Shelley J Whitehead

What is interdependence?

21 November, 2022

Have you heard the term interdependence? It’s an important concept to understand, as a foundation for healthy relationships. 

In my work as a specialist relationship coach, it’s something we talk about a lot. 

A healthy relationship is defined by a comfortable balance of holding on to a sense of self and at the same time being able to maintain connection. The important word to remember here is balance

If, on the one hand, things are too focused in the direction of maintaining an independent sense of self, without any sense of closeness or intimacy, a couple can find themselves in an isolating empty shell of a relationship in a kind of ‘emotional divorce’. In that space of total independence, there is no sharing of emotions or feelings and a general sense that one doesn’t really need the other. In this kind of relationship there may be very little fighting… but it is likely that there is also very little closeness too. 

On the other hand, if a couple has no independence in the mix of the relationship and there is too much of a focus on togetherness, there are two unhealthy dynamics that can often emerge. The first dynamic of too much togetherness is where the two individuals ‘merge’ into each other. It might sound like a romantic idea that ‘two become one’ but in practice it’s not a great place to be. Without any sense of self (i.e. if you can’t hold on to who you are as an individual), you can lose all sense of responsibility for yourself, boundaries are blurred and things get confused: instead of taking responsibility for our own feelings and needs, you pass that responsibility over to your partner and, at the same time, you can take on too much responsibility for the feelings and needs of your partner. As each partner loses their locus of control by placing it in the other, they can only get their needs met through the other, so this is a certain pathway towards arguments, manipulation and emotional volatility.  

A second dynamic that can manifest when there is a loss of the sense of self is where one partner is dominant over the other.  On the surface there is a pseudo-harmonious sense of ‘togetherness’ but under the surface one half of the couple is suppressing their own reality and their own needs, deferring to the dominant half of the couple. You can often identify this when someone uses the identity of ‘we’ where it would be more appropriate to use the term ‘I’. For example, when someone says something like ‘We think that…’ this is often a sign that someone has subverted their sense of self for a relationship. It’s surprisingly common. I know plenty of couples who think that it’s a sign of love and care to always talk about ‘what we want to do; what we would like….’ but don’t realise what the negative significance of that might be in their relationship. 

An interdependent relationship is one where the sense of the ‘I’ (the individual) is balanced with the sense of the ‘we’ (the togetherness). We want the other person in our lives (sharing experiences and communicating our thoughts and feelings) but we still have a sense of who we are and what our needs are, as an individual

Healthy relationships always require an ongoing balancing act in various directions. There is no equation for getting the exact balance right and it will continually shift and morph, over time. The important thing is that both exist – the individuality and the togetherness – and that we consciously keep the balance in the relationship. 

If you’d like to learn a little bit more about the unhealthy dynamic of too much togetherness, often known as ‘codependence’, where boundaries are blurred and the sense of self becomes lost, you might be interested in my video series on ‘codependence and boundaries’, which will be coming soon on my YouTube channel. If you want to stay up to date with these videos, make sure you subscribe to my channel. I love sharing my tools, tips and guidance with you and supporting you on your journey to thriving relationships. So remember to subscribe to the channel, so we can travel this path together.

Shelley J Whitehead
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