Is dependency bad?

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Is dependency bad? - Mark Ettensohn, Psy.D. Sacramento Therapist

There seems to be a lot of confusion about dependency in relationships. Many of us live in a media culture saturated by messages that praise independence and self-sufficiency. In the US, one needn’t look much further than the local cineplex to see numerous representations of strident and aggressive protagonists standing solo against tremendous odds. Increasingly, ‘counter-dependence’ may be a more appropriate term to describe the extreme self-reliance idealized in many popular representations of what it means to be human.

This premium on self-sufficiency doesn’t do us any favors when it comes to being in healthy relationships. Many people don’t know how to depend on their significant others for support. They worry that dependency is a sign of weakness, or that their need for support will drive their loved one away. These fears prevent people from asking for the emotional care they need and increase the likelihood that mental health issues such as depression or anxiety will develop in times of increased stress.

Mutual Interdependency

When it comes to dependency in adult relationships, a middle-of-the-road approach is best. Experts use the term Mutual Interdependency to describe the give and take that characterizes healthy partnerships.

One way to understand mutual interdependency is to visualize an ecosystem. In nature, there is a balance between the organisms that share a space, such as a forest. The plants provide oxygen for animals to breath. Some provide food in the form of fruits or vegetables. Their roots hold the soil together to prevent erosion when it rains. Their leaves provide shade and help to shelter against weather. Meanwhile, the animals provide carbon dioxide for the plants. They help plants reproduce when they consume fruit or carry pollen to new locations. When they die, their bodies help fertilize the soil. Each organism has a place. Each gives and takes. Each one depends on other organisms for basic necessities, and each also gives to other organisms in kind. This is what it means to be mutually interdependent.

In nature, there is disruption of the ecosystem when one organism begins to take more than it gives. We can see this on a very large scale with human civilization. In fact, we are currently in the midst of a global extinction event that is the direct result of humans taking more than they give. The same idea applies to relationships. While there will be periods in any relationships when one person needs increased support and will take more than he or she gives, that situation is not sustainable in the long run. For the relationship to survive there must eventually be a trade-off. Otherwise, the person who is doing all of the giving will begin to feel depleted.

When it comes to relationships, dependency isn’t really a bad word. In fact, some dependency is absolutely necessary. The same goes for independence. We are each on our own path of growth and development. The key is to balance dependency with independence in such a way that both people feel supported while still having enough space to develop as individuals in the context of the relationship. As in nature, the ideal balance includes both giving and taking.

The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another”

– Thomas Merton

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