This sin of idolizing a friend is often called “emotional dependency” or “codependency” in the counseling world. D’Ann Davis from Living Hope ministries describes it this way:
“Most typically, those who struggle with emotional dependency are looking for a super intense, one-on-one relationship with a best friend who will meet all of their needs and will make other relationships unnecessary. A struggler typically loves to fuel all of her need and longing to connect into one person who can be her all-in-all (essentially her idol, or god, little “g”). She will be very entrenched in relational idolatry, whether or not she realizes it. She does not want to waste all of those precious seconds developing a friendship slowly over years; she wants intimacy, NOW, so she exchanges it for intensity.”
An emotional dependency forms when your emotional sense of well-being is dependent on another person, when your security is found in a friend instead of God. Biblically this is idolatry, giving more weight and value to a person than to God. This can happen in any relationship: parent-child, husband-wife, boyfriend-girlfriend, or two friends.
Emotional dependencies are harmful when they go one way. But when 2 people are mutually dependent on each other, it is worse. If you idolize a friend, but they don’t reciprocate your feelings, you are usually forced to deal with your insecurities and misplaced hope. When your friend reciprocates those intense feelings of neediness, the emotional dependency often goes unchecked (e.g. “if my friend who loves Jesus thinks this is fine, then it must be fine”). Unfortunately, to the world, a mutually codependent friendship is often just called “best friends.”
Emotional dependency may even appear godly at first. Two codependent friends may pray together, talk about Jesus a lot, and be extremely supportive of one another. The spiritual nature of the friendship may give a false sense that nothing is wrong. But even if the main topic of conversation is Jesus, codependency is never ok.
SYMPTOMS OF CODEPENDENCY
There are some common symptoms of codependency. I have put together a list based on one created by Lori Rentzel to help differentiate between the normal interdependency of healthy friendships and the emotional dependency of an idolatrous friendship.
As you read the list below, be aware that these are general commonalities among codependent friendships. This is not a foolproof checklist and some of these things may result from other root causes. But, I think it is safe to say that if a majority of these things are true, this is not a healthy friendship.
Emotional dependency is probably taking place when either party in a relationship:
- Experiences frequent jealousy, possessiveness and desires exclusivism (being each other’s best friend), viewing other people as a threat to the relationship.
- Prefers to spend time alone with this friend and becomes frustrated when this doesn’t happen.
- Loses interest in other friendships.
- Is unwilling to make short- or long-range plans that do not include the other person.
- Refers frequently to the other in conversation.
- Feels free to “speak for” the other.
- Exhibits physical intimacy that makes others feel uncomfortable or embarrassed including but not limited to: frequent hugging, holding hands, touching, frequent back and neck rubs, tickling and wrestling, cuddling, playful flirtatious touches, etc.
- Lacks a measure of appropriate modesty with the other: frequently being naked around the other, etc.
- Often pays for the other’s meals or expenses, makes large purchases for the two of them.
- Moves into the same apartment or same room or frequently sleep together if not living under the same roof.
- Wears the other’s clothing and copies her style of dressing.
- Uses flattery and praise often, like “you are the only one who understands me” or “I don’t know what I would do without you.”
- Uses nicknames for the other and refers to things that have special meaning to both of them, and/or uses a secret language.
- Frequently needs the “help” of the other by creating or exaggerating problems to gain attention or sympathy.
- Makes the other feel guilty over unmet expectations by saying, “I was going to call you last night, but I know you’re probably too busy to bother with me.”
- Undermines relationships by convincing the other that her other friends do not care or befriends all her other friends in order to control the situation.
- Keeps the other’s time occupied so as not to allow for separate activities.
Again, not all of these things are wrong in themselves. Wearing your friend’s clothes, giving honest encouragement, and having a sleepover can all be part of a healthy friendship. But, when these things are done to secure the other’s friendship, to boost your own self-worth, or to control or arouse a response from the other, then it is unhealthy.
Remember, the things listed above are not the problem, but symptoms of the problem. The primary issue is one of misplaced worship: giving more weight and value to a person than to God. When we feel like we need another person more than we need God, we have an idolatry problem. Because we are sinners, there is always a temptation to look to creation for the joy that only the Creator can offer. Every one of us needs to be aware of this tendency in ourselves and be on guard.
Below are a couple of things that can make us susceptible to misplaced worship our friendships.
Two friends can become exclusive with each other through a number of situations. This could be becoming “best friends,” roommates, mentor/mentee or any other title or situation is that excludes everyone else from the friendship except these two. This is dangerous because it tends to breed dependency on the friendship, not on God.
There’s a reason people are drawn to exclusive relationships: they provide a sense of emotional security. “A dependent relationship can give us the sense that we have at least one relationship we can count on and that we belong to someone. Our desire for intimacy, warmth and affection might be filled through this relationship. And our egos are boosted when someone admires or is attracted to us. We also enjoy feeling needed.” (“Emotional Dependency,” Lori Rentzel)
Ultimately, the emotional security we are aching for is found in God alone. “The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, My God, my rock, in whom I take refuge; My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” Psalm 18:2 We need friends who can point us to this security. And we should have several friends who can do this for us, not just one.
Codependencies commonly form between one “strong” and one “needy” person. Basic combinations of this include: mentor/mentee, counselor/counselee, or teacher/student. Sometimes, these relationships begin in response to a crisis: Kelsey’s mom just died, and Sarah is her strength in this rough time. Sometimes they are just personality types: Kelsey is unorganized and flaky, and Sarah is proactive and structured. Other times, it is based on spiritual need: Kelsey is a new believer, while Sarah is a seasoned Christian.
None of the above relationships are bad in and of themselves. We legitimately need the help of other believers, sometimes in greater intensity during hard seasons. But the temptation here is to let that friendship becoming ingrown and stagnant. Instead of pushing one another to grow in Christ, both people can find a form of satisfaction in staying stagnant. Let me explain what this may look like:
The “needy” person feels valued by the attention she gets from the other. The “strong” one enjoys being needed; it makes her feel valued to have such an important role in her friend’s life. Both are looking to the other for their worth, not God, and find purpose in their role within the friendship. Ironically, these friendships may have started with a genuine desire to help someone grow, but often hinder real growth and encourage both parties to stay stagnant.
DANGER OF SEXUAL SIN
Like the story of Sarah and Kelsey, emotional dependencies often produce unnatural physical affection. This can lead to sexuality, though not always. Considering the passages we studied from Romans earlier, this should not come as a complete shock to us. Perversion is the result of misplaced worship: worshiping the creature, not the Creator. Misplaced worship is at the heart of emotional dependency.
It’s usually hard for others to believe that a friendship between two Christian girls could ever become sexual. But it happens more often than you think. It has been heart-wrenching for me to walk with some close friends through the wreckage of sexual sin in a codependent friendship.
Let me clarify that I’m not talking about the long-term struggle of same-sex attraction. But rather the practice of idolizing a friend and becoming dependent on her, which may lead to intimate physical affection that sometimes morphs into sexual behavior. Most of the time, the girls in these friendships never had homosexual feelings before and often still desire a romantic relationship with a man.
In a codependent friendship, normal physical interaction between friends (hugs, walking arm in arm, holding hands for brief periods like when praying), can grow into more: holding hands a lot, holding hands with interlocking fingers, sleeping in the same bed by preference, cuddling together, or just feeling the need to be constantly touching each other. If this physical intimacy is prolonged, it can easily lead to sexual activity before you even realize what’s happening.
There are weighty consequences to entering into any sexual relationship outside of marriage. This is not to say that God cannot redeem all of our sin and turn it for good. But we cannot treat any temptation toward sexual sin lightly. If a friendship is tempting you toward any sexual expression, then flee! (2 Tim 2:22, 1 Thess 4:3) Run quickly from any friendship that tempts you to be too physically intimate.
In Part 4 we’ll look at the purpose of friendships, Biblically, and what a healthy friendship looks like.
Read the rest of D’Ann’s article, referenced earlier, here.
Get Lori Rentzel’s booklet, “Emotional Dependency” here.