Connection with others is important to all of us, and this is particularly true in our romantic relationships. Without connection, it’s hard or even impossible to create intimacy with our partner. Any long-term relationship requires us to grow and develop our emotional connection with each other.
We’re hardwired for connection. There’s no arguing with the bioscience. But we can want it so badly, we’re trying to hot-wire it. — Brene Brown
I’ve certainly had to teach myself the delicate art of intimacy based on mutual interdependence. At first, I was disastrously lost. Thinking back to my childhood and previous experiences, I wasn’t sure that I’d observed a healthy relationship in my entire life. You only know what you learn and seek out, but it didn’t seem like a big issue at the time.
Then I got married, and a relationship built on mutual interdependence became far more important than it had ever been. Independence? I have plenty of that — perhaps too much. Codependence? That was certainly the model that I witnessed growing up. And like most of the things that I experienced growing up, I’d learned to abhor codependency and to do just the opposite as an adult. Independence was great for self-sufficiency, but not so great for healthy, loving relationships based on trust and mutual admiration.
Cling to my partner? Not me.
Expect someone else to fulfill my every whim and desire? Not likely.
Forgo my independence for a relationship? No thanks. I’d much sooner keep my independence and my self-constructed walls of safety and security.
But then I realized that I was missing the whole point of a loving, intimate relationship. It didn’t work to simply let my walls down when I felt like it. So I sat down with a few books, research studies, and manuals to help divulge the mystery: how to build a relationship based on interdependence.
So how do we build an interdependent relationship, one that makes us feel steady, safe, seen, and valued? One that gives us the space to grow while supporting the authenticity of each partner, allowing us to be together while fully being ourselves?
Here’s what I learned:
First, what is an interdependent relationship?
An interdependent relationship is when two people, both strong individuals, are involved with each other, but without sacrificing themselves or compromising their values. Each person values their own sense of self and can fully be themselves. These couples find a balance between time spent on individual pursuits and time spent together doing things that they both love.
In this type of relationship, both people recognize and value the bond that they share. Each partner can support the other when needed, yet they can maintain their individuality.
An interdependent relationship also recognizes that vulnerability leads to emotional intimacy, and both are needed for a healthy relationship.
The term dependency can seem unhealthy and daunting. After all, many of us were taught to only rely on ourselves and to prize independence at all costs.
Interdependence is not the same as independence. Everyone needs emotional support, and it’s nearly impossible to have healthy interdependence if our focus is too heavily on independence, as the latter often stops us from connecting with others on a deep level. Being emotionally intimate can be hard for those of us who have survived by being independent, but this fallback is not unlearnable.
Interdependence is not codependence
Interdependence is also very different from being codependent. Someone who is codependent usually relies on others for their sense of well-being, self, and fulfillment.
When we are codependent, we tend to be heavily dependent on others for our emotional needs. We need someone else to make us feel OK to be who we are.
“Paradoxically, interdependency requires two people capable of autonomy (the ability to function independently). When couples love each other, it’s normal to feel attached, to desire closeness, to be concerned for each another, and to depend upon each other. Their lives are intertwined, and they’re affected by and need each other. However, they share power equally and take responsibility for their own feelings, actions, and contributions to the relationship.” — Darlene Lancer
Characteristics of a codependent relationship can include:
Placing blame on each other
Not respecting boundaries
Reacting vs. responding
Difficulties with emotional intimacy
Low self-esteem of one or both partners (Lancer, 2016; Mental Health America)
The pitfalls of codependent relationships
When a relationship becomes codependent, it rapidly becomes unhealthy, with a diminished sense of autonomy and authenticity. According to licensed psychotherapist Renae Helms, the problems start to creep in when we’ve crossed the line from caring to codependent and the relationship turns into one that is founded on fear.
This type of relationship makes growth impossible and pushes each partner away from the other. When we lose our sense of self, we can no longer be ourselves, and instead, our focus is placed on the external world to provide our sense of self and worth.
Codependency research suggests that “a codependent’s very destructive behavior of putting others’ needs in front of their own needs will disrupt healthy mental and emotional growth in both participants. Codependency can result in depression, withdrawal, anxiety, or even the furthering of the dependent codependent cycle.” (Waughfield, 2002)
Why healthy interdependence is needed in relationships
The healthiest way we can interact with those close to us is by being truly interdependent. This is where two people, both strong individuals, are involved with each other, but without sacrificing themselves or compromising their values. What they have is a balanced relationship, and it is attainable with just a little awareness and understanding.
Healthy interdependence distinguishes between the needs of both partners and helping to meet the needs of each partner in a meaningful and supportive way.
In an interdependent relationship, both partners make an effort to support each other’s emotional and physical needs without demanding or controlling the other. Each partner brings their own feelings and sense of worth to the relationship. This allows each person the freedom to make their own decisions and maintain autonomy while leaning on each other in times of crisis.
Characteristics of a healthy interdependent relationship can include:
Finding time for personal interests
Clear, consistent communication
Taking personal responsibility for actions
Respecting healthy boundaries
Vulnerability while still feeling safe
When these qualities are present, a relationship becomes a safe place of respite, where each partner is able to exist interdependently, secure and supported within and outside of the relationship.
How to build an interdependent relationship
The best place to start building a healthy relationship is by developing a strong sense of self.
Sometimes people start relationships to avoid loneliness, without thinking about what they value and where their overall goals are. But take heart that even if we’ve done this in the past, we can chart a healthier future based on self-awareness, healthy self-esteem, and critical internal reflection.
Making the time to think and be aware of our needs and emotions, makes it simpler to enter into and maintain a healthy interdependent relationship.
We can maintain our sense of self in a relationship by:
Partaking in our own hobbies
Staying true to our values
Speaking up for what we want
Saying “no” when necessary
Letting go of people-pleasing
Make it a habit
Establishing a habit of interdependence is a great way to ensure that your relationship will have what it needs to grow and bloom for both of you. In addition, it gives you both what you need in order to keep your dynamic in check which will help give you both what it is that you need.
To create this new habit, take a close look at where the relationship is and how you both have contributed to its successes and issues. After you know where you stand, begin to ask questions such as, “How did this start?” Is this the type of relationship I/we want?” and “How can we improve?” Getting clarity before embarking on a journey of change is imperative.
Why it works
In this type of relationship, both people recognize and value the bond that they share.
Each partner can support the other when needed, yet they can maintain their individuality. According to licensed counselor Brittni Fudge, partners “recognize the importance of maintaining their identity and are confident expressing their opinions but can still be sensitive to the other person.” If we want a healthy interdependent relationship, it’s critical that we allow our partner the same freedom and opportunity to explore themselves autonomously.
Because an interdependent relationship is when two people, both healthy individuals, are involved with each other, but without compromising their values or sacrificing themselves.
Each person values their sense of self and can completely be themselves. Couples can find a balance between time spent on individual activities and time spent together doing things they both enjoy.
An interdependent relationship leaves space for each partner to be themselves, but then coming together for support and greater strength. Being aware of this makes it simpler to establish healthy habits and boundaries from the beginning and in the future.
Struggling with codependency? Check out these resources:
Codependency from Mental Health America
This 6-page PDF serves as an all-in-one worksheet for codependency. It includes information on how people develop codependent behaviors, what codependency looks like, a questionnaire that one can use to evaluate codependent behaviors in their own life, and suggestions on how to overcome codependency.
Codependency For Dummies Cheat Sheet
This resource comes from Codependency For Dummies and is a good all-in-one worksheet for people looking for more information on codependency.
Finally, this worksheet is a codependency checklist that includes some resources for further information on codependency, and lists support groups for codependence