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Independence & Dependence: Managing this relationship dance

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In my conversations with my clients, friends, and family, I often hear people say to me that they want to be completely independent. For many, it is an ideal goal as our society puts independence on a pedestal. And yet, as much as we strive, many of us fail to reach that ideal of being completely independent. Perhaps the challenge lies in the fact that the goal might be simply unattainable. Or if it is, it might come at a very high price.

First, let’s examine what we mean by ‘independent person’. Majority would describe it as being self-sufficient and not depending on others for any needs. Here lies a problem with the very biological and evolutionary nature of our being.

Human beings are social animals whose survival and well-being are highly dependent on support of others, so our cultural norm is in direct conflict with our genetic and biological predisposition. We are very much dependant on others.

Perhaps most of us achieve independence when it comes to our basic physical needs, but for our psychological, mental, and social needs we need relationships. And the quality of our relationships will determine whether those needs are met.

Individuals who move away from relationships towards full independence and isolation pay a very high price with their health. Research shows that social isolation has been linked not only to mental health problems but also to psychical ailments.

In a relationship, a person striving for isolation would look like someone who always has it together, not showing emotions or vulnerabilities. This person might be even surrounded by other people, but they do not feel like they can let their guard down and be authentic and vulnerable with others. This can leave the other person in a relationship feeling like there is an impenetrable wall between them and their partner. Both people feel lonely and isolated in that kind of a relationship.

The opposite of independence is dependence, and that word gets a pretty bad rep in our society. Dependence is perceived as weak, emotional, and fragile. It is only acceptable at a specific age. Babies for example are completely dependent on their parents for all their needs and as they grow that dependence subsides. And for many parents, the goal is for their children to be completely independent.

In a relationship, someone who has not fully developed their ability to regulate their emotions and understand personal and interpersonal boundaries might over rely on their partner. They could be perceived and labeled as too ‘dependent’. They might not be able to make decisions on their own or constantly need reassurance and attention of their partner. That kind of dynamic in a relationship can feel overwhelming for the partner that is left in ‘charge’ trying to take care of their own and their partner’s needs at the same time.

So if being independent is not a very realistic goal and being dependent is far from an adult ideal as well, what do we have left?

Interdependence is a word that has become more popular in our society, but that is often brought up to describe other cultures in the world. Perhaps interdependence might be a better fitting goal for our ideal.

Interdependence implies mutual reliance on one another for well-being. In an interdependent relationship both partners are able to share their vulnerabilities and concerns and each person takes turns to provide support and safety for another. Both parties are responsible for the quality of their relationship and they are both comfortable and accepting of the idea that their relationship has an impact on them and their physical and emotional health.

We can be more at peace and harmony with ourselves as we accept that we are never fully independent of others around us and recognize that our strength lies in the quality of our relationships and our ability to give support to others and to accept it in return.

To learn more about relationship dynamics, and to explore your relationship style, connect with Viktoria, one of the Vida Relationship's Counsellors.

Vida Relationships offers couples counselling, marriage and family therapy in Vancouver, BC.

By Viktoria Ivanova, Certified Canadian Counsellor & Psychotherapist.

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