Interview with Catherine DeLoach Lewis (part 2)
In Part Two of my interview with Catherine DeLoach Lewis, I asked her about codependency, and what she has seen in her work with survivors who are trying to recover from domestic abuse.
My questions are in italics, Cathy’s answers are in plain font.
Go here for Part One of the interview.
* * *
What are your views about the term ‘co-dependency’ being used in the field of domestic abuse?
Let me first share my belief about co-dependency or co-addiction as it has also been called. Because I believe we are all addicted to someone or something, we all also act in co-dependent ways. Notice that I say ACT in co-dependent ways. Co-dependency is not a disease but learned coping behaviors to survive chaos. The term was created in the 1970’s. Those working with drug and alcohol addicts believed that when the addict became sober and began their recovery work, that the family would also recover. They discovered that the opposite happened. The family system tended to get more chaotic and dysfunctional. Why? The co-dependent did not know what to do if she was not focused on her spouse’s addiction.
Where there is an addict, there is a co-addict. The system we are in — family, church, work, friendships, marriage, etc.) — feeds this very dysfunctional and un-Christ-centered dynamic. And the reason the dynamic is not Christ-centered is because the person acting co-dependently, unconsciously gives away her power to another while also thinking that she has control to change another so she can feel better about herself. Where is Christ in this dynamic? Only Christ has the power to change another person and even He provides choice to choose Him.
Please read this definition (there are many) and then I will talk about co-dependency being used in the field of domestic abuse.
Codependency is a complex emotional disorder which results from long-term exposure to a dysfunctional family system. Rescuing, caretaking and controlling are central characteristics of codependency. Its root is an unmet need for love and security. God instituted the family as the primary environment through which those needs are met. When these God-given needs are blocked, family members often emerge with a lack of objectivity, a warped sense of responsibility, a propensity to control and be controlled by others, feelings of hurt, anger, guilt and loneliness.
Although many codependents outwardly appear ‘on top of the world’, their inner life is often governed by a deep sense of shame and low self-esteem. Adapted from Dying for a Drink, Anderson Spickard, M.D. and Barbara R. Thompson, Word Publishing, 1985.
Over the years the definition of co-dependency has been revised by many people. I choose not to agree with the portion of this definition that describes codependency as “a complex emotional disorder…” Instead I’ve highlighted the portion of the definition that I have noticed in my work with victims of domestic violence. As mentioned earlier, I believe it is a complex behavioral response based on a belief system that is learned and can therefore be unlearned. The purpose codependent behaviors serve is to provide physical, emotional, mental and spiritual safety in the midst of chaos and often abuse from others.
In the context of domestic violence, victims need to act codependently for safety until their codependent behaviors don’t work anymore. But I don’t use this term with my clients who are in abusive relationships because this term can be misunderstood. They may perceive that I am blaming them for the abuse in their relationship. Even if my client uses codependent to describe herself, I reframe it and place her behaviors in the context of her acting this way for her safety. When my client has a safe support system outside of therapy, feels and believes she is safe with me, has physically separated from her abuser, and is ready to look at her role in the cycle of abuse in her life, then we talk about codependency and her enabling the cycle but not ever being responsible for the abuser’s abusive behaviors.
Until I was willing as an adult to take responsibility for enabling my Mom’s addiction, while understanding I was not responsible for her addiction, I could not grow up into the adult woman God had created me to be. I could not emotionally mature or spiritually mature until I was willing and able in a safe environment with safe people to be responsible for what was mine and let go of what I was not responsible for…my Mom’s addiction, her choices, or her well being.
The women in abusive relationships must be willing to do very similar work so they will stop waiting for their partner to stop abusing them before they begin to get well and heal.
Many survivors of domestic abuse are advised by other Christians to deal with their own sin rather than talk about the sins of the abuser. We think that is often very inappropriate advice when talking with a person who is being abused by their spouse. However, none of us is free of sin, and we are curious to know what patterns of sin you have observed in clients who are victim-survivors of domestic abuse, and how you address those patterns with your clients.
It is imperative that victims of domestic violence deal with their own sin and talk about the sins of the abuser. This concept is a both/and, not an either/or. Christians who give this advice aren’t speaking an untruth, just not holding up the whole truth. I don’t think the advice is necessarily inappropriate but the timing of when this advice is given, usually done too early, often inflicts more pain and abuse on the victim and can actually blame her for the abuser’s behavior.
The fact is Barb, not many people want to hear the horrific stories of abuse. So it seems easier to ignore the pain the victim needs to express and jump right to a ‘quick fix’ by quoting, or misquoting or misapplying Scripture. Oh my!
So as a result of no one wanting to sit with the victim in her pain or support her in her efforts to get safe, some of the patterns of sin I see in my clients include:
- Suppressing their pain with over activity
- Over focusing on others and neglecting and abusing self
- Compulsive eating and spending behaviors
- Overcompensating with the children in attempt to make up for the abuser’s behaviors
- Spiritualizing away their pain
- Abusing drugs and alcohol
- Saying yes to more abusive relationships and no to safe relationships
- Lack of boundaries
- Sense of false guilt and blame
- Becoming abusive to others
- Codependent behaviors and still acting as if they can change the abuser
- Distorting God’s word to defend their dysfunction
- Continuing to believe the lies of the abuser instead of the truths of God
- and at some point, choosing to be a victim even when they are no longer in an abusive relationship and have experienced safe relationships.
Most of the time when I begin working with a woman in an abusive relationship, she needs to talk about the sins of the abuser. She needs to tell her story and have someone believe her. She needs a safe place to describe the abuse she has endured, and sob, and get angry, and grieve and just get it out. The tension for me as her therapist and also sister in Christ is to also help her focus on herself . . . what she needs, feels, what her choices are as an adult woman. I offer the both/and in session and eventually my client begins to realize that when she focuses on describing the abuser’s behaviors and attempting to figure him out, her energy drops and she feels like a victim with no choices. When she begins to focus on herself, her feelings, her needs, her choices in the context of her safe support system, her energy increases and she is hopeful for change . . . change that is not dependent on her abusive partner changing, but change that is based on God’s truth for her in her life.
As I was sharing these thoughts with you, my I-Tunes popped up and I listened to an old song I used to sing in Vacation Bible School, This is my Father’s World. I’ll close with a line from this hymn:
Although the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.