We have talked about jealousy in dating relationships. That was the main theme of episode 1177. But we have never really talked about codependency in dating. That theme is also important. The question came to us from a young man, no name given. “Hello, Pastor John, and thank you for the APJ podcast. I have been in a relationship where my girlfriend has come to depend on me to what feels like an unhealthy extent. She spends less and less time with her friends, even less and less time with her family, and increasingly relies on me as her sole relationship. This does not seem healthy to me. Is it? And what should I do?”
Even though this young man doesn’t say so, I’m going to assume that part of what is behind this question is the prospect of marriage, and the concern that this woman’s excessive dependence on him might bode ill for what she would be like as a wife, as a partner for a lifetime.
Deep Roots for a Lifelong Covenant
Marriage is not an experiment; it’s a lifelong covenant. It is good that the traditional wedding vows contain the phrases “as long as we both shall live” or “till death do us part.” That kind of promise is biblically rooted. It’s right. We should promise that at our wedding service. So, every man and woman who contemplates such a lifelong covenant should be looking for evidences of unshakable faith in Christ, and deep roots of Christian character and strength.
“Every man and woman who contemplates such a lifelong covenant should be looking for evidences of unshakable faith.”
Of course, no one is an infallible judge of faith and character — no one but God. Which is why Christian men and Christian women should be earnest in prayer that God would protect them from marrying someone who would destroy the marriage, or who would make the relationship a dishonor to Christ. So, the young man who asked this question is putting his finger on the criteria that we should look for when dating someone who could become our spouse. He’s putting his finger on what we might call this young woman’s neediness.
Five Questions to Assess Codependency
Now, I’m in no position to judge on the particular issue of this woman that he’s talking about. I know so little about her, and so many factors can shape a person’s behavior. I would be foolish to pass any judgment on her. So, let me just speak generally about what he should be looking for, especially as it relates to spiritual or psychological neediness, or what he’s referring to, I think, as codependency.
I have five suggestions based on five passages of Scripture, and since it’s a man who asked about a woman that he’s dating, I’ll state these suggestions in terms of the kind of woman that he should be looking for, even though in these five cases I think the same things apply to what a woman should be looking for in a man.
1. Is Jesus most precious to her?
Does she value Jesus and her relationship to Jesus as more precious than any other relationship she has?
Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. (Philippians 3:7–8)
This is the most important question. Can you detect that you are number two in her life, not number one? Can you discern that she would rejoice to be number two in your life, not number one? If the supremacy of Christ is not firmly in place, nothing else in the relationship will be properly in place.
2. Does Christ stabilize her?
Has Christ become so hope-giving, and so stabilizing, and so satisfying for her that you can see whether her strength and her identity and her stability are undermined or not by low points and high points of her life?
Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him [Christ] who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11–13)
Has she learned this? Do you see this kind of inner strength coming from her faith in Christ, so that she is functioning and fruitful as a person in the best of times and the worst of times?
3. Does she honor rather than use you?
It is not unchristian — we need to just admit this — for a person to, in faith in Christ, feel the need for another person. There is a biblical kind of need that is not the same as neediness. Does she have the kind of need for you that is, at root, capable of honoring you, not using you?
Now, here’s where I’m getting that idea. Consider the peculiar way that Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 12:21–23. In describing relationships between Christians in the body of Christ, he says this:
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you.” . . . On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor.
“There is a biblical kind of need that is not the same as neediness.”
In other words, he interprets the kind of need that a member of the body has for another member as a need that honors the other member. That’s really strange and wonderful. That’s a very unusual kind of need. So, the question for the young man is, Is this young woman’s need for him the kind of need that Paul’s talking about? Does it have the capacity and the commitment not to consume him with neediness but to confer on him honor?
4. Is she resilient in Christ?
Does she have the inner composure and resilience so that her joy in Christ is not ruined if she is rejected by other people?
Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you . . . on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven. (Luke 6:22–23)
In other words, the reward is supposed to be so deep, so stabilizing, so satisfying, that rejection by people does not undermine the joy. Do you see evidence in her that she would respond the way Paul does in 1 Corinthians 4:12–13? “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat.” Or do you see evidence that if she were treated that way, she would be emotionally incapacitated?
5. Can she rejoice in sorrow?
Does she have some track record of the paradoxical Christian experience of “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing”? That’s how Paul describes his own experience — “as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10).
In other words, no matter how real or painful the loss, the boulder of God’s joy beneath the waves of the sorrow never moves.
Standards to Strive For
Those five questions I would ask in trying to discern whether the emotional and relational dependence in a dating relationship is dysfunctional or unhealthy or codependent.
And if, as I can imagine, your response to these kinds of questions is to say, “Piper, nobody, nobody measures up to that standard,” my response is that, to be sure, nobody is perfect in these five ways. But a person who is truly born of God knows some measure of these things, has tasted them, and does not shrink back from such questions, but really wants to grow in all these ways. So, look for this, and may God give you discernment in the second biggest decision of your life.