Alyssa and Hannah (not their real names) moved to a new city at the same time. Each was lonely and longed to build relationships with other women. Hannah, a single missionary, had just returned to the United States after five years overseas. When they met at church, both felt an immediate emotional connection. They got together over coffee a few days later, began talking on the phone a few times a week, and soon were texting daily. The friendship quickly became exclusive and intense.
Alyssa’s husband, Michael, felt threatened by Alyssa’s relationship with Hannah. She was quick to defend the time they spent together and described Hannah as the most nurturing person she’d ever met. “Why can’t you understand that I need female friends?” she’d say angrily.
Some of Hannah’s ministry colleagues became concerned with the amount of time she invested in Alyssa. When Hannah’s staff heard her express anger over not being able to see Alyssa one weekend, they confronted her. Michael did the same with his wife. Both women were defensive, refusing to reduce the amount of time they spent together.
Co-Dependency Is Idolatry
Christ-centered friendships come in all shapes and sizes. No two friendships share the same level of closeness or walk through the mountains and valleys of life in exactly the same way. God generously gives us friends to share our unique lives through serving, bearing burdens, and knowing each other.
When selfish ambition hijacks the relationship, however, friendships can develop unhealthy emotional attachments. Sometimes these relationships even cross physical boundaries as the intoxication of emotional intimacy leads women to believe: This is just the way we express our deep love for each other as friends.
But when we look to a friend—rather than God—for our value, identity, and security, we commit idolatry.
Diagnosing a Co-Dependent Relationship
As I’ve written before, there are a few indicators of an unhealthy, co-dependent relationship:
- Fused lives, schedules, and relational spheres that mimic the life-sharing of marriage.
- Exclusivity and possessiveness. Other people feel like intruders.
- Regular clarification of each person’s role. Often, one woman has a needy, take-care-of-me role and the other a needy-to-be-needed, caregiver role. When one person steps out of her role, she triggers insecurity and jealousy for both parties.
- Constant connection. Texts, emails, calls, and time spent together grow and intensify to become life-dominating.
- Romanticized words and touch that can lead to sexual involvement.
When these co-dependent relational dynamics occur in Christian friendships and mentoring relationships, any good fruit adds confusion. Like Alyssa and Hannah, we may be tempted to counter people’s concerns with, “How can our relationship be wrong when we pray together and talk about the Bible? What’s idolatrous about serving God together?!” But as with any other sinful choice by Christians, idolatry can exist alongside positive, spiritual fruit.
Steps of Repentance
If a person has subtly become a God-replacement to you and your relationship has become co-dependent, here are three steps of faith and repentance to take.
1. Admit your relational sin and flee into the loving arms of Jesus.
Fleeing to Jesus means you’ll need to create space between you and the other person—at least for a season. Colossians 3:5 is a hard word, but it’s one that leads to true life: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” Even when co-dependency exists in a mother-daughter relationship, you may need to have difficult conversations establishing boundaries for time spent together and involvement in each other’s daily life.
First Corinthians 10:14 says to flee sin, not try to manage or heal it. Put it to death, run away, and make a relational 180. Stop social media stalking. Delete old texts and emails that tempt you to muse on this woman in unhelpful ways.
And if you’ve been sexually involved, you must end the relationship and entrust potential restoration to the Lord. This step may seem drastic and even unloving, but emotional bonds that form through sexual intimacy necessitate a Matthew 18:8 kind of faith-step. Trust Christ to bless your costly obedience, not only for your good but for the other woman’s too.
The good news is that Christ is faithful to forgive all who come to him (Heb. 4:16), and gospel obedience always leads to new life as we put to death anything that threatens to crowd out God in our hearts: “For I will restore health to you, and your wounds I will heal, declares the LORD” (Jer. 30:17).
2. Expect a season of pain and grief.
Letting go will be excruciating, but the pain that comes from costly obedience is healing rather than enslaving. Soul surgery requires you to allow the gospel to cut and heal the deeper issues of your heart such as unbelief, insecurity, and anger.
3. Pursue biblical discipleship.
- Cultivate an intimate relationship with Christ. Jesus is able to meet you in this season of pain, loss, and confusion. He won’t leave you on your own to make it better. He longs for you to draw near to him (John 14:18). Pursue a daily habit of prayer and Bible-reading and a weekly habit of gathering with God’s people in worship.
- Address the underlying heart issues. Jesus said, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Consider: What made you vulnerable to this messy relationship? What’s off-kilter in your beliefs about what friendship should look like?
- Pursue God’s design for healthy relationships. What does it mean to embody the kind of love described in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 13? How can you grow in delighting in people, rather than clinging to them? How can you celebrate deep friendships without depending on them to feel good about life? Check out TGC’s Christian Living section for helpful resources to guide you.
Your Most Faithful Friend
Your Savior is also your faithful Bridegroom, the One to whom you eternally belong. He will love you, help you, and comfort you while you live during this short earthly time.
Run to him, and find in him the One who longs to fill your heart with his joy.