Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Christianity Or Codependency: Does Giving Have Limits?

October 1, 2001

How does a Christian act in marriage? Can self-sacrifice and forgiveness become destructive to a marriage? When does long-suffering, patience, forbearing one another with love, kindness, meekness and charity become enabling, martyrdom and stupidity? Do selflessness and self-sacrifice have limits?

The biblical injunctions to, "resist not evil," "bless them that curse you," "turn the other cheek," "love your enemies," and, "love thy neighbor as thyself," implore us to not retaliate or engage in the offending behavior ourselves.

The power of love. Our behavior can serve as an example to the offending party, soften his or her heart, and transform them into a loving, kind person. As the apostles said of Christ, "We love Him because He first loved us." Love has great power to change people.

Nelson Mandela’s rise to leadership began in prison when he took a personal interest in his guards’ lives, their troubles and their joys. Having been treated so decently, they could no longer persecute or treat him harshly.

People can sustain a loving stance over a short term in a close relationship despite the behavior of the offending party. However, sustaining a positive and loving approach to someone who is hurting us or taking advantage of us has the potential for sucking us into the same pathology as the perpetrator.

People become unhealthy by staying in unhealthy relationships. They tend to engage in the same "tit or tat" behaviors, to respond in kind or to withdraw emotionally from the relationship. These survival strategies interfere with their ability to give the love and goodness they want to share.

Speak up. The Bible also tells us, "if thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him, and if he repent, forgive him." We can call attention to the offending behavior, describe it clearly and expect change. Relationships start with honesty. Giving honest feedback is a loving thing to do, especially if a relationship is suffering. Truth can be told with compassion. People need feedback on what they are doing. They are under the same injunction to, "Love one another as I have loved you."

Get away. The Bible tells us to forgive our enemies, not to trust them. We are to be, "wise as serpents and as harmless as doves." Also, the scriptures say, "Give not that which is holy unto dogs, neither cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you." We do not have to put ourselves in harms way.

Sadly, sometimes it is only through separation that we can protect ourselves from an enemy. Going with someone the second or third mile is a self-chosen, voluntary act - not a requirement. Trust has to be earned. It is though repentance, a change of heart, and sustained change over time that trust returns.

Getting help. Some behaviors destroy relationships - extreme selfishness, dishonesty, adultery, abuse in all its forms, unbridled temper, and addictions. These behaviors undermine trust and love. People with these personal problems need to get help through spiritual and secular means to correct their problems. Then they can become reliable marital partners.

There are some people who because of their family backgrounds or early experiences are demanding, jealous, controlling, insecure and try to compel love. They have difficulty giving love. Because of their own neediness, they take but not give. The offending partner needs to get help for their basic insecurities and dysfunctional behavior before marriage problems can be corrected.

If giving in an abusive or disrespectful marriage is based on a lack of identity, fear of abandonment, or neediness for approval and attention, it is not a healthy love. We are, "to love our neighbors as ourselves." The pathway to that love first goes through love of self. People in this situation also need to seek help to learn to define boundaries in relationships and to develop personal strength and self-respect.

Selflessness versus selfishness. Some women have been socialized to a Victorian model of self-sacrifice devoid of personal growth and identity. Men have exploited women’s natural tendency to nurture the family, children and relationships. Women give their bread to others and keep none for themselves. Men take advantage.

Non-Christian cultural traditions have sanctioned one-sided and unequal relationships in which males feel entitled to female love and service without being equally generous with their love and service. This model of self-sacrifice and excessive dependence on their husbands has encouraged male domination, selfishness and a sexist division of labor in the home.

The answer isn’t female liberation and independence, but interdependence. Men and women are to be equal partners and to help one another in fulfilling their individual responsibilities. Relationships need to be based on mutual respect, equality, love, devotion, acceptance of differences, compassion, good communications, problem-solving and a life-long commitment to each other’s happiness.

Instead of women adopting self-centeredness and autonomy from excessive masculinity, men can move in the direction of learning compassion and nurturing from women. Wives need nurturing and love so they can give freely the gifts they have to bestow. Men need to follow the biblical counsel to, "love your wives even as Christ loved the church and gave himself for it." That is the answer to Christian marriage - not women withdrawing their kindness and love in an effort to meet their own needs first.