I smiled warmly at Janice’s enthusiasm. She’d done a lot of work on herself in the past year. She knew she didn’t want any more codependent relationships. She was done with trying to save her romantic partners.
“That’s a good goal for you,” I told her, “but it’s just a stepping stone. Your ultimate goal is interdependence.”
Janice looked confused. “I thought dependence was bad.”
“Interdependence is something different,” I explained. “It’s when you rely on one another, but you don’t need each other.”
At times like these, I wish the language of psychology was a bit clearer. Everyone knows the difference between independence and dependence, but not as many people are familiar with terms like codependence and interdependence.
If your aim is a healthy, long-lasting relationship, then understanding the subtle differences in those concepts can help you a lot.
As Janice discovered, you don’t need a man to complete you, but it’s great to find a man to complement you. I’ll show you how in a minute.
First, let’s look at what happens when you need a man to complete you.
The technical term is codependence. A codependent relationship is one where you need your partner to need you in order to feel whole. You can’t be yourself without him. If your relationship ended, you’d feel lost.
In codependent relationships, you use one another to get your needs met. Perhaps you need someone to take care of, and he likes being taken care of. Perhaps he’s an introvert, and he needs an extroverted partner to bring him out of his bubble.
Being needed feels good. That’s why Janice kept choosing romantic partners who needed her. One was hopeless with money and relied on her to keep the rent paid. Another drank too much and wouldn’t have held down a job if it weren’t for her constant support.
She felt safe in those relationships, because she knew he wouldn’t leave her if he couldn’t function without her. It was scary to contemplate dating someone who didn’t need her. He might not have any reason to stay.
But Janice was determined to change. She was going to become the least needy woman on the planet. She was sure that success lay in not needing men at all.
“After all,” she told me, “don’t men love independent women? I thought that was one of the things they looked for.”
“Independence is something to cultivate while you’re single, certainly,” I agreed. “But you have to be ready to step forward into interdependence once you start a relationship. Otherwise, you’ll end up feeling ‘alone together.’”
“How do I do that?”
This is what I recommended.
Janice was trapped between the ideal of independence and the shadow of dependence. Her goal was to find that sweet spot in the middle, also known as interdependence
To do this, she needed to acknowledge that it was okay for her partner to fill some of her needs. But this time, she wasn’t going to put pressure on him to do it.
Interdependent couples choose to rely on one another, even though they can function perfectly well by themselves.
They accept what each other has to give with gratitude. They speak openly about what they’d like to receive from one another. If that’s not something the other person wants to give, though, they find other ways of getting that need met.
For example, let’s say that you really need to connect with your guy when you come home from work. But he goes into his own little world.
If you were codependent, you might give him the silent treatment until he asked you what was wrong. You might complain that, because he never asks you how your day went, he must not really love you. That strategy might shame him into changing his behavior, but at a cost.
If your goal was interdependence, you’d address the issue differently.
You’d talk to him about needing more communication. But, if he admits he craves space when he gets home, you don’t pressure him. Instead, you think of creative ways to meet your need, perhaps by calling one of your girlfriends on your way home from work.
Interdependent relationships are, above all, balanced.
There’s a balance between giving and receiving. There’s a balance between “we time” and “me time.” There’s a balance between identifying as a couple and keeping your identity as an individual.
Is that easy?
Not at all. As Anne Morrow Lindbergh lamented, “How hard it is to have the beautiful interdependence of marriage and yet be strong in oneself alone.”
But it’s still worth striving for.