One of my colleagues died during my last year at Children's Hospital, having served on our university medical faculty for more than twenty-five years. During his tenure as a professor, he had earned
"I'd die without you." "You make me whole." "Without you, I'd be hopelessly lost." "You define me." These phrases may sound charming, but this kind of "love" can actually be very destructive. In the name of "love," it's easy to put up with all kinds of craziness. To make excuses. To ignore reality.
When we define love as dominance, we feel completely justified in smothering people with too much attention and direction. And when we define love as compliance, we feel so utterly incompetent that we’re happy to let an assertive person tell us how to live. However, such misguided devotion doesn't truly satisfy us. It robs us of sanity, peace, joy and the true love of a healthy relationship.
So how do you know? Here's a few signs that you may be in an unhealthy, enmeshed relationship. Do you…
1. Close your eyes to irresponsible behavior?
2. Keep secrets or tolerate abuse?
3. Sacrifice to cover up someone else’s mistakes?
4. Cater to a lazy person's whims?
5. Caving in to an angry person’s demands?
6. Make excuses?
7. Justify bad behavior?
8. Accept the blame for something you never did?
9. Enable an addiction?
10. Lie to yourself or others?
If you answered "yes" to many of these statements, it's likely that you may be stuck in enmeshed relationship. These relationships leave a legacy of heartbreak and manipulation. But that legacy can be changed if we are willing to open our eyes and take an honest look at ourselves and our relationships.
Often, in the name of love, we bail out people who won't help themselves. Each time we insist, "This is the last time!"
In the name of love, we endure name-calling, the silent treatment, temper tantrums, even violence. We try to assure ourselves, "Deep down he's a good person with a kind heart…he'll change." But he never really does. In the name of love, we cower in the face of an angry person's demands and settle for whatever peace we can get. Which isn't much.
Why? What keeps us there? A misunderstanding of love.
What the world calls "love" often isn't true love at all. If our version of love is destroying us and someone we care about, then let's not call it love. There are lots of other names for it, but it's not love.
We may call it love, but enmeshment is:
• Smothering a weak, needy person with too much attention and direction
• Giving in (meekly or defiantly) to the demands of a dominating person
• Taking responsibility for another's choices instead of letting him experience the consequences of his decisions
• Losing your identity in someone else, being dominated by them, and taking on that person's emotions, values, thoughts and behaviors
• Switching roles with your children and expecting them to meet your emotional needs
• Building your relationship on power instead of mutual respect
If you've been mistaking counterfeit love for the real thing, then you need a breakthrough—a flash of insight and a dose of courage to take action and change the status quo. A weak, misguided definition of love causes us to give in repeatedly, but a stronger, more accurate view of love directs us to speak and act wisely to address evil, manipulative behavior.
Rather than just "taking anything," we can begin to check ourselves. We can invite Jesus into what we’re experiencing and gain a new approach to love and biblical limits. Change doesn't happen quickly or easily, but step by step, you can learn—and live—authentic love, wise trust, genuine forgiveness and real freedom.
When it comes to our most cherished relationships, we want to believe that the people we value really love us. We want to believe that we matter to them. That’s just part of our relational DNA. Most of the people we're close to—even the ones who are not loving us properly—do care about us in some fashion, but at the same time, they may care even more about themselves. Or they may simply not know how to love.
Regardless of the choices others make, you can learn the secrets of loving well. You can learn to recognize and receive real love when it comes your way—and push back when it doesn't. You can learn to really love the people in your life—and know when and how to help them without hurting yourself in the process.
True love offers a safe place to be you; it's not driven by a desire to rescue, overprotect, control or manipulate…or a need to perform.
True love values the other person for who they are and celebrates healthy separateness.
True love genuinely wants the best for the other person. It is grounded in our heart's desire to cherish, honor and treasure another simply because of who they are.
By discovering God's plan for love and learning to live by it, you can open the door to freedom from entangled relationships, find healing from your painful past, and gain the ability to love wisely and be loved in return.