Have you ever been told that you are too “needy”? Too “Dependent”? Or that you shouldn’t get “too attached”. Have you ever read self-help books that advocate for complete self-reliance?
Do you try your hardest to be less influenced by others and then feel ashamed when you aren’t able to remain unaffected?
At some point, most of us have been told from a previous partner, a parent, a well-meaning friend, or a social media blog post that we need to take care of ourselves and not rely on others to feel good, like it’s a bad thing to be influenced by the people we are in relationship with. And God forbid, what’s worse than being too dependent is to be ‘codependent’.
Don’t get me wrong. As adults, it is best if we are moving in the direction of improved self-awareness and self-regulation. Ideally, we can behave in ways that reflect healthy objectivity, rather than highly emotional and impulsive. At the same time, it is unreasonable to think we shouldn’t get attached to our loved ones or be upset if they act in ways that are disrespectful.
It’s crucial to understand how human beings operate. Our nervous systems are literally wired to bond with other humans. When we start out as infants, we are 100% dependent on our caregiver(s). We learn who we are and how to function in the world based on our interactions with that person(s). If we get our basic needs met, then we learn that the world is a safe place and that it’s okay to ask for what we need.
Then, there is ‘attunement’. John Gottman defines attunement as the desire and the ability to understand and respect your partner’s inner world.
Dr. Dan Siegel says, “When we attune with others we allow our own internal state to shift, to come to resonate with another. The resonance is at the heart of the important sense of “feeling felt” that emerges in close relationships. Children need attunement to feel secure and to develop well, and throughout our lives we need attunement to feel close and connected.”
Infants and small children do not have the vocabulary to say how they feel. If they are hungry or tired or need attention, they cry. They are reliant on their caregiver to recognize their attempt to survive and regulate. As we get older and our vocabulary improves, we still may have difficulty stating exactly what we need. For example, a child who has ‘ADHD’ or who is acting out may need some extra care from the adults in his life. Maybe the child needs help identifying his/her feelings or even just a hug! It usually requires patience, effort, and curiosity to try and figure out what is happening underneath the annoying external behavior.
Generally, the more attunement we have in our first years of life, the more secure we will feel as adults. There is no age that we should ‘outgrow’ our need for attunement. No matter how old we are, we need people in our lives who care enough to check in on us when we look sad or unsettled.
There is a major difference between healthy dependence (interdependence) and codependence.
Interdependence describes the kind of dynamic where two autonomous human beings come together to build a life and make each other’s lives better. There is mutual respect and support. One person’s self-esteem is not reliant on the other person’s behaviors or moods or circumstances. Each person can manage thoughts and feelings on their own and don’t need their partner to rescue them emotionally.
True vulnerability and honesty can exist, because it is safe to have disagreements. In an interdependent relationship, there is no need to compromise one’s value system to keep the relationship stable. Each person is allowed to have separate interests and opinions because neither person feels abandoned if the other does not see things in the same way.
An interdependent relationship involves active listening. Active listening means that one person can listen to the other with the intention of truly understanding their perspective instead of interrupting or waiting for the other person to stop talking to chime in with their two cents. It feels so good to be heard and understood!
An interdependent relationship describes a dynamic where two people rely on each other. It’s not a bad thing to need our partner to support us emotionally, financially or with daily tasks. We shouldn’t be afraid to ask our partner for help. This is how we add value to each other’s lives.
While interdependence is the ideal we strive for, sometimes codependence can take ahold. Codependence is usually very noticeable as maladaptive and dysfunctional. When one person becomes overly-dependent or starts using manipulation to gain control, that is a problem. Codependence starts when there is a lack of balance or a struggle for power and control. When one person has a severe lack of self-esteem or an addiction, they can manipulate their partner to take on an unreasonable amount of work.
When someone is codependent, they often try to adapt themselves and their lives to accommodate their partner/family member’s dysfunction. They feel controlled by the addict’s behavior. A codependent person works very hard to maintain a relationship with people who are in active addiction (drugs, alcohol, sex, gambln, etc) or other narcissistic behaviors. They often feel that they are helping, but are actually enabling the addict by preventing them from the consequences of their destructive behavior.
A person who is codependent usually feels stuck, confused, and helpless. There is a lack of self-esteem (I NEED my partner because no one else will love me or take care of me), or a “hero complex” (my partner NEEDS me and it’s up to me to save them).
Codependent relationships lack balance. There is an unequal amount of power and control. There is a lack of boundaries and an extreme fear of setting healthy boundaries. There is a habit of blaming each other since neither person can accept appropriate responsibility for their part. There is a need to be “right” and/or a tendency to take on too much responsibility for the other person’s happiness or well-being.
It’s so tough to find the right balance if you are in a codependent relationship and have been for a long time. It’s not impossible to change the pattern, but it does require a lot of effort to change yourself. This involves learning to say “no” to anything that supports the addict’s destructive behavior. It also requires building a life outside of the relationships, such as focusing on interests, hobbies, work, and friends.
Having a healthy, interdependent relationship doesn’t always come easy especially if we didn’t grow up with healthy modeling. Realistically, realtionships are always in flux. Sometimes we need our partners more than others and vice versa. We need to take into account when one person is sick, or grieving, or experiencing a major transition. All kids of life circumstances throw off the “perfect balance”, but usually with care and time these things sort themselves out. People who are interdependent can navigate these times without verbal abuse or manipulation.
- Stay true to your own values.
- Have a social life separate from your partner.
- Ask for your needs and desires.
- Have your own personal goals (career, travel, financial, etc)
- Make time for the things you love (hobbies, friends)
- Develop the ability to say “no” when things don’t feel right. We aren’t obligated to compromise our values for anyone.
**Art work by @novamarie.art