Are You Codependent or Interdependent?

 I was surprised to learn that this grove of Aspen trees is actually one organism, sharing one root system. Each of us also is an interconnected community of 70 trillion cells. Biologist Bruce Lipton believes that together we’re “one collaborative superorganism.” I love that Facebook allows us to connect one-to-one all over the planet. For the movie: click here.

Society is highly specialized and interdependent, so that few of us would know how to survive without running water, electricity, and a supermarket. We’re also dependent upon our personal relationships. Human brains aren’t fully developed for 18 years, and psychological and financial independence from our parents takes even longer. Moreover, as adults we depend upon others to fill sexual, social, and emotional needs, such as friendship, communication, nurturing, appreciation, learning, love, and touch. The closer a relationship, the more we’re interconnected.

The Debate

Many claim that because we’re wired for dependency and that“codependency” is normal and shouldn’t be considered a problem to correct. They claim it’s not only natural, but healthy and beneficial to be dependent upon an intimate relationship. They blame the codependency movement for breaking up marriages and people’s loneliness. I agree that we all have dependency needs and that healthy relationships can meet those needs and greatly benefit us.

However, codependency’s detractors don’t understand – probably from lack of personal experience – that codependents don’t reap those relationship benefits. Often they’re in unhealthy relationships, and they relate to others in unhealthy ways with patterns of obsession, self-sacrifice, dysfunctional communication, and control, which are both self-destructive and hurtful to others. They’re often abusive or allow themselves to be abused.

Codependent Couples

Codependent couples are usually out-of-balance. Frequently, there are struggles for power and control. There may be an imbalance of power or one partner has taken on responsibilities for the other. They’re anxious, resentful, and feel guilty and responsible for their partner’s needs, feelings and moods, and even at times, behavior. Then they try to control one another to feel okay and get their own needs met. Rather than respect each other’s separateness and individuality, they can’t tolerate disagreement and appease or blame one another without taking responsibility for themselves. Often, what they dislike in their partner is the very thing they can’t accept in themselves. Despite their pain, they can feel trapped in the relationship because they fear that they can’t function on their own. Some codependent marriages are cooperative and not abusive. Generally, one or both spouses are tip-toeing around the other. There’s no drama, but no passion either, because real intimacy is sacrificed. Their mutual codependency and insecurity make intimacy threatening, since being honest and known risks rejection or dissolution of their fragile self.

Like the Aspen trees, on the surface each may appear to be physically and even mentally and emotionally independent, yet, at an unconscious level, they’re two insecure adults dependent upon each other to express a whole. For instance, a woman who has trouble expressing anger marries an angry man who expresses it for her. Or a man who is extremely closed and shy marries a woman who’s emotionally open and gregarious. They need each other to express their full humanity. In other cases, it’s more obvious that one partner needs the other for emotional stability, as in the case of alcoholic relationships. Financial dependence doesn’t necessarily create codependence, where the dependent partner has good self-esteem and emotional support outside the marriage.  Even spouses who appear more capable and stronger may be equally dependent on the relationship. They need someone to care for in order to feel needed, worthwhile, and not alone, while their other partner feels valued by receiving. Successful narcissists can be very dependent. They need someone to adore and look up to them.

Interdependent Couples

What makes interconnections healthy is interdependency – not codependency.  Paradoxically, interdependency requires two people capable of autonomy – the ability to function independently. When couples love each other, it’s normal to feel attached, desire closeness, be concerned for one another, and to depend upon each other. Their lives are intertwined, and they’re affected by and need each other. However, they share power equally and take responsibility for their own feelings and actions and contribution to the relationship. Because they have self-esteem, they can manage their thoughts and feelings on their own and don’t have to control someone else to feel okay. They can allow for each others’ differences and honor one another’s separateness. Thus, they’re not afraid to be honest and can listen to their partner’s feelings and needs without feeling guilty or becoming defensive.  Since their self-esteem doesn’t depend upon their partner, they don’t fear intimacy, and independence doesn’t threaten the relationship. In fact, the relationship gives them each more freedom. There’s mutual respect and support for one another’s personal goals, but both are committed to the relationship.

© Darlene Lancer 2012

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10 thoughts on “Are You Codependent or Interdependent?

  1. I stumbled upon this page and never thought of myself being ‘co-dependent’!!
    Staying thru unthinkable challenges… Sticking by ones side and commited being the justification. You opened my eyes after 45 yrs of living. Thank you beyond words

  2. I wonder if both partners can be slightly codependent, slightly narcissistic? And what help is there for the narcissistic ones? They are people, too! 😉

    My boyfriend admits to being a bit of a narcissist (not in a clinical sense, although, who knows! He has clinical issues, too) and is very interested in self-help, personal growth, etc. He also says he is emotionally abusive, but sometimes I feel I’ve been, too, so who knows. What help is there for people like him? (And me?)

    • Quite true. My feeling is that narcissists are also codependent, but they may appear not to be. See my book on Conquering Shame for more details. Therapy is required to heal narcissism and recommended for codependency, also. Narcissists generally won’t stay in therapy. Remember that it is on a continuum from mild to malignant. I recommend doing the exercises and behavioral changes suggested in Codependency for Dummies and attend CoDA meetings.

  3. I wonder to what degree it’s cultural. When you live in a culture where “individualism” is not a dirty word, and where it’s actually possible to survive alone, being able to function autonomously is highly valued; but have we evolved for that? Ditto with equality.

    • Very true. The concept of codependency arose in the West and reflects our values. In other countries, cultural, religious, and societal values differ and are resistant to change and may even reject the entire notion of independence.

      • Yup! I am a Russian Israeli American. There is this Russian song with lines “Better to be needed than to be free, I know this first hand”. Is not it?

        Also, it seems the more survivalist the environment, the more pronounced the gender roles, the more dependence. And how do you tell what’s healthy then?

        Does “Resistant to change” means they need to be changed, i.e. are inferior?

        Would be interesting to see a research on which part of the world has the happiest families. I would not be surprised if families somewhere in Afghanistan are actually happier than here in the US, because, let’s face it, does it get any worse?

  4. The first paragraph under codependent couples says “they feel trapped…because they fear they can function on their own.” Did you mean they CAN’T function on their own?

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