Interdependence in relationships – How do we get there from here?
It’s easy to be an advocate for the virtue of interdependence in relationships. You give some, you take some, you can count on each other… what’s not to love.
The word itself has a distinctly modern ring (it peaked in popularity around 1980 and is still going strong), implying a kind of balance that many of us today crave, and reflecting the non-hierarchical ideal so popular in these times.
Interdependence is indeed an apt descriptor for relationships that are resilient, balanced, and mutually enjoyable and supportive for the people in them, and interdependence is a worthy vision and a worthy goal. But how to get there? Do you just decide “From now on I’m going to have an interdependent relationship!”?
Likely not. If interdependence is to thrive in a relationship, first the stages of both dependence and independence will probably have to be sufficiently navigated.
Interdependence comes after dependence and independence
Interdependence in relationships isn’t really a choice, it’s a developmental milestone, a marker of maturity. You don’t just one day choose to be interdependent in relationship (though your choices in general will factor), you grow into being interdependent in relationship.
To grow into a state of relationship interdependence there are, for most of us, prerequisites. One of these prerequisites is experiencing a sufficient amount of dependence in relationships. The other prerequisite is experiencing sufficient independence in a relationship. Now, if you’re a born relationship genius, a Mozart of the interpersonal realm, maybe you can skip these steps, but the rest of us are more or less bound to a certain developmental path.
Interdependence isn’t some mid-ground between being dependent and being independent; it’s a whole different level, one that is potentially reached after accomplishing the tasks at the prior (lower) levels of dependence and independence.
Dependence and independence are both negative and positive
All of us begin our life journey completely dependent on our mother (or a sufficient surrogate). In this sense dependence comes naturally. At some point we grow toward independence; we begin to recognize ourselves as separate from mother. Depending on how we come to understand our experiences, dependence and independence have negative, positive or ambivalent connotations in our life, and we bring these into our intimate adult relationships.
It is in our adult relationships that we work through our issues (most of us have them) around dependence and independence. Hopefully we learn healthy modes of both: how to lean on our partner, have them lean on us, and also how to stand on our own two feet, and allow our partner to do the same. There are healthy and necessary aspects to both modes of being in relationship.
Independence, dependence, or both?
It’s not uncommon to have strong negative associations with dependence or independence or both. Both have a dark side and a light side. Dependency can include generosity, support, and understanding. It can also include manipulation, smothering, and powerlessness. Independence can include self confidence, emotional differentiation, and freedom. It can also include isolation, disconnection, and arrogance.
Put another way, most of us have a complicated relationship with either (or both) dependence or independence. We have to reconcile ourselves with both before we can proceed to the next level.
Some of the positive qualities we can learn through dependence include –
Some of the positive qualities we can learn through independence include –
- Personal responsibility
- Appreciation for solitude
The level of interdependence we can achieve in our relationship hinges upon how well we have integrated the best of both dependence AND independence, and how we have reconciled ourselves with our negative experiences of both. If you want to move toward greater interdependence, take an inventory of your skills in the areas of dependence and independence. Identify the gaps, work on them, and you will be working toward interdependence.
To learn more about interdependence in relationships check out my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples (download a free sample chapter here).
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