codependence, independence, interdependence

the #1 word that i use at the refuge (other than nutty, messy, wild and beautiful) is relationship.  to me, when Jesus summed up the law and said it’s about loving God, others, ourselves that he was basically saying “it’s about relationship, people.”  it’s not about stuff or knowledge or words–it’s about love.  i also believe that love can be a very ethereal word that doesn’t sometimes translate down to practice.

if you’ve been reading here for a while you know that i believe that “the church*” is supposed to be the place to practice love not just talk about it.  not sit and learn about it.  not philosophize about it.  but really, really practice it.  and one thing i can say about our community is we may not have any bells and whistles or money or tricks, but we sure do have a lot of practicing going on. (*if you’re new to the carnival, my definition of church is: people gathered together in some way, shape or form to learn & practice the ways of Jesus & pass on love, hope, mercy, justice, and healing in a broken, weird world.)

right now at our wednesday night house of refuge we are walking through the 12 steps together (we did the same thing last summer, using some material that i wrote that makes the steps assessible to those in touch with their basic need to change some unhealthy patterns.  email me if you’re interested and i can send you the file).  so many think that the 12 steps are just for addicts or people in relationship with addicts. nothing could be farther from the truth; based on the beatitudes, they really are a practical guide to becoming more loving, grounded, honest, compassionate, kind, free human beings.  a word that often comes up in 12 step circles is “codependence.” many think that codependence is about really-messed-up-people-who-are-in-relationship-with-an-addict-or-in-an-abusive-relationship.  yeah, it goes far wider and deeper than that.  in a conversation a few weeks ago, we talked very briefly about the difference between “codependence “and “interdependence.”  the more i thought about it, the more i realized that “independence” should be thrown into the conversation, too.   as i’ve been reflecting on these 3 words i see how they apply not only to us individually in our every day relationships, but also in our relationship with God.  and because communities/churches are made up of people & develop a certain innate culture that they live from, they can also collectively embody these patterns, too.

so what’s the difference between codependence, independence, and interdependence when it comes to our relationship with God & others, both individually and corporately?


to me, codependence is essentially an unhealthy pattern of control, care-taking, enabling, people-pleasing, suppressing our own wants & desires for the sake of keeping the peace & our little world as we know it spinning around.  i believe codependence is a human condition and that most of us suffer from it in some shape or form; even those that appear very squared away and confident, often have very strong codependent characteristics underneath.  codependents tend to:

  • give but never allow themselves to receive
  • be out of touch with what they really want or need
  • be martyrs, peace-makers, victims, care-takers
  • act out of fear instead of freedom
  • live an “if i do or say this or that then God will be happy with me” kind of faith

independence is what i always call “the american way.”  it’s the i-don’t-really-need- anyone-else mentality.   i don’t really need close people in my life, i can handle things on my own, i’ve got it covered.  independence isn’t necessarily a bad thing in that it is good to be free and strong apart from other people; the problem is that typically it means that the person isn’t very engaged in the real stuff of other people’s lives.  underneath a lot of independence is fear.  independents tend to:

  • never really connect on an emotional level with other people
  • reject input
  • believe that things are “just fine the way they are”
  • think their way is right
  • not really need God much, have their own bases covered

honestly, i believe most people–most churches–tend to stay stuck in codependent or independent patterns, either being addicted to caretaking, people pleasing, holding-back-the-truth with God & others or standing apart, being strong and prideful, and not really allowing themselves to be engaged in real relationship with God or others.

i think Jesus call of love is to learn the ways of interdependence.  true interdependence means we rely on one another in a way that is not unhealthy or creates imbalanced power.

  • interdependence requires a vulnerability, a willingness not only to be transparent with how we are doing and feeling but also let others’ love, mercy, wisdom, and help into our lives.
  • interdependence is a letting go of self-protection to pursue connection.
  • interdependence is a freedom to be ourselves–with all of our uniqueness, strengths and weaknesses–and love others in all of theirs, too, without being compelled to change, reject, or avoid them.
  • interdependence is a solid awareness of our own need for grace and the ability to pass it on to others, too.
  • interdependence is a heart open to feel others pain but not let it suck the life and hope out of us.
  • interdependence requires a courage to risk money, time, and status to stand for justice on others behalf instead of stand by and watch others get taken advantage of.
  • interdependence is being willing to need other people and be needed at the same time.
  • interdependence is showing up in our relationship with God in an honest and real way instead of faking or avoiding.
  • interdependence is a life of spirit-infused sacrifice connected to other people instead of a life of narcissism.

i think it’s fairly easy to be codependent and independent people in our relationship with God and others. it’s some kind of weird crazy human default many of us seem to have.

i think it’s also fairly easy to be codependent and independent communities, either being overly concerned with approval & making everybody happy or thinking we’ve got it mastered & don’t need anyone else.

it’s much harder to be interdependent people (and churches)–the kind that paul talks about in 1 corinthians 12 where the parts of the body are all intertwined  together, doing what they are meant to do, forming a wholeness that they could never form alone.

for me, i know i often teeter between codependence and independence in my own life.  i have that typical adult-child-of-an-alcoholic-keep-the-peace-and-make-everyone-happy tendency and also the i-really-don’t-want-to-need-or-rely-on-anyone independence (honestly, i think independence is just a subset of codependence).

i need to keep remembering that real interdependence–which i believe are the ways of Jesus lived out together in relationship–are usually counterintuitive to so much of what i have been taught both in my personal-family-history-systems as well as my faith experiences. the codependent good girl initially helped me move up the christian ladder, and the independent-got-it-all-covered girl helped me survive in more ways than i can say.  but over the years, i have become more and more aware of how lonely & limiting & not-the-ways-of-Jesus this kind of living is.  it is prideful & self-centered & fearful & far from free.

codependence and independence are ways to control our world & avoid pain & failure instead of living the real, uninhibited, tangled up ways of the kingdom in true-blue interdependent relationship with people & God.

i am trying to risk my heart, my pride, so much of what i have known & engage in real, scary, unpredictable, beautiful, healing interdependent relationships with other men & women on the journey.

and i am hoping our community will learn how to be more interdependent in the wider body of Christ as well.

there’s no question, i/we have a lot to keep learning.

i love what jean vanier says in my all-time-favorite-book-on-inclusive-deep-and-healing-missional-community, community and growth:

“there is always a warfare in our hearts; there is always the struggle between pride and humility, hatred and love, forgiveness and the refusal to forgive, truth and the concealment of truth, openness and closedness. each of us is walking in that passage toward liberation, growing on the journey toward wholeness and healing.”


may we become more whole, interdependent people.

and may we cultivate more whole, interdependent communities.

God, please help us break free of codependence & independence and learn your ways of interdependence.


there’s so much more that could be said about these 3 patterns of doing relationship with other people & in our faith, but i’ll stop here for now.  as always, i’d love to hear some of your thoughts, perspectives & experiences on the differences between codependence, independence & interdependence.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • Once again, a great post. I was speaking with a fellow worker here in Honduras, who is by the way Honduran, about how to handle a disagreement with her boss. She is very much a product of the culture here, where one says nice things in front of superiors or strangers, but are not necessarily true. I encouraged her to lovingly and calmly explain to her boss why she didn’t like a new rule that the boss wanted to implement. And she did! And her superior was more than happy to discuss her views with her. It was a hard thing for her to do, but so needed. To be real and authentic with one another is very difficult. And for many Hondurans, especially poorer ones, it violates many cultural norms. In her former viewpoint, she would have said yes, but never implemented the rule. Or just not show up for work. Or show up late. Her culture says use passive aggressive techniques to get your point across. Her busy US-born supervisor may suspect her motives, but in a moment of busynes, may have fired her. We regular have team meetings where I encourage my volunteeers/ staff to speak up.

  • Interdependence is a hard thing. The busyness of our culture undermines it. (“Let’s get together for coffee.” / “Great. How about . . . this week is nuts. What’s the week after next look like for you?)

    Then there’s the issue of being an introvert in the church. Not that I don’t really love interacting with people. But it’s exhausting, especially the “socially necessary” small talk and connection making. When you’re trying to initiate real relationship, but any overtures you make just seem to sink into a swamp without effect, and the very effort of making the attempt leaves you wanting to crawl into a hole and recover before trying the next one . . . then what? How do you love the people who God has put in your way who really just WANT to be independent?

  • Great post and I DO want a copy of that file!
    I see your categories as also an I/Other distinction with the balance being We. The I is the ‘I Am’ quality within us -our Divine Spark- that gives us identity. The We is our Mind’s ability to relate or rationalize (ratio/compare) to the I of the Other. These categories seem to me to also apply to the masculine/feminie roles in our traditional culture.
    The solely I or Independent person is limited in their life by their personal lack. The solely We or Codependent is limited by the lack of the Other.
    We-ness requires both consideration of the other and knowing one’s self – to learn how to harmonize from the I without compromising it.

  • “interdependence is a heart open to feel others pain but not let it suck the life and hope out of us.”

    Now this is hard for me. When i see others pain, especially when I see that ‘church’ ( as institutions- not as described by you Kathy) hurts (knowingly or unknowingly) people who just seek God, but are hurt by the rules and regulations … still does sucks the life out me (or at least for few days). It’s hard to feel others pain. When you feel it it does effect you deeply … at least it does effect me. I learn more and more to give the pain to God and remember that He is always in control … that give me hope again.

  • Kathy, some great insights and thoughts on this relational oneness we are called to. I think some are afraid of the language of codependence (too psychological).

    But whatever language we use, I think the Triune community of Love (God is love) calls us to this deep working out of relational oneness in marriage, friendship, and community. There has to be an ongoing tension of the I (not independence or codependence) with the community (interdependence) or we run to the yucky side of relational oneness or the isolated verson of relational oneness.

    If we desire to live as one (relationally) beyond the romanticized view of marriage we are going to have grow as men and women in our marriages, friendships, and community. Thanks again for such passionate writing and call to relationships.

  • In our experience, every church we have attended seems to actually encourage codependence.

    First, they need money. To keep you and the money coming, they convey the message that they are the best option around if you want to be “fed” (spiritually). No other church interprets the Bible and doctrine as well as they do. And – their church is just one big happy family. If you play your cards right, you too may eventually become part of the family. Trouble is, it may take you years to figure out you’re being fed milk that has a bit of an off taste, and you’re still not feeling like you’re part of the family.

    Second, they need skills and work. If you appear to have skills they value and time to use them for the church, they will try to convince you that donating your time and skills is a ministry. You will be rewarded with praise, and will be told that you’re making a sacrifice and doing a good job for Jesus.

    It is easy to become convinced that their brand of Bible interpretation/doctrine and their need for your skills is what God wants you to follow and do. You can’t leave. They really need you and you really need them. They even told you God wants you to be there. You must not let them and God down by doing anything else.

    This is a really difficult trap to escape. For many of us, it takes years to realize we’re trapped, and we suffer from intense anxiety and guilt about the thought of trying to escape. The good news from one who finally escaped: there is life after codependence. A fuller, richer life, and for some of us a closer walk with Jesus.

  • Favorite line —–>”interdependence requires a vulnerability, a willingness not only to be transparent with how we are doing and feeling but also let others’ love, mercy, wisdom, and help into our lives.”

    Thanks for modeling so well *what* this actually looks like, especially…. in our community. I was so tired for so long with theories and verbiage about what it coulda/should/woulda looked like in relationships. It can seem almost seem too unrealistic in reading about it, but seeing it, well the beauty is almost hard to swallow too. ;)The fleshing it out helps sooo much, no doubt, but *living* it, well, you are incredible at that too. xoxo

  • laurie – thanks for reading & for sharing from afar. i always love to hear stories of people finding their way toward healthy instead of stuck in a weird cycle of codependence. it’s such a better way to live!

    sara – oh you are so right, it is so complicated to build real relationship in this nutty, busy independent culture. i am not an introvert but i know many who are and they will say the same thing you are saying. i do think it is very hard to do, too, because so many don’t know how. i think my metaphor of relationship-skills like school (preschool, kindergarten, grade school, middle school, high school, college, graduate school) kind of applies. many of us are stuck in middle/high school and don’t know how to really “grow up” in terms of real, deep, intimate, authentic friendships. i can honestly say i don’t think i would have ever learned if i hadn’t been in the women’s group i was in san diego 16+ years ago. and no question, i am still learning. i think the biggest thing is finding a few people who want to be done being independent or codependent & seek something deeper. it’s hard to find but i believe all kinds of amazing people are out there longing for it. sending love & hope across the miles & glad you are reading and take time to share.

    caleb – love your thoughts here & i am with you, there are so many possible metaphors on this and it does kind of go back to the relationship in the trinity to me & that model of an interdependence. i will send you the 12 step material in a few minutes. thanks for sharing…

    wip – oh i am with you, it is hard on my soul, too, the pain that some experience. i don’t think it’s possible not to feel it but i am trying to learn how not to let it pull me under and do me in. when it comes to “church’ wounds for some reason those get under my skin more than any other, things that were done to people in the name of God. thanks as always for reading & sharing.

    randi – always great to hear from you! i’ve got some other thoughts stirring on it but oh is it sometimes hard to talk about from afar! hope baby girl is doing well, time is sure flying. sending lots of love.

    dan – thanks for reading & sharing & the beautiful work that you do to foster healthy relationships in the kingdom. i know that “recovery” language is hard on some people and it turns them off for sure. that’s always the tricky part. when i worked in recovery ministry for a few years i used the word “unhealthy relationship” more than ‘codependence” and you want to know what–we got flack for that, too, because it wasn’t spiritual enough, ha ha. anyway, the big idea is exactly what you said–interdependent, beautiful, more-whole, interconnected relationship among people. you know from your own life and the stories you hear it is so possible and that God does such beautiful transformational work through them!

    sam – oh i am with you, churches/systems thrive on codependence. it keeps them spinning round. teaching people freedom, real freedom, is scary because then there’s the possibility they’ll leave or won’t give or will serve somewhere else. i can’t tell you how much work i do in helping people learn to say “no” as part of their healing. it’s part of mine, too. thanks as always for sharing. i really do think that Jesus was consistently teaching healthy, interdependent, free relationship but we don’t like a lot of his teachings and twist them to work for us!

    stacy – oh i am so glad you are part of living this out together. we are all learning. it’s certainly not easy & codependence can always get the best of us but i am thankful for the holy spirit at work, trying to show us the way to something better, free-er. i sure am learning a lot more than i bargained for! xo


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