You don’t need a degree in counseling to realize that relationships are complicated, especially when they don’t feel balanced. That can happen in a number of ways, but today I’m focusing on the dynamics of healthy interdependence and how easy it can be to slide toward the more extreme ends of the spectrum of relational health.
Independence sounds admirable enough, but it’s not good for long-term relationships. When a person cannot (or will not) bring down walls in vulnerable ways to expose weak spots, lean on a partner, or ask for help, the relationship withers over time. Isolation starves relationships. Bringing vulnerability into relationships, however, is like offering sun and water to a plant: it’s necessary for healthy growth.
Codependency is a word that’s thrown around a lot these days, but when I say it to a client, the most common response is, “I’ve heard that word a lot, but I’m not sure what it actually means.” For the sake of this discussion, codependency means excessive reliance on another person (usually a partner) for psychological and/or emotional validation, purpose, and identity. Typically, a person struggling with codependency is attached to a person who is dealing with an addiction or a physical or mental illness and needs that person to remain in a weak place in order for their own identity to survive. My favorite codependency resources are by Melody Beattie as well as books like this one.
So if independence and codependence can be so detrimental for our relationships, what’s left?
Interdependence is the gold standard for healthy relationships. It can be intimidating because it is built on both partners’ levels of confidence and relational intelligence. But once achieved, both partners are able to be strong enough to hold up the other person and simultaneously vulnerable enough to lean on that person for love and support. I often see people coming into my office with resistance to one or the other, and it doesn’t work well in the long run. Interdependence is like building a teepee where each post is strong on its own but gains both strength (the whole is greater than the sum of its parts) and purpose (a safe place) in relationship to the others as each post is strategically placed with equal weight distribution.
The next time you catch yourself feeling a lack of balance in your relationship, take some time to assess where your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors fit on this spectrum of relational health.