Every cult leader practices codependent styles of relating. Every cult member struggles with boundary issues and codependency.
Codependency is the greatest relational dysfunction in cults and unhealthy religious groups. It represents a form of idolatry where we put someone else in the place of God. God calls such relationships “broken cisterns” which cannot meet our soul’s true needs (cf. Jeremiah 2:13).
Remember that according to Christian counselor June Hunt, codependency is “anyone who is dependent on another person to the point of being controlled or manipulated by that person.”
In the previous post on this topic, we looked at the symptoms of codependency. In this post, we will look at some of the roots of codependency, and then focus on biblical steps toward a solution. You can find these points in greater detail in June Hunt’s Biblical Counseling Key on Codependency, which I highly recommend.
Roots of Codependency
Every child has five stages of development they need to navigate in order to attain healthy relationships as an adult. If a child skips a stage or is disallowed to proceed from one step to the next, they may grow up physically but remain underdeveloped emotionally. This can make them susceptible to unhealthy, codependent relationships.
The five stages are:
1.) The Helpless Stage
Babies rely on their parents to meet all of their needs, both physical and emotional. If your parents did not bond with you or meet your needs when you were an infant, you may have grown into an adult who still looks to everyone else to meet your needs.
2.) The Pushing Away Stage
Toddlers learn to explore boundaries and begin to recognize themselves as separate from their parents. If your parents refused to allow you to separate from them during this time, you may develop into a boundary-less adult who manipulates other people in order to feel in control.
3.) The Conflict Stage
Young children need to learn to resolve conflict with their parents as they begin to test their parents’ rules. If your parents stifled you or were pushovers, you may lack conflict-resolution skills. This can make you a push-over for strong, combative, or convincing people.
4.) The Independent Stage
Preadolescent children need to grow in independence even as their parents guide and support them. Children whose parents stifled them may grow into weak, unassertive adults. Such people often look to other apparently strong people to validate them.
5.) The Sharing Stage
Adolescents need to learn how to give-and-take and even sacrifice for other people. If a child does not see their parents modeling such healthy, mutual relating, the child may grow up into a selfish, self-focused adult who uses other people to meet his or her own needs. These types of people gravitate toward unequal relationships.
If a child does not navigate these five stages in a healthy manner, he or she will likely evidence unhealthy emotional and relational patterns which carry into adulthood. Such people have never learned healthy independence or respect for other people’s boundaries. They crave codependent relationships in which they either control someone else in order to meet their own emotional needs—or in which they allow themselves to be controlled in order to feel needed and valued.
Biblical Steps toward a Solution
Cult members who struggle with codependency have a problem with what the Bible calls “idolatry.” Idolatry places something else in the place of God. Codependent people allow their excessive care to compromise their convictions; they allow their excessive loyalty to compromise healthy boundaries; and they allow excessive “love” to say yes when they should say no. Thus they make their cult or group leader a god in their own life.
Paul speaks to these matters in the book of Galatians, particularly in chapter 1, verse 10, and in chapter 6 verses 1-5. In these passages Paul encourages believers to please God rather than other people, and to take healthy responsibility for their own burdens.
June Hunt recommends four steps toward attaining greater relational health. Caveat: I am simply summarizing them—this list is not a substitute for actual counseling. You should check out June’s Biblical Counseling Key on Codependency for greater detail, or seek help from a local Christian counselor or reputable church:
1.) Confront Your Own Codependency
Admit that you are codependent; confront the consequences of your codependency (this means you need to take responsibility for how your past experiences and reactions have hurt your current relationships—including your relationship with God; and you need to take responsibility for how your behavior has also hurt yourself); confront your painful emotions; confront your “secondary addictions” such as sexual sin, compulsive eating, alcohol abuse, etc.; confront your current codependent relationship; learn to disengage from your current codependent relationship; confront what you need to leave in order to receive (i.e. leave your broken childhood, your immaturity, and your fantasy relationships); confront your need to build mature, non-codependent relationships.
2.) Look at Your Past Love Addictions
Write down your history of codependent relationships; write down how you met or were attracted to each person; write down how the relationship was codependent and how you tried to replace your need for God by depending on this other person; write down how the relationship may have replicated your painful childhood experiences; write down how God wants to replace your self-destructive, love-addicted patterns. There is power in story, and writing these experiences down will help you to assimilate and then release these realities.
3.) Develop Interdependent Relationships
Make a goal to develop a healthy, intimate relationship with God; learn to study the Bible for yourself, but also join a healthy Bible study group or small group; memorize scripture which relates to codependency and also healthy relationship with God and others; find a mentor or accountability group who can help you; make a plan to move toward maturity in your relationships; make your relationship with your parents complete (resolve unhealthy patterns of relating, conflict resolution, etc.; refuse to become emotionally enmeshed; identify your family of origin problems and choose to forgive your offender(s) and grieve your losses); become a person of integrity; make maturity, not emotional relationships, your highest goal.
4.) Pursue Liberty
Release other people from meeting your needs; confess that you are trying to be like God in the life of another person; forgive those who have hurt you; appropriate your true identity in Christ; set healthy boundaries; exchange your emotional focus for a spiritual focus.
Key Scriptures: Exodus 20:3; John 8:36; Jeremiah 17:5; Colossians 3:13; Jeremiah 17:7; Psalm 62:7; Galatians 6:4-5; Galatians 1:10; Philippians 4:13; 1 Peter 5:7.
Codependency is a natural response to broken stages of development in childhood. By understanding how certain experiences in our past—and our own reactions to those events—shaped us, we can move toward emotional and relational health. This will make us less susceptible to cult leaders or other unhealthy religious leaders who use codependency to trap emotionally immature people.
Related Post: Broken Cisterns: Cultic Codependency (Part 1 of 2)