By Meg Gemelli, Crosswalk.com
“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be enslaved by anything.” 1 Corinthians 6:12
Can you be addicted to a person? If it’s not good for man to be alone, and if close relationships are the ideal, can you really be addicted to another person? It seems like a strange question to mull over, especially since that word carries such a fairly heavy connotation, doesn’t it?
So often in our culture, we either throw the word “addiction” around with the mention of things like coffee, chocolate, or our favorite TV shows, or we use it in its darkest sense—describing someone’s tragic relationship with drugs or alcohol.
But what does the word actually mean? And how could we even begin to spot the symptoms of addiction in relationships? Rather than reciting a simple definition, I glean the most understanding by taking a closer look at synonyms for “addicted.” Here are a few of them:
Do any of those descriptions resonate? They certainly do for me. I work with people every single day who have a terrible time dropping the habit of telling half-truths, ditching the craving of approval by others, or feeling compulsion to micromanage out of worry or care.
Can You Be Addicted to a Person?
As we ponder the definition, it strikes me that maybe we’re not actually talking about addiction to another person, but instead, a fixation on how we feel around certain people, or an obsession with how we influence others’ feelings. Can you relate to any of these types of comments?
“I’m exhausted and can’t take on one more thing, but I don’t want to make him feel bad by saying no. I’ll just do it since I’m better at planning anyway.”
“I know I shouldn’t care what she thinks, but I can’t help myself. We’ve been friends for way too long for me to say anything.”
“I don’t know what I’d do if he ever left me. I guess our problems aren’t that big of a deal compared to others, so I’m probably blowing it out of proportion.”
A pattern emerges…
Saying “no” carries a risk of letting somebody down and not receiving praise for our strengths. Not speaking up seems to help preserve a relationship, or at least, spares disapproval in the short term. And the fear of sitting with ourselves in quiet contemplation or risking rejection can seem much more painful than the scary thought of dealing with conflict straight-on.
In that light, it would seem plausible that it could all be narrowed down into one simple definition.
People addiction: The practice of ignoring one’s personal needs, healthy boundaries, or God’s will. To interfere with somebody else’s natural growth and dependence on God in an effort to avoid feeling “bad.”
By that definition, there’s no doubt that we’ve all fallen short, and given into human co-dependence, rather than trusting God’s guidance. It doesn’t have to stay that way though! Here’s a closer look at some of the ways we sink into human addiction, and how we might consider relying on God instead.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/wernerimages
Sign #1: You Regularly Disown Personal Needs
....(but take responsibility for everybody else’s).
“They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.” 2 Peter 2:19
This verse from 2 Peter actually refers to false prophets, but we’re no more immune to giving bad advice to ourselves behind closed doors than they were in spreading misinformation and promoting self-gratification back then. I don’t know about you, but I can tell myself some wild stories when left to my own devices!
I’m reminded of Sarah. She’s a working mom of three, and she’s been married to her high school sweetheart, Greg, for almost fifteen years. From the outside looking in, she’s practically a perfect caricature of the most “Christian” woman most will ever know. She homeschools her kids. Dinner is on the table around 5:30 every evening, and she’s up before dawn for “quiet time.”
What others notice is that Sarah’s been running at warp speed pace for years—with practices, travel, church events, and everything else. “How does she do it?” they marvel. And with a smile? It ended up being exactly that—Sarah always grinning on the outside—that brought her to my therapy practice one winter day.
“I’m so mad all the time,” she vented at our first meeting.
“I do and I do and do...just like a believer should. But I look around and I don’t see people working nearly as hard as I am. Why is everybody else content, and I’m over here dying of anxiety? I can’t sleep. I can barely look my husband in the eye right now either, let alone want to be with him (if you know what I mean). I used to want to make him happy, but nothing I do feels good enough anymore. I want out.”
As you might suspect, Sarah hadn’t let herself fully “feel” an emotion in years. She couldn’t allow herself to acknowledge feelings, or else she’d also have to surrender the endless pace of production necessary to sustain the lifestyle she and Greg had built.
It makes sense. Willful self-neglect brought her praise, both in the home, and in the church. It does for many of us, but it also leaves us running on empty, just like Sarah. Few of her friends or ministry leaders had bothered to question her about it either, because they’d benefitted from her “go-getter” attitude for years. Maybe you can relate.
We’re all guilty of practicing disowned needs at certain points in life, and “people addiction” is usually the culprit of our enslavement. As if run by a motor with no “off” switch, we push past reality and sprint into do-it-yourself, can’t-stop-now gear—until the engine blows, that is.
We crave rest, but we fear falling short of a man-made image of faithfulness.
We’re desperate to feel accepted for who we are, but somehow believe that it’s our doing that will shield us from abandonment and rejection.
We ache to feel the peace of Holy Spirit, but sense that peace won’t earn us high fives and affirmation from those around us.
And so we slowly sacrifice ourselves, despite the fact that the ultimate sacrifice has already been made..
God doesn’t need us running on empty, and growing more resentful by the day. In fact, He doesn’t need us to manifest any sort of plan for Him at all. True freedom is found only in the art of the slow—at the speed of Love-came-down on a quiet and starry night. Christ’s burden is light. He’ll give us rest, if only we’ll allow Him.
Sign #2: You Place Personal Needs Above God’s Boundaries
Wait a second, you’re making it sound like I could be addicted to myself, and not just another person…
If that’s the thought that’s running through your mind right now, I think you’re onto something! After all, didn’t I mention at the beginning that it might not actually be people-addiction, but an addiction to how we feel about “the doing for” and “the being with” people that gets us in trouble?
One of the least talked about topics in the Christian realm seems to be the simple issue of boundaries. I’m not certain as to why, especially considering that even God is three-in-one—connected, but distinct. What does that word mean anyway? Boundary.
A boundary is simply where one person ends, and another person begins. It’s the place where one human releases a responsibility and ownership, and another picks it up—it’s a lot like crossing over state lines. God assigns jurisdiction based on what He wants us to do, and with whom...and though most of it is lawful, not all of it is actually helpful, depending on the person.
Think about the church body for a moment (1 Corinthians 12)...the hands, feet, and all the rest. It’s entirely possible that we could learn to handstand walk upside down, two hands pressed against the ground, right? And sure, we’ll travel a short distance before tiring, but wouldn’t it be more efficient if the feet were called into action?
Boundaries don’t always come to us in the form of “yes and no,” “right or wrong.” Many times they’re better explained as “yours versus mine.” Here are some questions to consider as an example of boundaries:
Have you ever given advice instead of encouraging a friend to spend time in prayer and to reflect on scripture first?
Do you frequently complete tasks for your child that you’re sure they could do for themselves, but “it’s just faster and easier” for you to do it?
Do you ever skirt around the truth with the hope of sparing somebody else’s feelings, but never actually solve the problem?
There are so many ways to choose our own comfort and “know-how,” rather than following what God might be whispering for us to do—it’s that nagging feeling that things are “off.” In the first example, it’s a “need to be needed” that causes us to overstep a boundary.
And in the second two examples, it’s an avoidance of feeling impatient, or risking rejection to tell the truth.
Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/coffeekai
What Do These Two Signs Really Reveal?
Maybe the addiction isn’t actually with another person, but in our steadfast attempts to keep the status quo, to be needed, and to avoid frustration, sadness, or loneliness.
If you struggle with the two big signs—not completely experiencing your feelings, or frequently ignoring boundaries—it's likely deep-seated in your person. But you’re certainly not alone. Maybe you’re even thinking at this point, “I get it and great, I’m not alone. But what do I do now?” If so, I have some great news for you, but some tough news too.
There’s relief to be found ahead, but there’s also a little soul-searching to be done.
So, What Now? How Do You Heal from This Addiction?
Addiction to approval, nearness for the sake of nearness, or needing to be needed, aren’t permanent traits. They’re symptoms of a bigger problem lurking behind the shadows of every thought and reaction. Trust.
And the soul-searching begins with asking ourselves questions like these...
Do I actually believe that God will bring comfort during my times of deepest desperation and loneliness? Do I even remember to ask Him for it before running back to my old habits?
Will He really give me the desires of my own heart, or does He just do that for everybody else?
Can God give me enough strength to handle these awful feelings while I wait for Him to help? And can I trust that His solution would be better than my own?
Coming face-to-face with the amount of trust we actually have in God isn’t for the faint of heart!
Trust draws us near, but it pulls us away too. Life is a rubber-banded journey of creating distance and drawing near to both God, and people—and at different points all along the way. But when we learn to fully trust and value God’s advice over others’, our experiences with people become rooted in Truth, and our decisions are much easier to stand by.
Our yeses become yeses, and our nos become noes.
Our shoulders relax as we cast our cares on Him, remembering that He alone (and not the soul wearing skin we often run to) can sustain us.
Insecurity and doubt falls away as God’s quiet confidence takes its rightful place in our hearts.
If in the past you’ve searched for consistent peace, clarity, and self-esteem in the arms of another, spoiler:
You won’t find it there for very long.
In God alone, we gain confidence to journey through the world fully whole and enough—and it’s from that place of secure identity that we invite others to do the same.
A Prayer to Free Us from People Addiction
Thank you for giving us an order and rhythm for the world from the very start of creation. From the heavens, You separated earth, and from the light, dark. You drew lines that even ocean waves were forbidden to cross, and made paths for the thunder storm. Please help us to embrace the peace and safety found in Your timing, in Your unique plan for our lives, and give us strength to walk in Your perfect will instead of our own. I pray that we would rely on You for our every need instead of people, and we praise you for allowing us to do that within the communities you’ve given us. May we walk together, but with our eyes all fixed on You, the Author and Perfecter of our faith. Amen.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Prostock-Studio
Meg Gemelli is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and the founder of theMakingofaMarriage.com. Along with polishing her Crossfit participation trophies, she can be found Pinterest-failing in the kitchen, glamping with the fam, or reading a great book oceanside. However flawed, she practices faith over fear every single day.