Many of us don’t really know what makes a relationship healthy. Which is understandable, because many of us simply never learned. We look to our families to teach us, and depending on your childhood experiences, you might’ve seen a very different picture. A picture that was anything but healthy (though you assumed, again understandably, that it was totally normal and common).
Maybe you regularly heard screaming and slammed doors. Maybe you regularly saw conflict go unaddressed, put away in a box in a bedroom. Maybe you regularly saw sulking and silent treatment. Maybe you regularly watched masks being worn, a pretending that everything was fine when it clearly wasn’t. Maybe you regularly saw shaky boundaries and emotional outbursts.
All healthy relationships share one vital ingredient, which is the opposite of the above: interdependence.
You can think of interdependence as a happy medium. It is the midpoint between two unhealthy extremes: anti-dependence and codependence, said Chris Kingman, LCSW, a psychotherapist who specializes in couples therapy.
Anti-dependence is when a partner is so emotionally guarded that they don’t share what’s inside their heart. They don’t reveal their thoughts and feelings. They get impatient with their partner’s emotional needs. They require a lot of space.
Codependence is the complete opposite. One partner is overly dependent on the other for emotional safety and security, Kingman said. “It’s normal and healthy for a partner to want to connect emotionally with the other partner. But when that other partner is not available, it is codependent to have huge emotional reactions of anger or despair.” It is codependent to act in manipulative ways to get what they want, he said.
According to Jean Fitzpatrick, LP, a licensed psychotherapist who also specializes in working with couples, interdependence is functioning as a team and being emotionally vulnerable with each other.
When a partner is emotionally vulnerable, the other partner is able to be supportive and empathetic—instead of shutting down or getting defensive, Kingman said. He shared this example: When one partner says, “I really feel insecure when you go away on business,” the other partner responds with, “I’m glad you’re telling me your feelings. I always miss and think about you when I’m away, and sometimes I feel insecure, too. Let’s make sure we stay connected when I’m away, OK?”
Interdependence also is communicating constructively about each other’s needs, wants and preferences around important topics like sex, finances and parenting, he said.
Many people assume that interdependence should happen naturally and automatically, Kingman said. We assume that we simply need to find “the one,” and everything will fall—perfectly—into place. However, interdependence “actually requires effort, learning and growth over time to create and maintain patterns of healthy dependence,” he said.
Others worry that any kind of dependence is unhealthy and means being “too needy,” Fitzpatrick said. “But revealing our needs is a path to connection in a relationship.”
How do you cultivate interdependence, especially if you’ve never seen or experienced it before? The below tips can help.
First, it’s important to identify—with self-compassion—the ways we’ve been anti-dependent and codependent, Kingman said. “Each of us has some tendencies in one or both of these directions based on our attachment style.” For instance, people with an avoidant attachment style seek safety and comfort by seeking space. People with an anxious attachment style seek safety and comfort by seeking closeness.
“Our first experience of dependency is with parents,” Kingman said. “And the nature and quality of that experience in the family sets the stage for much of how we will think and feel about, and participate in, dependency in adult love relationships.” It’s pivotal to understand your personal history because this is how we avoid repeating unhealthy patterns.
Kingman suggested exploring these questions: When you take a big-picture look at your history of relationships, what patterns do you see? Were you generally running after your partners and trying to get them to be closer to you? Or, were you running away from your partners, trying to get some space and distance so you could feel more yourself? Did you tend to feel evaded or invaded?
According to Kingman, “Anxious attachment involves running after due to feeling evaded; avoidant style involves running away due to feeling invaded.”
Secondly, have direct, meaningful conversations. “Share a hope or dream you’ve been keeping to yourselves,” Fitzpatrick said. Share your needs and preferences, she said. Talk about shifting scenarios. For instance, Fitzpatrick often works with couples who start out with similar careers and salaries. However, when they have kids, the partner that stays home worries about being dependent. They discount their time and care, not seeing both for what they are: significant contributions.
“Being interdependent means recognizing that partners can contribute in different ways to a relationship and talking about how to do that in a way that works best for both of you,” she said.
In fact, instead of focusing on quid pro quo—“I’ll do for you if you do for me”—Fitzpatrick stressed the importance of exploring how each partner can contribute to nourishing the relationship.
Lastly, start a daily gratitude ritual. That is, talk about what you appreciate about each other, she said. Zero in on specifics. For instance, you love how your partner smells and how they excel at their job. You appreciate that they helped you clean up after dinner. You appreciate how intently they listen to you. You love their laugh and how safe you feel when they hug you.
Relationships are complex. Which is why interdependence takes practice. After all, it’s a process. The key to remember is that even if you didn’t grow up with any good examples of interdependent relationships or lessons on being interdependent, you can still learn to have healthy relationships. Start with the above tips. And if you need a bit more help, consider working with a therapist.