When Submission Becomes Codependence

I'm posting over at Warrior Wives today:

I remember when I learned in clear, concise words that my identity and purpose in life was to be a helpmeet to my husband, a mother to my children, and a keeper of my home.  I was probably eleven, and I was memorizing a motto.  Nothing about the motto surprised me, since I had been taught these concepts my whole childhood.

Nothing about the motto concerned me either.  What more could I want than Prince Charming to show up in my later teenage years and give me a happily ever after?  I would gladly obey my husband and care for our home and children, especially since the alternative was forever obeying my father and caring for his home and children. 

My teenage years seemed like a waiting game.  All the housework and childcare I did was preparation, training for when my husband would come and my real life would begin.

It felt like a storybook romance.  When I was nineteen, my family was attending a small home church, and the pastor’s son was the one for me.  It was a summer of infatuation, of meaningful glances and long conversations and longer emails, then gifts and handwritten letters.  We never began an official courtship, since that meant enough hoops to jump through that we felt it could wait.  But it was clear to me that my waiting days were over, and that I had found my purpose in life, my meaning for existence, and the key to my future.  The boy’s family was my only social life; my present happiness and future plans all hung on him.

Until the storybook romance turned into the stereotypical country song.  He left for college in the fall, and though I checked the mailbox every day, letters became fewer, until our relationship ended with a cryptic email from him over the holidays.  I was more devastated than a girl ought to be over a breakup.  Looking back, I can see now that I was depressed for at least a year, at times even vaguely suicidal.

But the shattering of my patriarchy-shaped dreams was what God knew I needed to move me onto new paths—paths I’d been taught were wrong—college education and a career, and then today, marriage and children and home life that functions very differently from what my childhood led me to expect.

It wasn’t until recently while taking a counseling class that I made the connection between the term “codependency” and all I had been taught about submission growing up.  Codependency is not a term used in the Bible, and for that reason some strictly Biblical counselors call it “fear of man” or “idolatry”—trying to get from people (or in some cases, circumstances or environment) the meaning and purpose that one can only find in God.

Codependency is a psychologically unhealthy dependence on another person.  A codependent person is not appropriately autonomous, but needs another relationship to give them stability, identity, and happiness.  This means that codependent people are very easily manipulated, and can sometimes (but not always) be manipulative themselves to try to get their needs met.

A Christian response to codependency is to remind someone of how loved and accepted they are in Christ.  Their needs are met in Him.  Their identity, purpose, meaning, and stability are all found in the Lord.  He is sufficient for them.  They can become free to build healthy relationships with other people and give to others, without needing to get some sense of well-being in return.

I realized that in the patriarchal culture, codependency is presented as the only way a woman can Biblically live life.  Truth is turned on its head, since codependency is of course not a Biblical perspective at all!  Verses in Scripture—such as Eve being a helpmeet for Adam, or Ephesians 5, or Titus 2—are lifted out of context and twisted to get to conclusions like these:

A woman’s primary calling is to be a helpmeet to her husband, to help him fulfill his calling.

A woman’s purpose in life is to be a keeper at home and to raise godly children.

A woman’s identity is to be a wife and mother.  (This is taught even to a woman who is not married, often with the added idea that her identity until marriage is to be a daughter.  A recent example I can think of is when a single woman in her 20s introduced herself to me as a “homeschooling daughter.”)

There are so many different ways these thoughts can be stated, but the underlying error of codependency is the same—the woman gets her identity, purpose, and meaning from her husband, children, and home.  These lies have tragic consequences.

For instance, if a woman believes this, yet remains single, she has little or no identity and purpose in life, and is forever waiting, often in subservience to her father, until her life begins.  If a woman believes this and struggles with infertility, she feels like she has failed her calling.  If a woman believes this and has any problems with her husband, home, or children, even if these problems are outside her control, she feels like a failure.  There is little or no room left for God to be working a different or larger plan in her life, because these things, in her mind, are His primary plan for her life.

And, if a woman believes this and enters into a relationship, her neediness—“you must give me identity and purpose in life!”—can destroy any budding romance.  Her marriage can become fraught with tension, since her husband is supposed to provide her with a sense of calling and meaning.  Her parenting can become controlling, since her children must turn out a certain way to give her life purpose.  

It’s these real-life, heartbreaking consequences that we need to keep in mind when we hear twisted truths.  Too many lives have been and are being ruined for us to ignore them.  We need to correct lies with truths like these:

A woman’s purpose in life is to glorify God.

A woman’s identity is to be a disciple of Christ.

A woman’s primary calling is to love God and to love her neighbor.

These are Biblical concepts that a woman can apply to any specific season or individual calling in her life.  Right now I am called to be a wife, mother, and keeper of my home.  (Yes, I actually said that, though with my patriarchal background I still cringe a little at the associations behind those words!)  I am really happy to fulfill these roles, but I have also learned (sometimes the hard way!) that I cannot look to my husband to give me happiness, or to my children to give my life meaning.  That comes from Christ.  If my husband and children would all die tomorrow, my life would still have future and hope even in that tragedy.

I’ve also learned that even now I’m not just a wife and mother.  It’s important of course to wisely prioritize these relationships in my life, but Christ has also called me now to a be a teacher in a part-time job, to be a friend, to be active in ministry.  Fulfilling these roles actually helps me to be a better wife and mother.

I became a wife at age 25 and a mother at age 26.  I am grateful that in my single years, I pursued a college education and a career.  My purpose in my early 20s was not to be a wife and mother.  At that time, my purpose was to serve God by being a student and later a full-time teacher.  I am so grateful I didn’t waste those years waiting for life to begin.

When my children are grown, a lot of my mothering work will have ended, and I still want to have identity and purpose then.  I’m already excited about what I might be free to do to serve the Lord in my 50s and beyond.

The point is, I’m a disciple of Christ.  What He calls me to do is going to look different in every season.  In this decade, following Christ means a lot of changing diapers, planning meals, and doing laundry.  But that hasn’t always, and won’t always, be the case.  My roles change, and Christ is the common thread.

(My husband when reading this added an entirely new element I hadn’t thought of: when we take a broader view of life to include eternity, it becomes especially clear that a woman’s primary purpose is not to be a wife and mother.  Marriage and parenting relationships will not exist in the same way in heaven, and we will be called for all eternity to glorify and enjoy God.)

A woman’s identity, just like a man’s, needs to be found in the Lord.  Only in Him can we find the freedom to build healthy relationships and to pursue our specific callings.


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