Hope for Unhealthy Friendships

Upon entering college at a small Christian school, Emma was immediately taken under the wing of one of her female professors. Being a transfer student, away from home for the first time, her professor’s friendship and interest in her gave Emma a sense of security and a feeling of significance. As the semester unfolded, she began to spend more and more of her time with her professor, and it became evident both to her and to her classmates that she was the “favorite.”

However, while Emma enjoyed the attention she received from her professor, she also began experiencing conflicting feelings. She felt pressure to please her professor all the time. Emma’s mood began to rise and fall depending on the professor’s mood, she minimized other friendships, and she wouldn’t schedule anything unless she knew her professor didn’t have plans or expectations for her then.

Emma often felt manipulated, but at the same time she wanted desperately to please her professor and keep the friendship, because she received so much love and significance from it. She did think of it as a friendship. Her professor treated her like a peer, despite also being a spiritual mentor and an authority figure.

Emotional Dependency

One day, Emma’s roommate gently pointed out that her friendship with the teacher was not healthy. Emma responded with anger and defensiveness, but she knew deep inside that her roommate was right.

Her relationship with the professor was different than any of her other friendships. She did feel a sense of bondage to the needs and control of her teacher. She realized in those moments how much her life and emotions revolved around this one relationship, and she acknowledged to herself and to God that her friendship with her professor wasn’t right. The professor had overtaken Christ’s place in Emma’s mind and heart.

Emma’s friend gave her a name for this kind of idolatrous relationship: emotional dependency.

Is Emma’s Story Yours?

Emma didn’t know what to do, so she avoided her professor, cut her off, and eventually moved away after graduation. In her new city, however, Emma didn’t initiate any new friendships, because she didn’t trust herself. She feared being hurt again or possibly manipulating others the way her professor had manipulated her.

Instead of confessing her sin, she avoided thinking about her friendship with the professor, and she stuffed the shame she felt down inside.

In her self-imposed isolation, however, God began to work. The Holy Spirit consistently pressed on her to consider what had led her to emotionally depend on her professor. She began to see all the warning signs she’d missed before, and she began opening herself up again to new friends — friends to whom she eventually confessed her shame, fear, and hurts.

I am one of those friends. Now I’ve seen God transform Emma’s heart and teach her how to engage in healthy, biblical friendships without fear. I asked her recently exactly what God has done and how she would encourage other women caught in an unhealthy dependency upon others. Here’s how she answered.

What is a healthy and biblical definition of friendship for you now?

We can’t be Christ to anyone, and no one can be Christ to us but him. Anytime we look to others as our savior, anytime we expect them to be our “everything,” we turn friendship into idolatry. In the past, for instance, when something happened to me, I went to my professor instead of to God.

In right friendships, however, the goal is to point each other to Christ, which enables us to keep God at the center of our love for one another. I must allow my friends not to be Christ. In other words, they are going to let me down and aren’t going to love me unconditionally, and vice versa. But I can always turn to Christ and be loved, and I can always point my friends to Christ for their needs.

How do you know when your motives for depending on a friend are right or wrong?

I now recognize my motivations and my heart better. I see how I’ve manipulated conversations in the past to get some sort of validation or significance. I now also know more of the warning signs. My initial impulse is usually to go to people, but God has trained me to go to him first. I have to trust that he will lead me to go to someone else if I need to.

When I do go to friends, I usually reach out to more than one person. If I just go to one person, they are the only one who knows sensitive things about me. That can lead to sinful dependency. To protect myself, I share the need with two or three friends.

I also have put certain defenses in place by memorizing several relevant passages of Scripture: Jeremiah 2:5, 11, 13; Psalm 25; Psalm 27:4, John 15:1–17; and Psalm 43:3–4. All of them remind me to find my ultimate satisfaction in God alone. When a need arises, I pray, asking God to meet my needs, and to search my feelings of loneliness.

I also ask myself “checkpoint” questions:

  • Am I viewing my life through one other person’s lens or filter?
  • Am I allowing room for God to give me new friendships?
  • Am I good with and, in fact, celebrating my close friends building new friendships?
  • Am I living out of my insecurities, or am I living out of my identity in Christ (and responding and relating with my friends in that way)?

What encouragement would you give to those caught in unhealthy friendships?

I’d encourage them to first name it for what it is: a sinful relationship. Go to Christ and confess. Talk to someone else who’s experienced something similar in friendships, but who will also point you to Scripture and to Jesus, rather than allowing you to depend upon them.

You may feel as if you aren’t capable of healthy relationships, but there really is hope for you in Christ. As in any sin struggle or stronghold, he can change you. There will be times when you’ll be tempted to revert to old patterns, but believe that Jesus is good and that he won’t let you go there. He will help you.

There is a better way for friendship than what you have experienced. When we try to take the good gifts he has given us and use them on our own terms, we twist those gifts. I’ve learned instead to ask, “How does God want to use me in this person’s life?” and, “How does he want to use them in mine?”

Friends are always to be held with open hands, always keeping Christ at the center. When we do, we discover how beautiful friendships can be.