To be or not to be, for better or worse, in sickness and health… binaries often come up in the ways we talk about love. The topic of dependence is no different. In most relationships, there’s tension between who we are as partners and individuals. Luckily, there’s a model to help us find a balance – interdependent relationships.
If co-dependence and independence are on opposite ends of the spectrum, interdependence is that golden zone that blends the best of both worlds. But what is it, why is it important, and how can couples build it into their relationships? Let’s take a look.
What is an interdependent relationship?
An interdependent relationship nurtures both emotional intimacy and individuality. Couples who are interdependent can build a life around their shared values, interests, and goals without either partner losing their sense of self. They respect the scope of who the other person is in all aspects of life.
This isn’t to be confused with independence, which we’ll discuss below. Interdependence isn’t about being two separate people in a relationship – it’s a dynamic based on mutual appreciation and healthy boundaries.
Interdependent relationships all have a few traits in common, namely:
- Partners feel safe enough to be vulnerable with each other
- Your self-esteem comes from within, not the relationship
- Partners can rely on each other and spend time apart
- Partners communicate their feelings and practice active listening
- Partners set boundaries, negotiate, and find solutions together
Codependent vs independent relationship
An interdependent relationship encourages you to rely on your partner and be reliable in return – but only for things inherent to the relationship. Both partners still need to work on their inner selves so they don’t become overreliant or disengaged. These are the two extremes we mentioned earlier.
Some people are naturally more independent, even in a relationship. They might have grown up in an environment where they needed to be self-reliant or with an inconsistent support network. For an independent person, few things are as important as autonomy and the ability to make their own decisions. While an interdependent relationship respects this, they might differ on how much of their lives should be shared with a partner.
On the other end, a codependent relationship leaves no room for individuality or autonomy. It forces a person to compromise their sense of self and prioritize their partner’s feelings. This type of bond tends to show up when there’s an uneven power dynamic, such as being financially dependent.
Codependence can have emotional triggers too. Low self-esteem, abandonment issues, and emotional abuse are common themes in a lot of codependent relationships. These triggers don’t just make it hard to imagine a life beyond the relationship, they also limit a partner’s autonomy.
These relationships have no sense of boundaries. Even when a codependent person speaks up for themselves, their feelings are pushed aside or ignored. Abusive partners will resort to manipulation tactics that chip away at the other person’s self-worth. Other characteristics of a co-dependent relationship include:
- No support for personal things outside of the relationship
- A lack of accountability, support, and listening
- Poor and dishonest communication
- Manipulative behavior and cyclical arguments
- One partner being locked into a caretaker role
Everything that makes an interdependent relationship work is missing in a co-dependent one. There’s no emotional intimacy, mutual appreciation, or respect for personal space. It’s an unhealthy dynamic that couples should work to avoid. The good news is we know a few ways to help.
7 ways to build interdependence in a relationship
Building interdependence in a relationship is the best way to maintain a strong emotional bond that meets everyone’s needs. Just as interdependent relationships have both shared and individual space, there are things that couples should work on together and alone. Here are the 7 best practices to do just that.
1. Start with the individual work
A good partner will respect who you are as an individual, but that doesn’t mean they can do the work for you. Self-worth needs to come from within and be completely separate from the relationship.
This can be tricky. After all, most people value how their partner sees them and try to live up to those ideals. The best way to approach this work is to ask: how would I see myself if I wasn’t in a relationship? Would you feel as confident and assured without getting validation from a romantic partner?
Doing individual work is part of healthy internal growth, but it’ll feed your relationship too. When both partners are secure in their personal lives, insecurities and overreliance are less of a risk.
2. Make room for things outside the relationship
There’s another thing you can work on away from your partner, and this one’s more fun. To build an interdependent relationship, you need to make time to pursue the things that are important to you. Part of creating a life together is having room for the interests you don’t share.
This goes back to thinking about life outside of a relationship. Think about the interests, hobbies, and goals you cared about before you met your partner. Chances are you didn’t stop caring about these things once you got into a relationship, and the same goes for your partner.
Giving each other room to prioritize personal interests is a form of mutual appreciation.
3. Have a blend of mutual and separate friendships
Speaking of personal and mutual interests, it’s just as important to have both in your other relationships. Our social circles often evolve with the relationship. When partners introduce each other to family and friends, it creates new bonds that connect their lives more closely.
These mutual relationships are vital – they’re a source of comfort and love for both of you. That said, don’t neglect your personal support network either. Mutual friends are a fun, healthy part of sharing your social life, but your individual friends have enough distance from the relationship to offer advice without conflicting interests.
4. Set boundaries around time and energy
We’ve mentioned boundaries a few times but what does it actually mean to set them in a healthy way? Well, it depends on what type of boundary it is. The four main types are: emotional, mental, physical, and energetic.
Each one protects a specific part of your relationship, from how much quality time you need to the best way to bring up sensitive topics. When setting boundaries, both partners should feel safe enough to say “no” to the limits they can’t compromise on.
Don’t treat a boundary like rejection or a personal attack. Instead, look at it from your partner’s perspective – understand what it provides them so you can better accommodate it and vice versa.
5. Negotiate for outcomes that make both of you happy
As for the things you can compromise on, treat every negotiation like a team-building exercise. In a co-dependent relationship, one partner will often compromise their needs to please their partner, but that only leads to unhappiness.
Being interdependent means sitting down with the intention to find a solution that’s fulfilling for both parties. This needs a level of selflessness, honesty, and vulnerability that’s hard to find in a co-dependent dynamic. But investing in each other’s happiness is the hallmark of a healthy interdependent relationship.
6. Support your partner’s personal growth
While couples should strive to have individual interests, this doesn’t necessarily mean doing everything alone. When it comes to personal growth, partners can still support each other without becoming an overbearing presence or overstepping a boundary.
Interdependent support is simply about being available for your partner. It often looks like this:
7. Be vulnerable and embrace tough topics
Finally, don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself and have hard discussions. So many couples avoid a topic because they don’t want to deal with conflict. Being afraid of a relationship ending is normal, but that’s when you need the space to be vulnerable. It’s easier when you know your partner is there to work with you instead of arguing.
This is the beauty of interdependence. It encourages both partners to lead with empathy; it allows us to deal with problems because our partners understand that we aren’t perfect. That’s why it’s also important to do the inner work; self-worth gives us the strength to face our fears without the relationship dictating them to us.
These topics rarely spell doom anyway, especially in an interdependent relationship. The bigger danger is letting a conflict fester. If you can rely on your partner for support and have the self-awareness to express your feelings, then an argument is just a conversation.
There’s no one way to build an interdependent relationship. It takes introspection and teamwork, the confidence to set boundaries, and a respectful partner who will maintain them with you. These 7 tips work together to support you on your romantic journey.
Apply them no matter where you are in your relationship to your partner or self. After all, interdependence is meant to accommodate both.