Although our culture emphasizes independence, romantic love is often portrayed in songs and movies in which partners are inseparable and can’t live without each other. There is a lot of discussion in the psychology world about what is a healthy or unhealthy relationship. The most often used terms are interdependent and co-dependent. These words can be confusing. What do these words mean, and what is a healthy relationship?
Humans are born wanting to connect with other humans. From the moment babies are born, they seek connection. However, for some babies and young children, they learn at an early age it’s not safe to feel connected, or they are role-modeled unhealthy connections. How we are nurtured as children can affect the way we connect in our adult relationships.
In a co-dependent relationship, a person relies heavily on the other for their sense of self and well-being. There is no ability to distinguish where they end and their partner begins, and there is a sense of responsibility to meet all their partner’s needs to feel okay. This kind of relationship can stifle individual growth. People in a co-dependent relationship are entering the relationship “half-full” and looking for someone else to complete them. A key sign of co-dependency is when a partner is making extreme sacrifices to satisfy the other partner’s needs at the cost of their own emotional and physical well-being.
In contrast, interdependence in a relationship is an emotional bond two people share while still maintaining a solid sense of self. In an interdependent relationship, each person in the relationship can be themselves without any need to compromise who they are or their values. In an interdependent relationship, there is a balance of self and other within the relationship. Value and worth are not gained solely through the partner. Studies show that people who report the most emotional balance and life satisfaction are in the middle of the dependence/independence spectrum (interdependence) and have an ability to lean on their partner at times and to work independently as needed.
Here are some ways to maintain a strong sense of self in a relationship, and have a healthy interdependent relationship:
- Cultivate self-respect, self-love and self-compassion;
- Take time apart and discover your own personal interests and goals;
- Take responsibility for your own behaviors and not fixing and owning your partner’s behavior;
- Voice your own needs, opinions and feelings;
- Practice saying “no” or respecting your partner’s “no”;
- Have healthy boundaries. A helpful book is “Boundary Power” by O’Neil and Newbold.