A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

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
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • 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.

29 Comments

  1. Brenda R

    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.

    This could not be more true. Even now, when the almost X calls or emails ranting about whatever is the topic of the day, I loose energy and start to feel powerless. Then I start to focus more about my needs and back on God, my energy comes back.

  2. Gosh I like her.

    • me too!

      • Leslie

        She is a great ” find” Barbara! This is great, valuable information and perspective.
        Thanks to both for sharing it with us

  3. Just Me

    A few years ago, when I was in the worst part of the confusion, I read the book “Love is a Choice.” And in it, they describe that same scenario of when an alcoholic goes into recovery, that’s when the family falls apart. It was very eye opening. My husband isn’t an alcoholic, but it still fit my situation. He treated my cruelly for so long, and now that he is “trying” to be kind, I want to run away. I’m still unsure what to make of it, but I think it’s because when he’s being nice, I feel pressure to get over it (meaning my hurt as a whole). I don’t even know how to have a relationship with him as a nice person. I only know how to have a relationship with him as an abusive person. BUT one of the things I’ve learned from this blog that’s brought me tremendous peace is, it’s okay for me to be untrusting of him and his motives. That’s something I never allowed myself to do before. It’s very freeing.

    For a while now, I’ve had this sense that God is telling me that within the next year, I’ll have my answer to stay or go. He will either prove that his changes are permanent and on a heart level, or if not, doors have been opening that tell me that freedom is coming. We’ve moved to a state that is much more preferable for me to divorce in (closer to a support system for me, better job opportunities) and almost immediately, I was offered part time work for the exact hours that I needed, which were pretty specific and hard to come by. Praise God!

    • I’ve had this sense that God is telling me that within the next year, I’ll have my answer to stay or go.

      I love it when He does that. 🙂

      Sounds like things are shaping up well for you. 🙂

    • JM, picture this: A truck driver drives his big truck back and forth repeatedly over a pedestrian. (I know, why? — because he can and because he chooses to, and because there’s little condemnation of such behavior in the world that driver lives in…. ) Finally the driver stops what he’s doing.The victim somehow gets picked up and taken to hospital where she has multiple fractures and internal injuries but is miraculously still alive. Slowly, very slowly, her body starts to heal.
      The truck driver comes to visit her with a bunch of flowers after she’s released from hospital. But when she tells him how she’s still in pain, he says scornfully “Hey, you oughta be over it by now! Your bones are pretty much healed, your plaster casts are off, you look okay to me! Stop carrying on about how you still hurt! Get over it. It wasn’t that bad!”

  4. With everything that is happening in my life lately, and today- this almost made me cry.
    “Although the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet”. It is true, I have to focus and my needs and desires and not on how I’m being treated. I have to think about what I want and don’t want and avoid those people who cause me pain.

  5. These interviews have been soooo good. I really like the discussion about codependency.

    My working definition of codependency is probably less deep than what she goes into here, but it helped me a lot: “Doing for someone else what they can do for themselves out of any motivation other than love”. I added that last part after reading the book “Boundaries”, because the first part of the definition is what I heard at a secular recovery center. They said that co-dependency was “doing for others what they can do for themselves”. What I didn’t like about that was that sometimes I LIKE doing things for others they can do for themselves. It isn’t wrong. But after reading Boundaries, what I realized is damaging is doing for others what they can do for themselves out of FEAR.; That changes everything.

    • Brenda R

      That is so true. It isn’t doing something for someone else that they could easily do for themselves when you want to. It is doing it because you are afraid not to.

  6. Kelly

    At one point in my relationship with my abuser, he told me that his anger was caused by my fear, that when I was afraid of him, it triggered his rage and I needed to stop, because my fear was sick and causing the problems in our marriage. I knew that this was hogwash, that my fear was caused by his out-of-control outbursts of rage. I knew that I was reacting dysfunctionally because of my fear, but there was no way I was going to accept responsibility for his rage.

    I was praying and talking to God about it once, and He was confirming to me that, yes, I was not responsible for my abuser’s anger. BUT, God pointed out, you are behaving dysfunctionally in your fear. I frowned at Him. He reminded me that He had not given me a spirit of fear, but of power and love and a sound mind. I frowned again. I reminded Him that my abuser’s anger was NOT my fault. He reassured me, He knew this. But my fear and dysfunction WAS mine to own, and until I recognized that, God could not release me. I began to soften…I liked the idea of being released from dysfunctional fear.

    I need to add that healthy fear of violence and abuse is different than what I am talking about. Healthy fear leads us to solutions, to being cautious around danger, to being able to protect ourselves. My dysfunctional fear was causing me to do more damage to myself and was not allowing me to take healthy, protective measures. There is a big difference.

    We talked some more, and I owned my fear and the crazy ways that I was acting because of it, and He forgave me and began to set me free. Of course, as I was released from fear and began to set strong, healthy boundaries and act in confidence and love, my abuser began to get more abusive. As God gained control over my heart, my abuser lost control and he felt it. It was at that point that the abuse became more physical. But I was still being set free. it was a process, and I messed up a lot, but inside, I felt my freedom coming, and I rejoice in it.

    I am free from my abuser now, and in the process, I have been set free from fear of other family members who were abusive when I was a child, and who I have always been terrified of. It hurt, to accept responsibility for my own co-dependence, but it meant a freedom that I had only dreamed of. I still smile when I think of God’s gentleness and patience with me, when He tenderly showed me my weakness, and let me sputter and frown, “But I’M the victim here!!!” and still kept gently talking to me until I could see the glory of freedom that He was offering. He is so good and kind. He is also just what we need to be to each other. 🙂

    • he told me that his anger was caused by my fear, that when I was afraid of him, it triggered his rage and I needed to stop, because my fear was sick and causing the problems in our marriage.
      Nice. I wonder how many counselors or church leaders would fall for that line of reasoning. :/
      So glad you have your freedom now!

    • Kelly, what a fantastic testimony! I hope all our readers read it. I shall certainly be re-reading it myself.

      And I really like the expression “I frowned at God.” Boy do I identify with that! Thank you, dear sister. 🙂

  7. AJ

    So cool God’s timing sometimes! I read this post as I am reading through a book called The Betrayal Bond. If anyone has read this book he talks about the differences and commonalities between codependency and bonds due to trauma. I have found it so helpful. Pg 132+. Though there is often much overlapping in general victims of abuse are centered around the abuser and those with codependency issues are centered around the addiction. Where there is both the focus will be on the addict. Has anyone else read this book? It’s by Patrick J Carnes Phd, non Christian.

  8. King'sDaughter

    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.

    This is So true! What a great empathetic post! Abuse survivors DO need to “get it out”, to be believed and encouraged! There is so much healing in being heard! Secondly comes the empowerment of growth and the surge of energy when the siphon from an abuser is cut off.
    It is amazing how good and strong and healthy you can begin to feel when you’re no longer subject to the constant hatred of abuse and the sucking away of all of your energy that the abuser requires!

  9. annette reavis

    Thank you for posting this she is in Charlotte where i am. I have been looking for someone who can see what I’m talking about. And not make me feel crazy! Our therapist we had before I went to the church, told me he couldn’t see me with out my husband. He said “he had a contract to repair our marriage” and told me I need to contacted a women’s shelter. I can’t tell you how I felt that day. I had not been able to talk with my husband in the office so mounts after my husband would not go back I in secret went to talk to him after my husband had said I can’t go with out him because he would not know what I was saying. The day I left that office I was crushed, crushed! But he was not a Christian, at least this counselor is a believer and I did have a couple meeting with him before my husband started going. But thank you for your work .:)

  10. I choose not to agree with the portion of this definition that describes codependency as “a complex emotional disorder…” . . . I believe [codependency] 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.

    I really appreciate this. In the past when I’ve heard people describe abuse victims as co-dependent, I have heard it as a put down, a denigration of me and all my fellow victims/survivors. And I’ve bristle against this idea that we are emotionally sick. But to see codependency as a complex behavioral response that is purposeful and serves to provide physical, emotional, mental and spiritual safety in the midst of chaos and abuse — this is to honor victims’ responses to abuse, not disparage them. And to see these responses as something that can be unlearned and replaced with different responses — that is so hopeful, so encouraging, so concordant with the Christian concepts of grace and sanctification.

    And this is so true: we do not have to stop waiting for our partners to stop abusing us before we begin to get well and heal.
    When I speak to victims who seem to be focused on hoping for a miracle — that their partner will stop abusing, or that God will magically wave His wand and bring the abuser and the abuser’s allies to their knees in genuine repentance so they come begging forgiveness from the victim whom they have hurt, I know that victim is still not yet ready to make the hard choice of cutting her losses and launching herself out into the tunnel of fire. . . I don’t judge people for being at that place; I just try to ask them gentle questions to help them wake up, and I tell them how concerned I am for their well being. And I reaffirm that from what they have outlined about their partner’s behaviour, their partner is indeed abusing them.

    • Brenda R

      That is true. I began healing when I realized that if he wasn’t going to change I had to. I got counseling, read and am still reading a lot of helpful books (including Barbara’s this past week and wish I had it or something like it years ago), tried to talk to my pastor(that didn’t go well, but he has now began talking out a little about how abuse is not a part of marriage), spent a lot of time in prayer for him, me, us, finding peace wherever he lead me to go, moved out and was near sane by the time I moved. It hasn’t stopped the abuse from afar but it doesn’t affect me the same way anymore. He has started counseling and I am glad for him. I don’t see us ever having a future together again. I am growing away from him further now than before.

    • Not Too Late

      Barbara, I agree completely with you. Far from seeing it as an adaptive behavior in RESPONSE to abuse, ignorant bystanders see co-dependency as the CAUSE of the abuse. “It’s your fault – take responsibility and stop blaming the other party for abusing you” is something I hear with monotonous regularity. Yawn…

  11. 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.

    Oh yes! and how often was I subjected to the “Let’s look at your sins” line, when what I most needed to do was talk about the abuser’s sins. I would have been happy to talk about my sins after I’d been allowed to talk in depth about my abuser’s sins. I would not have been unwilling to talk about my sins IF the church had given me good doctrine with which to get a handle on them rather than shonky doctrine that blamed me and kept me entrapped in the abuse. And even while I still believed that shonky doctrine, I would have been willing to talk about my sins if I had been allowed to vent my pain and outrage first. But so often my pain and outrage were shut down by Christian who just don’t get it about trauma and abuse and recovery.

    And for the record, here are the unhealthy (~sinful) responses I have made at various times in response to abuse, whether that be abuse from my ex husband, or fellow professing-believers, or the childhood sexual abuse I suffered:
    Suppressing their pain with over activity — check
    Over focusing on others and neglecting and abusing self — check
    Compulsive eating — check
    Overcompensating with the children in attempt to make up for the abuser’s behaviors — check
    Spiritualizing away their pain — check check check (during the first marriage)
    Abusing drugs and alcohol — check (before I got married)
    Saying yes to more abusive relationships and no to safe relationships — check 😦
    Lack of boundaries — check (much better at this now than I used to be)
    Depression — check
    Anxiety — check (not as much as depression)
    Sense of false guilt and blame — CHECK
    Becoming abusive to others — I sometimes treated my daughter unfairly 😦
    Codependent behaviors and still acting as if they can change the abuser hey, I don’t think I need to check this one!
    Distorting God’s word to defend their dysfunction — not sure, probably in my first marriage in the way I misunderstood prayer and used it as an escape, but I don’t thing that was deliberate distortion on my part, more a function of the false ideas that are prevalent in the church about how ‘we walk by faith, not by feelings’
    Continuing to believe the lies of the abuser instead of the truths of God — check, in that I believed the wrong doctrine about forgiveness = reconciliation, submission = comply with all your husband’s misdeeds and sins, all suffering is virtuous, divorce is not permitted for abuse, etc, before I eventually got my thinking straightened out.

    • It is interesting as I think about my own therapist that he did not let me talk about my ex much. In fact, most of what he did was help me identify sin in my life and focus on that. The thing was, he wasn’t a Christian and I don’t think he would have called it “sin”. He was more looking for things that I could control and change, since obviously I couldn’t change my ex.

      He definitely let me talk about her and he affirmed my pain and that it wasn’t my fault, but when it came down to getting to the real healing, it wasn’t about her, it was about me.

      It’s interesting to me, because my secular therapist did a way better job of showing me areas where I wasn’t trusting God than my church did. It wasn’t like we got together as talked about how awesome divorce is (he never once advised me to divorce) or how evil my ex was. What we talked about was how I was responding to her and how to expose the things I’d buried deep that allowed me to find her treatment of me acceptable. As we uncovered those things, we uncovered some not-so-great things about me, especially my desires to find meaning in saving others rather than through Christ.

      But everything we did was within the framework of healing and compassion. And every time we talked about a weakness in me that we identified (or “sin” as I thought of it), there was always affirmation that my sin did not make her behavior acceptable.

      I’ve often thought that my therapist ironically did a lot of what a lot of Nouthetic folks wish they could do, but they are just so scared of the concept of victim to offer the compassion that healing requires.

      • Amen. What a good counselor you had, Jeff S!

    • What I found arresting about that list is you notice how different that list of sins is from what it would be if the list was not compiled in the context of the abuse situation.

      Were the victim to focus on her or his sins alone, you would find the list looks a lot like:

      -You’re not submissive enough (or like Jeff S experienced, you’re not loving your wife enough)

      -You’ve done something to provoke him

      -You’re sinfully angry

      -You’re bitter

      -You’re unforgiving

      Etc. and so forth.

      Lewis’ list is completely different and a lot more helpful.

      • Yes I agree, BIT. That’s one of the reasons I asked that question in the interview. I expected that Cathy DeLoach Lewis would have a different take on the victim’s sins than most Christians would (the Christians who take the cookie cutter approach to all relationship problems). And boy, was I right! The lists of sins are polar opposites.

        No wonder victims have found it hard to fight their way out of the paper bag! With all those wrong ideas about what the victim’s sins are — wrong ideas that are promoted by so many well known teachers, and are believed blindly by the folk in the pews — how could victims of abuse ever see the light?
        But God. . . 🙂
        No wonder we hear so many stories from victims who say, “God led me out. God told me to leave.” It seems to me that God has had to tell victims to leave destructive marriages, because the church has been telling them to stay.

    • King'sDaughter

      “Spiritualizing away their pain — check check check ”

      CHECK, Check, check…. still unlearning this one!

    • Okay all you non-Aussies and non-Kiwis, here’s the definition of ‘shonky’. I never knew it was Aussie slang till someone asked me about it today. 🙂

      shonky
      Pronunciation: /ˈʃɒŋki/
      Australian/NZ informal
      adjective (shonkier, shonkiest) dishonest, unreliable, or illegal, especially in a devious way: shonky political goings-on

      noun (also shonk) a person engaged in suspect business activities: we need to rid the building industry of these shonkies quickly

  12. Michael Lehman

    Just to quickly say this article has made huge sense to me as a pastor in understanding the kind of counsel and support abuse victims need at different stages of the journey. Thanks Barbara for posting it.

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