In my practice as a psychotherapist I have noticed that many people seem unclear on the difference between codependence and interdependence in relationship. I hear a lot of couples talking about the importance of remaining independent and autonomous in their relationship. The ideal represented here is that it’s healthy to be autonomous instead of becoming enmeshed and codependent. While I would certainly agree that it’s important for each individual to have his or her own life, containing their own friends and interests and to avoid the cycle of unhealthy codependence, it can be all too easy to swing to the opposite side of the spectrum.
Here, at the extreme of autonomy, we find disconnected, distant, disappointed, unsupported, and lonely couples.
Underlying this pendulum swing is often a fear of dependence and a limited understanding of healthy dependence. It is helpful for couples to understand that codependent is not the only type of dependence; there is also interdependence, which if we look closely, is actually the human condition! We all rely on each other to survive and to thrive.
When I look back at my own relationship history, I see that autonomy was always a priority for me, however I tended to get feedback in relationship that I seemed distant and that I wasn’t showing up for my partner in the way they wanted or expected. It is clear to me now that much of my so-called “valuation of autonomy” was actually a fear of dependence. I was afraid to rely and count on another human being because I couldn’t control them and didn’t trust that my needs would be met, plus “What if they leave?!” While, this is a valid fear, it also prevented me from deepening intimacy and fulfillment through meeting more of each other’s needs and becoming each other’s secure attachment figure. Let me explain . . .
Attachment In Relationship
Though a full discussion of how attachment plays out in intimate relationships is beyond the scope of this article, I will mention a few core concepts because of the significance of the role that it plays. For further reading on the topic see the recommended reading list below.
Essentially, attachment happens between an infant and their primary caregiver are in attunement, which is essentially the primary caregiver’s ability to tune into the their child’s emotional state. When attunement is happening the caregiver is able to meet their child’s needs, all of which fall under the broad categories of food, touch, movement/emotion. When a child’s needs are sufficiently met in the first few years of life (60% of the time or more) then the questions, “Is The World OK/Safe?” and “Am I OK/Loved?” are answered as “Yes.” Here we could say that secure attachment is happening because essentially the child feels safe enough and loved enough, to feel that there is a place for them in this basically stable and good world, which is capable of meeting their needs. Though the world at large may be at times unstable and unsafe, the creation of an inner sense of safety and security builds resilience and allows an individual to withstand difficulty or even tragedy and come through the other side stronger and wiser.
If the child’s needs are not met sufficiently they develop coping strategies that form into several different styles of insecure attachment, known as anxious attachment, avoidant attachment, and disorganized attachment. In a study done in 1987 by Dr. Phillip Shaver and Dr. Cindy Hazan it was postulated that approximately 60% of Americans are securely attached, a number I believe is a bit generous. This leaves at least 40% of the population with one of the insecure attachment styles, all of which have a big impact on how one behaves and feels in relationship.
The truth is that, no matter if you find yourself in a relationship with one, both, or no securely attached individuals, relationship remains challenging and we all unconsciously seek to heal childhood wounds and find healthy adult attachment through relationship. If there is little to no awareness of the attachment process in relationship then our need for healthy and safe attachment figures in adulthood can be a rocky and painful road.
Codependence vs. Interdependence
We are a social species, and because of this we are biologically wired to depend on each other. Over the large majority of human evolution we lived in tightly knit tribes of 20-50 individuals and deeply relied on each other for survival.
In the times of the Paleolithic human there was no concept of codependence in relationship. There was simply depend on one another or parish.
Though in modern times codependence in intimate relationships is certainly a real problem, especially for those with anxious attachment styles, many seem to be moving toward an ideal of autonomous relationship, which does not actually honor or utilize our own evolutionary history. Though we could point to many phenomena that may be at the heart of this trend, it is clear to me that as a culture we are in many ways moving away from community and connection and toward autonomy and isolation, much to the detriment of our own happiness and fulfillment.
To be clear, codependence is a state in which one or both individuals in a relationship feel they need their partner to exist and even start to blur the boundaries of self and other on a daily basis. As a counselor I hear this exemplified when a couple talks in terms of “We” and has little concept of “I” or self in relationship. This type of relationship often leads to a build up of resentment, as the unique parts of each individual are withheld, and an unfulfilling sex life, since polarities decrease with a lack of autonomy. This dynamic can also drive a cycle of one partner feeling smothered and running away and the other to feeling abandoned and chasing.
In contrast, interdependence is the recognition by each individual in a relationship that we are a social species with the need to attach and rely on one another, and that each can and wants to contribute to the relationship and support one another in unique ways. A healthy interdependent relationship puts the needs of the relationship first. In practical terms, this means being aware of your partner’s needs and making a conscious effort to meet them even when it means some sacrifice. Though the way our needs can be met as adults expands, a partner is still able to meet the needs of the other through the same basic process of being present and attuning to their partners state of being.
When both individuals make a commitment to put the relationship first and strive to meet each other’s attachment needs, intimacy deepens and relationship can flourish.
In a healthy interdependent relationship there is room for difference and autonomy, in fact difference is highly valued and seen as a strength that can support the relationship. Additionally, as one experiences both their deep needs as a human being met, and wounds healed in a relationship, they become better at meeting their own needs because they are more aware of what they are and how to articulate them to others. Even if the relationship ends, healthy interdependence generates more confidence and calmness in the knowing that the next relationship can provide the same.
If instead of feeling supported and fulfilled you find yourself often feeling disappointed or disconnected in your relationship, it might be a good idea to look within and explore what needs might not be being met. Perhaps it is a need to be seen and have positive qualities verbally acknowledged, or maybe it is simply the need to feel appreciated and that your partner is putting you first. If this is the case it may be good to sit down with your partner and discuss what you are feeling and see what each of your ideals and fears are about relationship, and specifically autonomy. If this conversation becomes too difficult to have on your own, I encourage you to reach out to an attachment informed couples therapist for support. It is amazing how far a little skilled support can go in changing the direction of a relationship.
The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples by John Gottman