegaard puts it this way: “You shall love yourself in the right way…proper self-love….” It is selfish, he says, not to be willing “to love oneself in the right way.”
Based on this, the most important commandant, I believe that total self-abandonment is only for those who aspire to sainthood; and for the rest of us who are not destined for this, it is all right to understand the Christian tenet of “dying to self” as a guideline for people who are in the habit of putting themselves above others—people with inflated egos whose self-centeredness has shut out God as well as others. For such people, “dying to self” is a good idea, if it is taken to mean moving away from total self-absorption.
Christian codependents must understand that there is both a negative and positive aspect to selfishness. The positive part allows them to love, cherish and take care of themselves; to have self-esteem. The negative side of selfishness puts their needs ahead of others at all times. Christian codependents in recovery must learn to enhance the positive side of selfishness and put the negative side into perspective. They can be unselfish when it is appropriate to do so, and they take care of themselves when that is appropriate.
Codependents like to believe that when they make sacrifices they are being unselfish. Well, sometimes they are and sometimes they aren’t. To tell the difference, recovering codependents must learn to look at their motives for making sacrifices, because the act of being unselfish is not as important as the spiritual condition of the giver. Unhealthy motives include attempts to buy love, build up self-esteem, bolster insecurity, dissipate guilt, or abate fear. Healthy motives include love and kindness: feelings that originate from self-esteem and spill over into the lives of others.
How do you sort out healthy motivations from unhealthy ones? This process requires honesty and an insight into the codependent personality. Such perception is difficult, if not impossible, if codependents are still clinging to distorted values, thoughts and behavior. However, after recovery has begun, an honest look into one’s motivation can help put things into perspective.
Many codependents read passages in the Bible about suffering, and they apply this to their marriage or romantic relationship. “Love bears all things…endures all things.” (1 Cor 13:7) When they are abused they feel martyred, but they accept their punishment in the name of love. These recovering codependents are confused. They are confusing accepting hardship with seeking it out. Jean-Pierre de Caussade makes this distinction in his book Abandonment to Divine Providence. He says a good Christian “…accepts cheerfully all the troubles they meet and submit to God’s will in all that they have to do or suffer, without in any way seeking out trouble for themselves.”
It is true that if you are in a relationship you must sometimes endure hardship. For instance, if your partner gets ill you will have to endure hard times and make sacrifices. However, this sort of suffering is different from allowing yourself to be beaten up or trying to live with an alcoholic who is incapable of participating in a loving partnership. In recovery, Christian codependents need to understand this. They must avoid martyring themselves in a relationship and thinking that this is the Christian thing to do.
One of the most difficult Christian ideals to clarify for recovering codependents, is Christ’s suggestion that in a marriage “the two shall become one.” (Mark 10:8) The King James version uses the phrase “one flesh.” Does this mean that we are to have no personality boundaries? Does this mean we must give up our individuality in order to be in a relationship? I don’t think so. I believe that Christ is just making the point that a marriage should be a team effort. A team is made up of individuals working together for a common goal.
Being a team does not necessarily require the fusion of both partners. Nor does it require that one partner abandon herself to become an imitation of the other. It just means that both partners share their uniqueness with each other. They work, share, love, and grow together (perhaps they serve God together), but they retain their sense of self. They continue being the child of God they were created to be while joining forces with another individual.
In no way do I want to disparage or abandon Christian ideals. They are precious to me, but my life has taught me that sometimes they have to be put into perspective. I tried to be a good Christian for most of my life, and in the process I lost myself. Then in 1982 the Holy Spirit came to me and quoted Shakespeare: “To thy own self be true, and then it follows like night the day that you can be false to no man.” To this I add: God loves me and wants me to be happy. He did not create me to abandon myself. He created me to serve him. I can only do this if I love myself as much as I love others.