Are you becoming codependent with your children? Do you have unhealthy emotional bonds with your parents?
This month we’ve been talking about the concept of “soul ties“, which was preached a lot in Christian circles in the 1980s and 1990s, but which I don’t think are actually biblical. The idea was that soul ties can be formed by having sex with someone, and it happens in the spiritual realm. Thus, the tie needs to be broken in the spiritual realm, or it will hurt your life going forward (so you have to pray or do an exorcism or something).
I’ve been explaining this month that while we certainly can have demonic influences in our lives, often a broken heart is simply a broken heart. And sex does not always form tremendous bonds (though it can).
A better way to look at it, I argue, is the idea of emotional bonds.
We are all bonded emotionally to many people in our life. We love them, and they affect us. But these bonds can be either healthy or unhealthy.
A healthy emotional bond is one in which you feel bonded to someone else, and they make your life richer, but you also allow them to have their own thoughts, feelings and dreams without trying to change them, and you have your own thoughts, feelings, and dreams regardless of what others feel or think.
An unhealthy emotional bond is one in which your mood or state of mind is largely determined by what someone else does, what someone else feels, or what someone else thinks of you. Thus, your emotions are outside of your control, because they’re dependent on someone else (hence part of the reason for the term co-dependent, though the term encompasses more than that).
Now, when something happens to someone we love, that is going to affect us. When my son died, I was understandably devastated. If a child is sick, you’ll be sad. When my girls had their hearts broken, I was beside myself (well, actually, I think in those situations I actually veered into the unhealthy emotional bond, so that’s likely not a good example!).
But with some bonds, we are so enmeshed with someone else that our mood, outlook on life, or dreams for the future are actually dependent on that other person. That is not healthy. That is living a boundary-less existence.
The most common unhealthy emotional bonds are with parents, children, or even siblings.
We can develop unhealthy emotional bonds with our parents, through no fault of our own.
Let me tell you the story of Susie to show you what I mean.
Susie’s mom was depressed again. Daddy was in trouble at work. He was standing on principle, he said. But meanwhile, where was the paycheck going to come from?
As soon as Susie came home from school she could sense that her mom was itching to unload on her. So she took the lunchboxes away from her little sisters and said to them, “let’s play dressup! Why don’t you both run and find all of my fun dresses and shoes and some of Mommy’s old makeup, and we’ll have a fashion show?” Her little sisters ran off, and she hoped they’d be gone for enough time that she could calm her mother down.
As her mom prepared the after-school snack she started moaning about Daddy. And little Susan listened, like she always did, hoping that spilling everything to Susie would stop her mom from worrying her little sisters.
Susie grew up. She got used to running interference for her siblings. She got used to judging her mother’s moods and trying to manage her mother’s emotions. And she started to really dislike her father, who was always irresponsible and got her mother so upset in the first place.
Susie’s story isn’t rare. We women often love to talk, and when there’s no one around to talk to except our children, we often turn to them. There’s nothing wrong with levelling with kids about the financial situation, the work situation, or other difficulties you are having. Kids can sense when something’s wrong, and naming the source of stress can actually be a relief to kids.
But sharing insight into what is happening is quite different than expecting your child to be your confidante. Using your child for emotional connection, or using your child as your outlet for physical affection, can be stifling. It places them in an adult role. And it often forces them, like Susan, to try to protect other siblings.
When you’re geographically isolated or socially isolated (because your husband’s in ministry and you can’t share what’s going on in your family, or because you homeschool, for instance), it can be tempting to use our children as an emotional dumping ground.
Deal with the issues in your marriage head on, even if it’s hard. Speak the truth to your husband and work through things. But don’t rely on your kids. Doing that means that you develop an unhealthy emotional bond with them, so that you need your kids to feel at peace and not alone in the world. But they also develop unhealthy bonds, because they feel responsible for your happiness. As they grow up, they often carry that into other relationships. They’re never taught to identify their own emotions, but only to manage other people’s emotions.
I’ve got more about how this can play out in the extended family right here:
If you feel like you’re a Susie, and you’re carrying a lot of the emotional load of your family of origin, I’d encourage you to read the book Boundaries.
We can develop unhealthy emotional bonds with our children, too.
Susie’s mom was a great example of this, but relying on your kids to be your emotional outlet isn’t the only one. It could also take one of these forms:
Getting so tied up in dreams for your kids that you don’t have any for yourself–but only for them. And those dreams are often imposed by you.
Think of the mom who really wants her kid to make it as an Olympic skater, and who sacrifices everything for that to happen–even if her child isn’t actually on board. Or the mom who really, really wants her child to become a doctor, a lawyer, a preacher, a missionary, or even a stay-at-home homeschooling mom.
Or perhaps it’s not about career or calling, but instead mate. I know how difficult it is as a mom when you get emotionally bonded with someone your child is dating/interested in, and then that relationship ends. We can become very invested in our own visions of our kids’ futures, and that can throw us into a tailspin if it doesn’t come to pass.
What if I told you that not all teenagers rebel?
Getting so tied up in your identity as a mom that you don’t know who you are otherwise.
Being a mom was the best thing I ever did, my favourite vocation I’ve ever had, and the best thing in my life. I loved being home with my kids. I really did.
But I was also proud of them and okay when they left home (though I certainly bawled all the way home from Ottawa after we dropped our oldest off at university).
And when Katie left home, I embarked on a lot with my career that I had been putting off until she left.
Being a mom is all-encompassing, yes, but it is still not ALL that you are. When you put all of your identity into being a mom, then your kids’ successes and moods will impact you disproportionately, because if they don’t do well, it looks like you failed in your calling.
How can we make sure emotional bonds with family members are healthy, not unhealthy?
Know who you are.
Remember that you belong to Christ, and He has a unique calling on your life. He has planned good works for you to do (Ephesians 2:10). You matter.
Learn about boundaries.
Cultivate close friendships
I’m great friends with my daughters, but I also have friends. And when my daughters were children, I did not confide in them the same way I do now. Everybody needs friends!
Pursue hobbies, callings, and interests.
Everybody needs something in their life that doesn’t revolve around family. For some it’s a job, but for others it may be volunteer work, a hobby, or anything. But have something else that brings you joy that is not related to family.
I could say more about cutting out toxic people (I’ll be talking about Gary Thomas’ new book When to Walk Away soon!), or about getting counseling, but you all get the idea.
The people who can most affect our moods are often the people closest to us. So just make sure that those relationships have boundaries, and that they reflect the Christian idea of “spurring one another on to love and good deeds”, rather than anything regarding manipulation, coercion, or codependency.
What do you think? Have you ever felt responsible for a family member’s feelings? Do you carry your children’s disappointments? How can we keep the right balance? Let’s talk in the comments!
Read Our Soul Ties Series:
- What Are Soul Ties?
- Do You Form Soul Ties from Having Sex with Someone?
- How do You Get over a Broken Heart?
- How to Make Sure You’re Not Becoming Emotionally Dependent on Your Kids (this one!)