Most of us value connection with others, especially in our romantic relationships. In fact, we are wired for connection and it allows us to create bonds and intimacy with our partner. The success of long-term relationships depends heavily on the quality of our emotional connection with each other.
When we think of our ideal relationships we often think of a wonderful, close, lifelong relationship with our most important person. How do we build that kind of relationship? That cozy, safe, long-term bond with someone who we know has our back for the long haul? A relationship that gives us the freedom to be ourselves, that supports our growth and allows us to have flexibility with each other?
One of the key elements is understanding the difference between interdependence and codependence.
What Is Interdependence?
Interdependence (or interdependency) suggests that partners recognize and value the importance of the emotional bond they share while maintaining a solid sense of self within the relationship dynamic.
An interdependent person recognizes the value of vulnerability, being able to turn to their partner in meaningful ways to create emotional intimacy. They also value a sense of self that allows them and their partner to be themselves without any need to compromise who they are or their values system.
Being dependent on another person can sound scary or even unhealthy. Growing up, we are often taught an over-inflated value of independence, to be somewhat self-contained, with a high value placed on not needing others for emotional support.
As valuable as having a sense of independence is, taken to an extreme, this can actually get in the way of us being able to connect emotionally with others in a meaningful way. Emotional intimacy with a partner can be difficult to achieve, even scary or not seen as particularly valuable in a relationship, for those who have an extraordinary sense of independence.
Interdependence Is Not Codependence
Interdependence is not the same thing as being codependent. A codependent person tends to rely heavily on others for their sense of self and well-being. There is no ability for that person to distinguish where they end and their partner begins, there is an enmeshed sense of responsibility to another person to meet their needs and/or for their partner to meet all of their needs to feel okay about who they are.
Traits of a codependent relationship include things like:
- Poor/no boundaries
- People-pleasing behaviors
- Unhealthy, ineffective communication
- Difficulty with emotional intimacy
- Controlling behaviors
- Blaming each other
- Low self-esteem of one or both partners
- No personal interests or goals outside the relationship
Codependent relationships are not healthy and do not allow partners room to be themselves, to grow, and to be autonomous. These unhealthy relationships involve one or both partners relying heavily on the other and the relationship for their sense of self, feelings of worthiness, and overall emotional well-being. There are often feelings of guilt and shame for one or both partners when the relationship is not going well.
[Codependency involves] someone who has lost their core sense of self, so that his or her thinking and behavior revolves around someone or something external, including a person, a substance, or an activity, such as sex or gambling.
Why Interdependence Is Healthy for a Relationship
Interdependence involves a balance of self and others within the relationship, recognizing that both partners are working to be present and meet each other’s physical and emotional needs in appropriate and meaningful ways.
Partners are not demanding of one another and they do not look to their partner for feelings of worthiness. Interdependency gives each partner space to maintain a sense of self, room to move toward each other in times of need and the freedom to make these decisions without fear of what will happen in the relationship.
Characteristics of an Interdependent Relationship
A healthy, interdependent relationship has several features.3 Here are a few things to look for in a healthy relationship that is not codependent.
- Healthy boundaries
- Active listening
- Time for personal interests
- Clear communication
- Taking personal responsibility for behaviors
- Creating safety for each other to be vulnerable
- Engaging and responding to each other
- Healthy self-esteem
- Being open and approachable with each other
When partners feel cherished and valued, the relationship becomes a safe haven and a place where the couple can be interdependent. They understand that they are not alone in the relationship, can turn toward each other safely in times of need, and feel secure that their partner will be present.
How to Build an Interdependent Relationship
The key to building an interdependent relationship is to be mindful of who you are from the beginning. Many times people are looking for or entering relationships simply to avoid feeling alone, without any personal reflection of who they are, what they value, and their goals for the relationship.
Taking time for this kind of personal reflection allows you to enter a new relationship with an awareness of self that is critical for the establishment of a relationship based on interdependency.
Licensed psychotherapist Sharon Martin, LCSW suggests it is important to maintain a sense of self in your intimate relationships. She suggests the following ways to maintain a sense of self in a relationship:
- Knowing what you like and what matters to you
- Not being afraid to ask for what you want
- Spend time with friends and family
- Continue pursuing your personal goals
- Be mindful of your values
- Make time for hobbies and interests
- Don’t be afraid to say “no”
- Don’t keep yourself small or hidden to please others
Allowing your partner room and opportunity to do these same things will be the key to establishing a healthy, interdependent relationship. Starting your relationship in this way can allow for the development of a safe space for both partners to learn how to turn toward each other intimately without fear of losing themselves or being controlled or manipulated.
Relationships based on interdependency do not leave people feeling guilty or scared of their partner or the relationship, but rather, leaves them feeling safe with their partner.
Take time to reflect on who you are and what you want in your most important relationships. Being mindful of this in the dating process can help ensure that your relationship will be healthy and more solid for the long term. If you are in a relationship already, it’s never too late to examine your and your partner’s values to ensure that you remain aligned.