If you’re in a relationship – and you want it to last and be satisfying for you both – you probably like the idea of healthy interdependence.
What exactly that looks like and how to achieve it, though, might not feel so straightforward.
You and your partner might well have different ideas about what healthy interdependence is. You will both have been influenced by the relationships you have been in and witnessed in the past. And you probably both know what you want to keep or copy, and what you want to throw out.
Every couple has to find a groove that works for them, and how much they lean on one another is part of that.
Having said that, there are some patterns that we know to be healthy and successful, and others not so.
All relationships have their struggles. Everyone gets hurt and disappointed by people they love sometimes. And everyone feels worried when the people they love most are suffering.
This can make it difficult to tell at times whether your feelings are normal. It can make it hard to know whether your relationship is in a state of healthy interdependence or not.
Unhealthy Relationship Patterns
Have you ever felt like your life revolves around the person you love? Do you spend a lot of time thinking and talking about your partner? Does the way you’re feeling on any given day depend on the way your partner is feeling?
Would you say that your reactions to your partner’s feelings are strong? Do you tend to put aside your own feelings and needs and focus on theirs?
Do you feel like you need to change your behaviour to make your partner feel better? Does this stress you out?
All of this might feel quite normal to you. You might be quite used to the level of stress that it puts you under. But these feelings aren’t healthy, and it doesn’t have to be this way.
You don’t need to gain the approval of anyone else in order to feel safe, or worthy, or like you know who you are.
You can learn what healthy interdependence looks like and how you can enjoy it.
Isn’t it natural to care about your partner and want them to feel good?
It certainly is. It is natural to love, care for, and depend on others. It’s natural to need other people, and to thrive through your relationships with them.
Healthy relationships make people feel supported and lifted up. They hurt sometimes, but they don’t as a rule provoke anxiety and pain, or leave you feeling lonely and unhappy.
In a pattern of healthy interdependence, caring about your partner makes you feel good. Yes, you feel sad when they’re sad, or upset for them when they’re having a hard time. But you don’t usually feel anxious and stressed and like you need to do something – anything! – to change how they feel (or what they think or do either).
Happy couples behave autonomously and assertively, as well as being there for one another. Each of them has their own needs in balance with their partner’s. They don’t sacrifice themselves in an attempt to make their partners feel OK. (That only leads to resentment and conflict.)
Unhealthy relationships rob you of joy, peace of mind, and the lasting, loving connections you want and deserve.
What about your other relationships?
If you identify with this description, you might struggle with some of your other relationships too – with your parents, siblings, children or colleagues.
How do you feel about relationships in general? Does it feel like they feed you or drain you? It might be that some feed you and some drain you. What does your gut tell you? Do some of your relationships feel healthier than others?
How your relationships impact on you
If your relationships feel draining, you have probably been living with some painful feelings of shame, as well as feeling stressed, and perhaps out of control of your reactions to other people.
You might be quite effective at suppressing these feelings, or maybe you try to ignore them but end up exploding.
Sometimes you might feel like your fear, guilt, or stress about how other people are feeling are so strong that you can’t control your own behaviour.
It might feel like your relationships don’t have much flexibility, or room for you to play or change.
You probably feel like you struggle with communication.
This can lead you to feel stuck and unhappy.
You might not even realise that you have been denying or suppressing your feelings. Maybe you feel like you should be self-sufficient, or are being generous by putting your own needs last.
Or maybe you’re afraid that if you acknowledge your feelings and expect to get your needs met you will end up getting rejected and being alone.
Sometimes dealing with all of this can be so stressful and upsetting that you start to disregard what’s actually happening in the here and now.
You might start to feel confused about what’s acceptable from yourself and others, and where your boundaries and responsibilities lie.
You might work very hard to avoid conflict, or try to avoid communication for fear of ending up in a row. Maybe you usually end up there anyway.
How do you feel about yourself?
If you have found yourself in this kind of relationship, it’s likely that you might feel quite uncomfortable with yourself. You might have developed a mask that you wear out in the world based on what you imagine other people want from you.
Perhaps you are quite self-critical and have a strong idea of who you should be. You might feel like you need to hide some parts of yourself from other people or even from yourself in order to feel like you’re OK.
You might not even think of yourself as self-critical, but you probably have some strong ideas about how people (including you) should behave.
You might set a high bar for yourself across the board, or maybe in some areas (work, study, your appearance, being nice) but not others. You might feel like if you’re kind enough, good enough, attractive enough, or achieve enough, you will finally feel good about yourself.
Healthy Interdependence: Feeling better
If you feel like any of this applies to you, there is much that you can do to improve both your self-esteem and your relationships. This will involve working on yourself as well as your interactions with others.
You can get in touch with your own feelings and values and build a life that aligns with them.
You can develop your sense of self, and confidence in yourself, and practise expressing yourself freely.
Your relationships can blossom into healthy interdependence.
Going deeper: knowing where the lines are between healthy and unhealthy dynamics in relationships
It is natural to look after and to help people. And it’s healthy to be caring and kind to your partner, and to lean on them.
In order to be clear about what healthy interdependence looks like, we need to look at broader patterns of feelings and behaviour.
Caretaking vs. Caregiving
Lots of people enjoy nurturing and caring for others and this is entirely natural. After all we have evolved to look after each other – living in communities and bringing up children together.
What is not healthy is when the needs of the person in the caring role take precedence, and – although on the surface they might appear to be caring – in reality there may be more “taking” than giving going on. This is because caregiving comes from a place of abundance, whereas caretaking comes from a place of need and deprivation.
If you feel guilty and resentful of the care you are giving to others, or neglect your responsibilities to yourself, that is unhealthy caretaking.
If you take charge of other people’s wellbeing, give unwanted help or advice, and find it difficult to accept help from others, you’re probably involved in unhealthy caretaking.
And if you feel too worried and guilty to take care of yourself, that’s not healthy interdependence either.
In short, giving until it hurts or harms you or others is not healthy.
People-Pleasing vs. Kindness
Being helpful and kind to others is both natural and satisfying, and a world without kindness would be a sad place indeed.
However if you suffer with low self-esteem and feel a compulsive need to please others, that’s not healthy.
If you feel like you can’t say no because doing so makes you feel guilty, afraid, or insecure, that’s not kindness or healthy interdependence, that’s unhealthy people-pleasing.
If you avoid sharing your feelings or asserting your needs because you’re afraid of conflict, or fear rejection or abandonment, that’s not good for you or your relationships either.
Codependency vs. Interdependency
The unhealthy patterns of feeling and behaviour outlined in this article are sometimes described as codependency. (You might have heard the term codependent before, possibly in relation to addiction, where the idea first originated. However many couples fall into patterns of codependency without any dependence on drugs or alcohol being involved.)
Marriage and family therapist Darlene Lancer* offers the following description of codependency or what she calls “relationship hell”:
“Although from the outside a codependent couple may look physically, intellectually and financially independent, in reality there are two emotionally dependent and insecure adults. Rather than equality and respect, there’s a power imbalance and/or power struggles. One person may anticipate the other’s needs and then feel guilty, anxious or resentful about it. They’re not just affected by each other, they react to and feel responsible for each other’s feelings and moods. They directly or indirectly try to control the other in order to get their needs met. They feel less free in the relationship and fear both intimacy and separateness, which threaten their insecure selves.”
However, there is hope, in her description of healthy interdependence, or “relationship heaven”:
“Attachment normally develops in intimate relationships. When two people love each other, it’s natural for them to want to be together and to miss and be concerned about one another. Over time, their lives and routines become intertwined. They enjoy helping and encouraging each other. They need, depend upon, and are affected by one another, but are equals and take responsibility for their own lives as well as their contribution to the relationship. Their lives are interdependent. They don’t fear intimacy, and independence is not seen as a threat to the relationship. In fact, the relationship gives them each more freedom. They respect and support each other’s personal goals, but are committed to the relationship.”
These two descriptions represent the extremes, and most relationships fall somewhere in between. How do you see your relationship, and are there things you would like to change?
Often when people have had their eyes opened to unhealthy patterns in their relationships they worry that it means that the relationship they are in has to end. This is not usually the case.
You can learn to function better and more independently within the relationship.
I have worked with many individuals and couples who have seen the benefits to their relationship and well as themselves of them becoming more independent and assertive.
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*From Codependency For Dummies by Darlene Lancer (which is certainly not for dummies).