So – I got this great question from a reader:
What’s the difference between independence, co-dependence and interdependence. How do you create a relationship where you can rely on your partner without losing yourself in them, or keeping too much distance? And how do you get your partner on the same page?
Let me start by admitting that – because I have long been haunted by this question – my husband Mark and I actually took separate honeymoons.
Figuring out how to be “me” in the thick of falling in love with “him” was mind-bogglingly hard for me.
We decided to marry after a relatively tumultuous 2-year courtship which I jeopardized spectacularly by testing out a different suitor. This chap (let’s call him Bill) had invited me to help him bring a small gill netter down Alaska’s Inside Passage.
“Oh, it’ll be fun. Should take about a week,”
he reassured me and I tried to reassure Mark.
I flew up to Ketchikan against my better judgment and dire warnings from friends. Ten days later I left Bill on a dock in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island.
The boat (and my relationship with Bill) had sprung a leak way beyond the reach of our resources to repair. The boat was dangerously low in the water. I had no money. I was very hungry and I was stranded in Canada without a passport. Not a good idea for a Brit on a work visa.
So when I made a collect call to Mark in Seattle (a 5 hour drive away across an international border) explaining my sorry state he simply responded:
“I’ll be right there.”
Clearly I chose the right guy!
So sure, I’d chosen a fabulous man to marry but that was just the first step. Now we had to navigate that tightrope between two of the most powerful human drives – AUTONOMY vs ATTACHMENT – which, when taken to their extremes, cause a whole heap of problems for couples trying to come together.
Essentially there is a continuum that looks more or less like this ~
with folks who choose total isolation on the left and folks who want to be fused with others on the right. If you are in a relationship and noticing issues, it’s unlikely you’re at the extremes. More likely you’ll find yourself somewhere between counter-dependence (where a person strives not to be dependent on anyone for anything, thus avoiding attaching to anyone else) and co-dependence (where a person strives not to depend upon themselves for anything, thus avoiding their own ability to be an autonomous human being).
So, let’s meet those troublemakers
On the extreme end of AUTONOMY and the “I’m all alone in the world and that’s how I like it” team we have, Ladies and Gentleman, the mighty stand-alone COUNTER–DEPENDNECE
Think independent cat, totally disdainful of neediness.
This is our family cat “Mo”. The cat can sit wherever she chooses – including taking the prime spot right in front of the fire.
Counter-dependence occurs in dysfunctional families when a child experiences insufficient bonding and attachment, loss, abuse or the pain of betrayal. (To have loved and lost).
For these folks their ~
- Trust issues are “It’s simple. I don’t trust. Anyone.”
- Core belief is “If I trust, I will be betrayed so I keep my distance.”
- Favorite anything is “None of your business”
- Their favorite song is “I’ll do it my way”
- Communication style is “I’ll tell you how I want it”
- Daydreams “Include me, myself and I”
- Senses “What senses? I am disinterested in feedback”
- Control “Is focused on keeping me aloof and separate.”
- Assessment of problems “What problems? You lookin’ at me?”
- Ambition is “To succeed on my own”
- Worst fear is “Being controlled, manipulated, impacted by or vulnerable to anyone”
- Main move is “Whatever it takes to keep my distance”.
And on the extreme end of ATTACHMENT and the “I’m nothing without you and what do you want me to do now?” team we have, Ladies and Gentleman, CO-DEPENDENCE (and support team)
This is our family dog “Bailey”. Here she suffers yet another indignity, persuaded by her need for our love, and her fondness for treats. This is the annual compulsory enjoyment photo-op with The Christmas Antlers.
Co-dependence occurs in dysfunctional families where addiction, abuse, or chronic mental or physical illnesses are present but not addressed. The child in such a home learns to repress their feelings and needs.They don’t trust, don’t talk and don’t rock the boat.
For these folks their ~
- Trust issues are “I don’t trust myself to manage life separately from other people.”
- Core belief is “I manage pain by merging myself with someone else in whose love I am whole, and by controlling the environment to keep everything OK”
- Favorite anything is “The same as my beloved’s”
- Favorite song is “Love, Love Me, do””
- Communication style is “If I want my opinion Dear I’ll ask you for it”
- Daydreams “Involve lots of obsessing over my mistakes and what others think of me”
- Senses “Are tuned to how everyone around me is feeling”
- Control “Is focused on getting others to think, speak and act a certain way”
- Assessment of problems “Goodness, everyone around me is in trouble.”
- Ambition is “Complete mind-meld with my Beloved”
- Worst fear is “Being pushed away, ignored or abandoned”
- Main move is “Whatever it takes to keep my beloved with me.”
These are the extreme ends of the “super drives” that impact a person’s capacity for closeness, intimacy and connection. If you want to dive more deeply into these ideas you might enjoy Dr. David Schnarch – here’s a helpful intro:
One of the most important things in life is becoming a solid individual. And another important thing is to have meaningful relationships. Two of the most powerful human drives are our urge to control our own lives (autonomy), and our urge for relationship with others (attachment). One of the biggest tasks of adulthood is being able to balance these two urges, and one of the most common problems is having too much of one, and not enough of the other. People often feel claustrophobic or controlled in committed relationships, or feel like they can’t be their true self in their relationships, or feel like their sense of self is starting to disappear and they don’t know who they are any more. Others are constantly worried about “abandonment,” or “safety and security,” and constantly press their partner for “commitment,” and “unconditional love.”
Long term relationships are the perfect school-of-life for this journey. Dr. Schnarch refers to marriage as a “crucible” – you know, that feeling of being held “in a container in which two metals melt and undergo a severe trial”. Ouch!
So what new state are we hoping to emerge into after the high heat of relationship?
No matter how we’ve emerged from our childhood experiences – whether they were traumatic enough to plunge us to the far reaches of these positions of counter or co-dependency – it seems a not unreasonable goal (or at least desire) to find some middle ground, where we can be both ~
- the best version of our unique Self, &
- mutually interdependent with the person we love.
Dr. Schnarch again:
The ability to balance our needs for autonomy and attachment is called differentiation. Differentiation is a scientific process that occurs in all species. For humans, it is about becoming more of a unique individual and a solid person through relationships with others.
So, back to that honeymoon.
Our plan was to spend an open-ended time in Europe, partly touring in our VW camper; partly working on an Uncle’s organic farm in Portugal; partly learning French and skiing in Grenoble; partly working on an Israeli Kibbutz; and partly spending time with our Europe-based family.
For my leaning-toward-the-far-end-of-Independence-since-I-lost-my-mum-whom-I-adored-so-was-reluctant-to-entrust-my-heart-to-anyone-ever-again Self, this was a challenge.
While one happy day passed to the next, I was also increasingly aware of another voice, my “be careful, don’t get too close!” warning voice, that worried I was eroding my ability to ~
- enjoy my own company
- make my own decisions
- sit in silence
- be spontaneous
- not care how I impacted anyone.
So, perhaps under the guise of “fun & adventure” (a clarion call for both of us) we hatched plans for a month apart. Mark took himself off to hike the high Alps in Austria. I took myself off to hike part of France’s Grande Randonee.
We took 4 weeks apart (our total Honeymoon was 18 months) and I spent every day of that month witnessing my own enormous inner battle. On the one side was my major Independent Part who dreaded the vulnerability, mourned the loss of my single freedom, worried about the future compromises and found fault with how Mark did things (in his absence of course!). On the other side was my major Dependent Part who yearned for his arms, the closeness, the delight of being seen, known and appreciated, the easy fun we had together and the future plans we were hatching.
Looking back, I think this is what we all have to do – in our own way and on our own time frame – to resolve this issue.
The art of differentiation is finding this middle place where we learn how to become fully ourselves, in the context of another.
Easier said then done – I know.
Here are my TOP FIVE TIPS for finding a happy balance point between isolation and fusion, in your relationship for you and your partner.
1. Wrap your head firmly around these concepts. If it seems like you and your partner might be struggling because you have very different needs regarding time together and time apart, or connection versus independence, check out the links in this article and continue to research the five main terms I’ve been using in this article ~
We don’t talk about them all the time, but they are super helpful to grasp.
2. Be honest with yourself. Figure out where you are on this Autonomy to Attachment Scale.
If you’re on the Autonomy, or minus side, you may find yourself ~
- with an avoidance mindset
- hiding emotionally
- keeping your distance
If you are on the Attachment, or plus side, you may find yourself ~
- with an approach mindset
- demanding intimacy
- seeking to blend
- closing distances
3. Talk About This With Your Partner. It helps to know if your needs for autonomy & attachment are similar, complimentary or problematic. Talk together about what that center ZERO point might look like in your relationship.
4. Do your own personal work. Just because you’ve “caught” your partner does not mean you should give up becoming a more conscious, compassionate “best version” of who you have the potential to become. In fact, you owe it to your partner to keep up the good work. Not sure where to begin? Well – one place to start is with the very first posting in this relationship series with, Part of Me Wants.
5. Get Help If You’re Stuck. That’s what folks like me are for. As long as you can do this on your own, that’s fantastic. But a good therapist will help you figure out what needs to happen to help move you over any relationship stumbling block you may be encountering. This is tough stuff – give yourself a break!
So how did the marriage go?
It’s been 32 years since Mark and I tested our capacities for tolerating closeness and separation on our independent honeymoons. Looking back – since I’d not known about these issues nor created the Autonomy – Attachment scale back then – we figure Mark’s a +4 and I’m a -4, so we’ve had our fair share of bumping into one another’s preferred boundaries there.
We’ve achieved a close-enough to Zero balance for interdependence that we’re ever going to attain. We’ve loved and raised 2 children; started and folded companies and earned our living a variety of ways in a variety of countries; we’ve interwoven our lives with extended family and celebrated births, weddings and funerals; we lived with a variety of exchange students, long term house guests and animals; we take vacations together and apart; have overlapping and independent interests; and we work to never be boring – to ourselves or one another. That ever present juggling to foster each of our individual paths in the context of our marriage has become less and less an “either / or” feeling and more and more a both / and.
It’s a journey well worth the taking.
PS: A dear friend (thank you Stuart) who helps edit these posts wrote this:
“The journey to zero is not an easy one even when the desire for it is evident. It is a journey that requires a sense of “worthiness, authenticity and vulnerability” that can be elusive at times. It also requires intentionality – it doesn’t just happen.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
FIRST TIME HERE?
This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.”
If you’re interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.
SKILLS FOR UNDERSTANDING
SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”
SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.
- Report The News – Don’t Act it Out
- Happy Families
- Self Leadership
- When Does A Relationship Need Help?
SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity
- 5 Non verbal Cues You Need To Know
- How To Change Someone Else
- 2 Magic Ratios for Great relationships
- Is Understanding Overrated?
SKILLS FOR CONNECTING
SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation
- Five Conversations
- How To Never Be Boring
- The 5 Principles For Great Conversation
- The 7 Deadliest Fights & How To Fight Fair
SKILL FIVE ~ Learn How To Listen With Your Whole Self
- 5 Ways To Be A Better Listener
- Listening To Yourself
- Who’s Listening
- Beyond Emotion Coaching – Listening For Your Child’s Needs
SKILL SIX ~ Crack The Empathy Nut
- Thriving Through Tough Times
- Teaching Empathy to Adults
- Teaching Empathy to Children
- Living Empathically
SKILL SEVEN ~ Practice Kindness