Culturally we stigmatize dependence, championing independence as the goal. We envision the rough, impenetrable person, immune to the sorrows of connection, and make them our heroes. But independence didn’t propel human development; expansion proceeded from cooperation, pooling resources and accumulating knowledge, gains continued as they passed from one generation to the next. Perhaps the negative inferences we cast at relationship dependence is unjustified, weakening our striving for a flourishing life.
Like any characteristic, excess leads to illness. Dependence is no different. Each relationship must create a complimentary balance of autonomy and dependence to stimulates growth. Are partners stronger together or weaker?
Relationships both strengthen and weaken. Some partners accommodate and excuse maladaptive behaviors, protecting against the natural consequences of harmful action. When dependence becomes the crutch for life inhibiting action it has failed. The connection ruins rather than beautifies.
Disloyalty and Fear to Trust
After experiencing disloyalty, we may blame trust; instead of correctly blaming the person betraying trust. To protect against future trauma, we no longer trust. Withholding trust following a betrayal is appropriate; trust is earned. But when protections expand to all relationships, the felt experience of living narrows, choking intimacy to shallow connections. Love provides some of the richest experiences.
After suffering a bewildering deception from a person we trusted, we may moan, “the hell with living in fullness,” we fool ourselves by denying a fundamental human need, blame vulnerability and drastically limit new connections. This isn’t necessarily consciously chosen; but effectively chosen by the feelings (fear, anxiety and anger) dictating our actions. We respond to the hurt by establishing emotionally disconnected relationships destine to fail. Perhaps, for some, this works. The approach is protective and limiting. But life has alternate paths to fulfillment.
Relationship Dependence and Belonging
Relationships fulfill connection needs—a biological inherited drive. Finding fulfillment without relationships is possible but uncommon.
By affixing a negative label to dependence, we shame human history. Social interactions spurred the cognitive growth necessary to master the complex intricate social interactions. We are biologically built and culturally programmed to emotionally respond to others. Our biological structures positively respond to the warmth of belonging.
The social mind reads facial expressions, hears subtle voice inflections, and interprets the complex contexts of communication—most occurring unconsciously. We respond emotionally to social cues with shame, fear, sadness, anger, joy and peace; the emotions serve as a hidden guidance system, creating connection and motivating behavior. Ignorance to our underlying emotions vexes interaction by limited information. We need social sensitivity to thrive in the social world of humans. We are not built to be lonely wanderers.
With maturity and openness, the art of communication expands. We escape the confining boxes of self, entering the enormous universe of others, achieving freedom from a narcissistic existence; we still feel misguiding emotions but with mindful attention, but open to other inputs to drive action, expanding sensitivities, and feeling the echoes from the emotions of others ring in our hearts.
With emotional maturity, we accommodate the social complexities that we don’t completely comprehend; we accept the differences even when our limited exposures render us unable to consolidate the conflicting desires.
Over-dependent we demand too much from a partner. We have limitations. Our partners have limitations. Wrongfully expecting a partner to fulfill all our needs or fruitlessly trying to fulfill all of a partner’s needs frustrates and destroys connection. Some independence is needed. We must be willing to accept their suffering offering warm support rather than a frenzied mission to save their soul.
Emotional Drives of Insecurity and Relationship Dependence
Some felt senses crave for resolution; but often no resolution can be found. Instead of soothing our disrupted soul, seeking internal answers, we toss the responsibility into the court of the loved one, demanding they rescue us from the pain, expecting them to magically find the cure, while cursing their failure to solve pains we contracted in childhood. This is bad dependence. “I need you; I hate you; go away; come back.” The poor confused soul, lost in emotions, struggling for security but afraid of vulnerability fears connection but desires it.
To live happily, we must develop some independence. We also accept some dependence. We need others. A partner can fulfill many needs; together partners share the demands of raising children, building stronger futures and care for illness. The intimate connection cultivates feelings, giving deeper purpose to life. The interrelated, interdependent lives of two become stronger and emotionally mature. This is good dependence built on trust, believing the partner will not violate the vulnerabilities.
Relationship Dependence and Autonomy
Dependence without the stability of autonomy places a heavy demand on the relationship, inciting fear—a loss would be devastating. When fear contaminates attachment, we can’t enjoy the relationship. Instead of bonding through trust, fear demands vigilance, seeking threats. Jealousies punish the mind, replaying haunting thoughts of abandonment with any slight deviation from normalcy, filling the house with a loud drama laced with anger and tears. Traumatized pasts often trigger relationship fear more than present dangers. The attachment process is damaged and needs empathetic repair.
The late Wayne Dyer explains, “psychological independence means total freedom from all obligatory relationships, and an absence of other directed behavior. It means being free from having to do something you would not otherwise choose, were the relationship not to exist” (1976/2009). The thing is dependence and autonomy are not simplistic either or states. We can be so autonomous that we refuse help when we desperately need it. Or we can be so dependent that we rely on others for everything when we should rely on some of our own resources.
Even in the best relationships, we should develop enough resources that if called upon we can autonomously exist. While, on the other hand, while in a relationship we do something we “would not otherwise choose” for the sake of the relationship.
Categorical Thinking and Relationship Dependence
A reader on social media once blurted out in response to this article “Any dependence is bad!” Certainly, this is the modern day mindset. However, we then go about our day depending on all the comforts of modern technology for survival. This is an example of categorical thinking. Perhaps, mistaking the concept of dependence with the psychological condition referred to as co-dependence. Or, even, dependence in unhealthy people or objects, such as in chemical addictions. Instead of considering the wide and complex ways for dependence to playout in our lives, we shove it into a good and bad category, ignoring the rest.
Emotionally healthy relationships incorporate some level of relationship dependence. Each partner validates, supports, and assists in emotional regulation of the other. This doesn’t suggest we collapse and die without our partner, we just depend on each other to improve each others lives.
A Few Final Words by Psychology Fanatic
Intimacy enhances the beauty of living, boosting growth and softening hurts; but when misguided by emotional remnants from broken pasts romance reveals our more shadowy side. The emotional monster living within, either clings sacrificing the independence of self or protectively builds walls limiting closeness. Mindfully watch your attachments, examine your behaviors that are brought to life through connection, seek help where needed, run when necessary. Intimate relationships, in all their beauty, easily shift from healthy love to sinister fear-based control. We flourish with healthy interdependent connections, drawing and giving to the rich resources of love available through relationship dependence.
Dyer, Wayne (2009/1976). Your Erroneous Zones: Step-by-Step Advice for Escaping the Trap of Negative Thinking and Taking Control of Your Life. William Morrow Paperbacks; 1st Harper Perennial ed edition.