Marriage Gone Wrong: when codependency highjacks a beautiful union
After the series I recently wrote dealing with codependency in friendship, a few people presented a very natural follow up question: If codependency isn't ok in friendships, then should it be ok in marriage? NO.
Remember, I'm defining codependency as tying your emotional sense of well-being to another person. To say it another way, it is giving more weight and importance to a person than to God. Assuming this definition, then codependency is NEVER ok. Even in marriage.
Unfortunately, codependency in marriage is an assumed reality for many. The truth is, most of us struggle to believe God is enough for us, so we are continually looking to people to make us feel ok. Because of this, a marriage can become a place where we finally feel like being codependent is acceptable. We hope, like the movies have portrayed, that we can bank on this person to fill the deepest parts of our longings and be the one on whom our general sense of wellbeing rests.
THE FIRST LIE
Since the serpent first opened his mouth in the garden, he’s been trying to convince us that God is not enough for us: “You’re missing out. God’s holding out on you.” (Gen 3:1-6) And since then, the temptation to look to God’s creation instead of God Himself for satisfaction is a common, daily struggle, manifesting in myriads of ways. God speaks to this when He addresses the Israelites in Jeremiah 2:12-13:
“Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the LORD, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.”
Anything we look to for satisfaction other than God is an idol. A leaky, broken cistern. This is a shocking and grievous thing to God that we would forsake Him for something lesser.
The subtlest forms of idolatry happen when we put good things above God. Marriage is a good thing. But when we need it more than God, it is an idol. Children are good things, but when we need them more than God, they are idols. Friends are good things, but when we need them more than God, they are idols.
INCOMPLETENESS VS. DEVASTATION
I need to stop and clarify that there should be a healthy dependency in a marriage. God describes marriage as two becoming one flesh. If that is the case, when one spouse is gone there should be a normal sense of incompleteness. This is different than the codependency that produces an unravelling, peace-disturbing, devastating reaction when he or she is absent or not living up to a certain standard.
As most of you know, I'm married to a traveling singer-songwriter. Though I had the privilege to travel with Jimmy for many years, now I am often home alone (with the kids) while he's on the road. Just this month Jimmy spent almost 3 weeks in Norway. Honestly, it's hard on me when he's gone for that long. I feel the incompleteness that his absence inserts into my life. Yet, it is in these same moments that God whispers "Am I still enough for you?"
The Bible tells me that the fullness of joy exists in the presence of God not in the presence of my husband. (Ps 16:11) Jesus also tells me that "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:26) Yes marriage is important, but not the most important. When Jimmy is gone, the Bible does not give me the liberty to fall apart.
My marriage does not uphold me. Christ does.
My husband is not my rock. Christ is.
Jimmy's travel schedule affords me the chance to ask myself the hard question: Is my worth in Christ alone? Is my fundamental joy, peace, and satisfaction being found in Christ alone? If Jimmy is gone and I feel ruined, then it's a signal that I have elevated my husband to a place that Christ alone should be. It is a sign of codependency.
So why is codependency in marriage so common? Let me offer just a couple suggestions.
TOO DEFINED BY A RELATIONAL STATUS
Single. Dating. Engaged. Married. Separated. Divorced.
These are not identities. These are temporary relational positions. But too often we wake up each morning focused on which one of these groups we fall into. Or which group we'd like to be in. Here's what this might look like:
- The single person obsessing over how long she might stay single, relating to the opposite sex primarily as potential husbands, spending chunks of time fantasizing about that moment she meets Mr. Right, or lamenting all the recent relational movement of others.
- The dating person obsessing over when her man will take the next step, constantly measuring him up to see if she made the right choice, or constantly checking in on him to make sure he's being faithful.
- The married person consumed with thoughts of how to make the marriage better, where her spouse falls short, or constantly comparing her spouse to others.
- The divorcee turning every idle moment into a reliving of how things went wrong, how she might have turned things around, or waiting for reconciliation or a new mate to make her life complete.
So, what holds the gravitational pull in your thoughts? Where does your mind go in those quiet moments at the stop light or in the waiting room? When sorrow and hopelessness knock at the door, where do you run for cover? If your place on the relational spectrum holds the greatest gravitational pull in your mind, you are giving more weight to a person (whether a real person or an imaginary-future person) than to God. You are setting the stage in your heart for codependency to thrive.
"For in Christ Jesus, you are all sons of God through faith." (Gal 3:26) The Bible gives us this identity more than any other: children of God. This truth, that we are His sons and daughters, should shape our outlook on life, on others, and on ourselves. Let your relational status take a back seat to the much weightier reality that God has adopted you into His family! This identity alone will never change.
MARRIED TO GET
What comes to mind when you think of a fairytale wedding and marriage? No more loneliness? The freedom to enjoy sex? Someone who will always be there for you? Someone to fill your insecurities?
We have been primed through movies and media to be excited about marriage primarily by what we can get out of it. I watch some chick flicks and think, "Yeah who wouldn't want a guy who worships you?" But marriage God's way isn't about worshipping each other, it's about worshipping Him.
If all your thoughts about marriage have to do with ways that you benefit from it, you're walking down the path to codependency.
As every married person knows, your spouse will let you down, have bad days, say the wrong thing, and hurt you deeply. You'll likely do the same to them. And Biblically, this is no cause for falling apart, throwing a fit, or demanding something better. Rather, when this happens the Bible prods us toward forgiveness, grace, mercy, and patience.
God calls us into marriage (like most other things) to give, not to get. To extend grace, to consider the other's needs as more important than our own, to serve, to be long-suffering. There might be years of your marriage where your spouse has nothing to give to you, and yet God would ask us to continue to give. The only way this is possible is by finding your fundamental satisfaction, joy, and wholeness in Christ alone. Without that, your spouse's lack of attention, affection, or (fill in the blank) will only fuel your own unhappiness.
Marriage is a beautiful and glorious institution made by God for His glory and for our joy. It is meant to reflect the magnificent reality of His covenant-keeping love and the gloriously real pursuit of Jesus for His bride, the church. But codependency brings this union down from its glorious height into the lowly realm of our own self-centered desires and fleshly demands to be served. So, how do we keep codependency out of marriage?
Worship God. Fight daily to believe and walk in the truth that HE ALONE IS ENOUGH for the deepest longings of our souls. This fight is for the married person. Find Christ to be enough so you can serve God wholeheartedly and serve your spouse, not demand from them. This fight is for the single person. Find Christ to be enough so you can start waiting on the Lord, not on a spouse. This fight is for us all. May God have our highest affections, our deepest loyalty, and our most fervent pursuit.
I say to the Lord, 'You are my Lord, I have no good apart from You. I have set the LORD always before me; because He is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. In Your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (selections from Psalm 16:11)
Oh Lord, help us believe this! Help us see that apart from you, we have no good at all. Apart from you, every relationship is empty, void, a hollow shell. You are the substance of joy in every relationship. You are the fullness of joy. May we set You always before us and find in You pleasures forevermore.