CODEPENDENCY VS. FORGIVENESS: When Forgiveness Becomes Destructive
By Kris Wolfe

Forgiveness is life-giving, relationship-healing and freeing beyond measure.

But sometimes when we think we are forgiving someone, we can actually unknowingly be giving him or her permission to keep hurting us.

How do we know the difference?

In my first marriage, I was the queen of forgiveness, or so I thought. Our marriage was deeply damaged long before the vows were exchanged, and we continued in an unhealthy pattern. He wounded me. I expressed my pain. He said he wouldn’t do it again. I gave him another chance. He wounded me again.

Thus was the basic pattern of our marriage. Occasionally the pattern was altered through an act of rebellion or passive aggressive behavior on my part, serving primarily to convince myself that I was not the victim that I knew I had become.

I wasn’t as healthy then as I am now. I wasn’t spiritually mature. I didn’t have a master’s degree in biblical counseling. But you don’t need an advanced degree to recognize when your pattern of forgiving has taken a turn into a dark and dangerous zone known as codependency.

Codependency is loosely defined as a relationship wherein there are unhealthy boundaries, increased neediness, a lack of assertiveness and identity in one party, a desire to please or earn approval, and a lack of a happiness or self-esteem without this approval.

It becomes easy and even expected for the weaker party (often known as an enabler) in a relationship to offer unlimited forgiveness to the oft-offending party. Unfortunately it does not usually have the desired affect of resetting the relationship to a previous point of perceived happiness; rather it opens the door for more heartache.

Forgiveness is to offer amnesty or pardon to someone who has transgressed you. Biblical forgiveness is:

  • Commanded—“For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15)
  • Forthcoming—“Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:21-22)
  • Freeing—“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
  • Unlimited, yet with boundaries—“And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him.” (Luke 17:3-4)

So where are the boundaries? Note that if someone repents we are to forgive him or her. It does not require us to condone their behavior or allow them to repeat it without consequence. It requires:

  • Rebuke
  • Repentance

And it does not deny:

  • Healing
  • Consequences
  • Hope
  • Boundaries

Here are a few signs that you are operating in codependent behavior versus biblical forgiveness:

  • You forgive out of fear of being alone
  • You forgive out of fear of upsetting the person who hurt you
  • Healing is not part of the forgiveness process
  • The person who has wronged you becomes angry or even indignant if you ask to talk about your feelings (after the “forgiveness” has occurred)
  • Their negative behavior is repeated, sometimes with increasing frequency and with fewer “breaks” in between
  • The other person does not offer the same level of grace that you offer them
  • Your past mistakes are lorded over you (forgiveness is one-sided in your relationship)
  • The other person seems to be getting worse: more abusive, more irresponsible, more dependent on you, less mature, and possibly engaged in addictive behaviors
  • The other person seems more interested in control than in emotional intimacy
  • You feel less and less joy, and the relationship seems shakier with time even with your willingness to offer forgiveness or make amends

Codependency enables your partner (or the other half of the unhealthy relationship) to cause further harm to you. Sometimes the harm is overt: physical, sexual or verbal abuse. Sometimes it is covert, yet equally erosive, taking the form of control, disapproval, neglect, or removal of intimacy (or other emotional abuse). Over time, you may begin to not only doubt yourself, but to doubt your judgment and your overall worth as a person.

Once your goodness as a person comes into question, the ground beneath you is moving, shaking and crumbling in rapid motion. No matter how kind, thoughtful, helpful or forgiving you try to be, you will never be enough. You will strive for unattainable goals, and fall short every time. Forgive as you may, you will never fix the other person, or the relationship by accepting their destructive behavior.

But biblical forgiveness is nothing like the faux forgiveness found in a codependent relationship. True forgiveness can exist in a relationship that is:

  • Balanced, not one-sided
  • Rhythmic—it feels like a dance, not a tug of war
  • Free from abuse
  • Respectful of each person’s boundaries
  • Encouraging each individual’s growth
  • Supportive of relationships outside of itself
  • Conducive to mutual forgiveness and grace
  • Free from keeping a record of wrongs
  • Contributing to healing, healthy intimacy and healthy space from one another
  • Centered on Christ

Not every relationship is made for biblical forgiveness. It’s not that the forgiveness is faulty, it’s that the receiver cannot accept it. He or she is so broken that they cannot understand grace. They may see forgiveness as a second chance to hurt you or to squeeze out another drop of blood, to demand a little more, to raise the bar once again.

But remember this: It’s not that one person in the relationship is inherently bad and the other is good. It’s that one is comfortable with what they are getting and willing to take or even demand more, and the other person enables the first person to keep taking. In an effort to keep the peace, enablers are potentially increasing the likelihood that they will be hurt again, because they lack meaningful boundaries and functional self-esteem.

If you don’t want a relationship with codependent behaviors, look for the signs of codependency (versus true forgiveness). Pray for the willingness to be honest with yourself about issues like declining feelings of self-worth, suffering self-identity, anxiety in separating from the relationship, or fear of never achieving “approval” in the relationship.

While we are called to offer forgiveness over and over again, we are not called to forgo boundaries, self-respect or our personal identity in order to keep the peace in our relationships. We must be careful not to confuse abuse or control with love and commitment. Just because someone has never left you, doesn’t mean they have a desire for a healthy relationship, or that your happiness truly matters to them.

There are times when we must forgive, if not for their sake, definitely for our own. But there are times when we must say, I forgive you, but I will no longer accept this treatment from you.

If your unhealthy patterns of forgiveness have become destructive, turn to Scripture to shine a light on your true worth, and the power of true forgiveness, when repentance and healing are not just ideals, but implemented into a relationship that dances to grace and mutual respect.

Codependency is complex and typically learned and entrenched behavior, gained from an upbringing or past that has taken its toll. Consider counseling for yourself, and for your relationship. Not all codependent relationships are a lost cause, and counseling could help.

But this time, do something for you: Get help setting your boundaries, regaining your self-esteem and learning when to say, “I forgive you but enough is enough.”

Trust me, you are worth it.


Kris Wolfe
About Kris Wolfe
Tennessee | United States

Kris Wolfe is a Christian, wife and mother. She is a freelance writer who focuses on spiritual and practical encouragement, writes lessons for small group purposes for churches, and is also a small group coach. Kris has a master’s degree in Biblical Counseling from Luther Rice University and Seminary and is a listed TN Supreme Court Rule 31 Mediator.

Kris covers topics such as dating, marriage, parenting, divorce, post-divorce recovery, and the blended family. Read more from Kris at: Clarksville, TN Online and her website.

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