We like to categorize our (and others’) relationships in terms of the dependency. We tend to use terms like “dependent,” “independent,” and “co-dependent”—often without really knowing what these terms mean. Of these common categories, independent is the one that we consider healthy and to which most of us strive. Okay, so what are all of these terms about?
Dependent is probably the easiest one to tackle. If someone is dependent in a relationship, it means that the person would lose some (or all?) functionality if the relationship were to terminate. Sometimes this dependency is financial, that is if the relationship were to come to an end the person would not have the financial resources to support themselves. Occasionally dependent can mean physically dependent. This occurs when someone does not have the mobility to physically take care of themselves on their own. These two forms of dependency tend to be the more palatable forms of relationships dependency, they frequently have some justifiability—a person is just starting out or is a student or the person is ill or disabled. However, they can be very difficult for the non-dependent person to exit because they may feel a sense of responsibility for the welfare of their (ex-)partner. Sometimes these versions of dependency can be power plays—for either the dependent or the non-dependent partner—as a way to keep the partner in an unhealthy relationship.
Emotional dependency is the version of a dependent relationship that really has the glow of unhealthiness. Emotional dependency is when a break-up would cause one’s partner to become so distraught or lost that they will fail to thrive. This often is the heaviest burden of the dependent relationships. This is the “you are my everything” style of relationship. These are the relationships we probably have the least sympathy for also. It assumes (rightly or not) that the dependent partner has a choice in their dependency. I wish it were that simple. While true that emotional dependence can be overcome, emotional dependency can emanate from a wide variety of traumatic experiences which are very difficult to overcome. If the non-dependent partner has a sense of responsibility for the dependent partner, then this can be the most difficult to get out of—while all the while feeling like the person has a choice about being emotionally dependent.
The non-dependent partner of the emotionally dependent partner is, in fact, frequently co-dependent. Co-dependent is probably our favorite term to use about other people or other people’s relationships. Co-dependency is the basically the need to enable someone in their dysfunction. Being needed becomes rewarding in its own right, more rewarding than the distress caused by their partner’s dysfunction. The co-dependent partner is really a version of an emotionally dependent partner—the emotional dependence is specifically to be needed. I can attest that “taking care” of someone feels very gratifying. I think therapists are particularly susceptible to this—we are prone to look for the potential in damaged people. I can admit I even have some of this in me. I think it can be advantageous in my professional life at times, and can be detrimental in my personal life at times as well.
The relationship designation that most aspire to is the “independent” relationship. Most people claim they want an independent person as a partner. But in truth, we want a partner who is only somewhat independent. All of us want to feel needed to a certain degree. This being needed by our partner(s) gives us a sense of security and worth within the relationship. We also want a partner for whom our desires and needs matter—for a truly independent person this would not be the case.
A truly independent person does not cater to our needs or even follow the rules, guidelines, or expectations of a relationship—unless they want to for their own reasons. What we really want is someone who could stand on their own if they needed to. We also want someone who can make some of the major decisions for the relationship—while considering us in that decision. We want someone who is not a carbon copy of ourselves, but will bring their own novelty and strengths into the relationship.
Sometimes a person wants someone who is what I call “selectively independent.” I use this term for when we want a partner to be independent when it is convenient for us for them to be independent—and not when we want things our way. This can frequently work well in Dominant-submissive relationships, but otherwise usually causes both partners frustration and can operate as a form of abuse.
To me, the ideal form of relationship –dependence is what I call “interdependence.” This is what I mean above as someone who could stand on their own, but opts not to. This is where each member of the relationship relinquishes to their partner their responsibility for something they can do, but that a partner does better or enjoys doing more. Each partner allows themselves to temporarily depend on the other for certain things, while also maintaining some independence. Both the partner’s dependence and independence are acts of consideration for their partner. The exchanged dependence facilitates that sense (and security) of being needed, while the independence can relieve us of some of our responsibilities.
I like to encourage my clients to imagine life without their partner. If the client can see themselves sad, struggling, but thriving, then I see that client as most likely interdependently in their relationship. Ideally, we won’t be so independent that it would be easy to imagine life without our partner, nor it feel life-ending without our partner. Challenge yourself occasionally to consider how well you could “go on” without your partner. Recognizing that if you can it reduces the pressure on your partner to be “your everything.”