Creating Healthy Interdependence in Your Relationship
Three components are typically necessary for healthy romantic relationships.
Posted October 6, 2022 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
- Successful relationships are built on a solid foundation of safety in which our needs for security, trust, reliability, and nurturance are met.
- Interdependence means sharing your feelings and needs with a partner without fearing the relationship will end.
- Healthy interdependence is necessary for developing emotional intimacy in romantic relationships.
Because we are hardwired for connection, most of us value intimacy and authentic communication with those in our lives. This perhaps rings truest for intimate relationships such as with a romantic partner. Successful relationships are built on a solid foundation of safety – where our needs for security, trust, reliability, predictability, nurturance, and guidance are met with consistency.
To reach this level of connection, there has to be healthy dependence, or interdependence, between partners which falls along a continuum. On one end of the spectrum is interdependence in which partners depend on each other for emotional support while allowing for autonomy and vulnerability. On the other end is unhealthy dependence, sometimes referred to as codependency, in which enmeshment, weak boundaries, coercive (covert or overt) control, and a shaky sense of self-identity are common. This pattern may co-occur with people-pleasing, trauma re-enactment, love-addicted behavior commonly seen in traumatically bonded relationships, or an inability to be without a partner out of fearing abandonment.
Understanding Relational Trauma
Our earliest experiences color and shade how we see ourselves and how we will engage in adult relationships. Healthy attachment requires us to have a secure base, with both internal and external resources for managing distress in our lives. If a person's childhood was filled with support, solid boundaries, consistency, and love, these help provide the foundation for building secure attachment. On the flip side, if a person grew up with invalidation, abuse, or neglect, then a “rupture” in the caregiver/child relationship can occur.
When a person experiences such attachment trauma, the people who are supposed to provide them security, safety, and love become the people they fear. This creates a "push-pull" — pulling toward their caregiver for the love and attention they need while pushing away out of fear of being re-traumatized. This sets the stage for future relational challenges as one's earliest attachment wounds are compulsively repeated.
It is important to take our attachment style into consideration when seeking to build healthy interdependence between partners. Healthy interdependence is a necessary component for developing emotional intimacy in romantic relationships. Too much "togetherness" and a couple risks losing their separate selves in the relationship. Yet, not enough dependence on each other, and the person can push themselves (or their partner) into isolation.
Helping support interdependence within a romantic relationship can include the following:
Relationships Based on Shared Growth, Not Shared Trauma. What identifies traumatic bonds is how partners connect on shared trauma, such as childhood pain, or similar adverse adult experiences. If a person is carrying around unhealed attachment trauma, it often shows up in their relationship choices, in a need to “fix” a partner or to be “saved” by them, or in how early trauma unconsciously repeats within the relationship. For example, if a person went unseen or unheard in childhood, they may have a history of passive-aggressive romantic relationships in which they continue feeling invalidated. Or trauma may replay in choosing partners whose personality, attitude, or habits resonate with those of an ex or of a primary caregiver who shared similar patterns.
Be Vulnerable. If a person is in an interdependent relationship, they are able to open up about their trauma, their pain, their fears, their hopes, and their dreams without fearing judgment, or shame. Intimate and authentic communication and autonomy take center-stage with interdependence. A person can feel comfortable expressing themselves without the fear of losing themselves in the relationship.
Check In With Each Other. When a relationship is based on interdependence, you can share your feelings, needs, and life decisions without fearing that the relationship will end. Checking in with your partner is based on taking time to discuss how they may be feeling, where the relationship may need attention, and where both partners can maintain their autonomy and individual sense of self while keeping the relationship intact.
Levine, A., & Heller, R. (2012). Attached: the new science of adult attachment and how it can help you find – and keep – love. Tarcher Perigee: New York.
Sels L., et al. (2016). Emotional interdependence and well-being in close relationships. Frontiers in Psychology, 283, 1-13.
Van der Kolk, B.A. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Penguin Books.
Van der Kolk, B. A. (1989). The compulsion to repeat the trauma: Re-enactment, revictimization, and masochism. Psychiatric Clinics of North American, 12(2), 389-411.