Seeking Unity, Not Codependency
“We appreciate and use these gifts of God (i.e. our spouse) insofar as they help us develop as loving persons. But if any of these gifts become the center of our lives, they displace God and so hinder our growth toward our goal.”
From St. Ignatius’ Principle and Foundation
Ignatius sees two general ways that we can misuse the gifts of creation: 1) we can abuse them, or 2) we can make them the center of our lives. Our partners are gifts and we are all a part of creation. We can then think of our loving partners in this way: as gifts of creation that we can either hold loosely, objectify, and abuse or hold too tightly and make this love the center of our existence.
There are two extremes:
At one extreme, our own personhood expands in our consciousness to become more and more central. We develop a parasitic relationship with our partner. When we abuse our partner, our own needs – stemming from our deepest wounds – create a compulsion within us to bend the gifts and love that our partner offers to the soothing of our wounds. In this, we make our partner an object to be handled and manipulated. In this state we are oblivious to their autonomous personhood and their own wounds and needs. We are blind. It is this objectification that is at the heart of abuse. And our needs, arising from our wounds, are at the heart of objectification. The simple process goes like this: wounds (from childhood, the harshness of life, unprocessed suffering, etc.), create in us needs (that are legitimate and important), which if not dealt with can cause strong compulsions to force or manipulate our partner to meet those needs, which is abuse.
At the other extreme, our partner’s personhood expands in our consciousness to become more and more central. We see within them so many good things and they have given us so many gifts. We have experienced God through them. And this experience of the Divine has touched our deep needs arising from our deep wounds. But, because we ourselves have been too afraid to enter into our wounds alone with the Divine Presence, we begin to cling with desperation to the bit of God that our partner mediates. We know that only in the Divine light, our wounds can be healed. And yet we lack the resolve, courage, or will to enter into the solitude of the “cave of our own heart” and find there a hidden name that only the Beloved can speak to us (Revelation 2:17). Until then our partner – for all practical purposes – becomes god to us. Everything depends on meeting their needs because if they can be healthy, whole and happy, this bit of God that is being mediated to us can keep flowing. And we desperately don’t want it to stop.
Do you see how at both extremes, the central underlying issue becomes dealing with our own woundedness in solitude? Henri Nouwen has written extensively about how, paradoxically, solitude is the key to healthy community. In true solitude of heart we touch the Divine Presence as the source of our own being as well as the source of all others. We realize this Presence is always with us – that there is no lack. Therefore, we do not have to, on one hand, parasitically suck it out of our partner, and on the other, feed it to our partner so that our partner constantly reflects it back to us. Our partner can be human, flawed, beautiful, dynamic, and changing; their own person to whom we gratefully both give and receive. We become who we truly are: persons within whom and between whom this life-giving spirit can flow into the world.
Questions for Individual Consideration:
Engage this section as individuals. Afterwards, come back together for the next section. Before you begin, ask for the help of the Holy Spirit, both for you and for your partner, in this time of discernment.
- Do you have a tendency to either abuse the love of your partner or make it the center of your life? (Or perhaps both at different times.) Be honest with yourself as you assess.
- Think of one specific circumstance you can identify in which you felt the above movement occur within yourself. Notice how you felt at the time, as well as how you feel in retrospect.
- Ask God to show you:
- What is the core need that is coming up for me in this circumstance?
- What is the core wound that is giving this need power in my life?
- How can I attend to my needs/wounds in a healthier way?
- How can I communicate those needs/wounds to my partner?
Now that you have had individual time of prayer and reflection, come back together to discuss. Each spouse can practice non-defensive listening as the other shares their take-away from their individual time.
Now, ask one another the following questions:
- Do you feel appropriately individuated from me and my identity?
- Do you feel supported as a whole person with innate dignity, needs, and rights, rather than an extension of me?
- How can I better support you in getting your needs met in a healthy way?
- In what area do you most need compassion from me?
About the Retreat Leaders
Shannon K. Evans is the author of “Rewilding Motherhood,” “Embracing Weakness: The Unlikely Secret to Changing the World” and “Luminous: A 30-Day Journal for Accepting Your Body, Honoring Your Soul, and Finding Your Joy.” Her writing has been featured in America and Saint Anthony Messenger magazines, as well as online at Ruminate, Verily, Huffington Post, Grotto Network and others. Shannon, her husband and their five children make their home in central Iowa.
Eric Evans is a spiritual director who earned his certification from St. John’s School of Theology and Seminary in Collegeville, Minnesota. An alumnus of the Center for Action and Contemplation’s Living School, he has served as a breakout session facilitator at the CAC’s international Conspire conference and has led retreats and centering prayer groups in local contexts. Prior to opening his spiritual direction practice, Eric served five years in parish ministry as director of music and campus minister at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church and Student Center in Ames, IA. He has also lived and ministered in overseas contexts such as South Africa and Indonesia. Eric’s practice of spiritual accompaniment is rooted in both Ignatian and Benedictine values.