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Dependence vs. Autonomy in Relationships: What’s Ideal?

Healthy unions require acting for both what’s personally and mutually helpful.

Key points

  • Finding a balance between depending on your partner and standing on your own can be a struggle.
  • Healthy dependency involves a willingness to be vulnerable, admit flaws, and explore a partner's perspective.
  • Healthy independence means that both partners are free to address their needs and goals as individuals.
Toa Heftiba/Unsplash
Source: Toa Heftiba/Unsplash

Generally, what’s ideal in close relationships is balancing each party’s different needs. So what we ought to strive for is equalizing our innate desire for both dependency and its complementary opposite, autonomy. And not just for practical survival but also for our ultimate happiness and fulfillment.

As part of a vast human community, we’re at once individual and social creatures. So for our mutual welfare, we should keep a certain distance apart, even when we join together in an intimate relationship,

To clarify this imperative, I’ll begin with some standard definitions:

In his pioneering The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1989), Stephen Covey writes about relational dependence (which has also been labeled co-dependence) as one-sided. On the contrary, he discusses interdependence as shared, and this carefully qualified dependency is what he believes two people, especially in the context of an intimate relationship, should aim for. Here each party focuses not only on realizing the full potential of the relationship but, individually, on actualizing their (singular) life purpose.

Bringing these two disparate but reconcilable goals into harmony is the challenge all couples face. And if they’re unable to accomplish this balancing act, it’s almost guaranteed that, if they remain a couple at all, troublesome conflicts between them will prevail.

Overdoing it: The relationship costs of excessive dependence or independence

Whenever a positive trait is prefixed by “over-” or “overly,” it indicates that the way it manifests is overblown, and consequently negative. What could be favorable and productive has become damaging and counter-productive.

Unhealthy dependency

When you’re too dependent on your partner, you’re all too willing to change yourself to suit their preferences. I’ve worked with people who, to avoid antagonizing a partner, literally lost their identity. At times, it does make sense to defer to or accommodate your significant other. But when you end up disowning that which is intrinsic to your personality out of fear that asserting yourself will endanger the relationship, this trade-off will likely hurt you—not to mention leaving you angry, anxious, or depressed.

If you desperately need to be needed by another, you’ll make your own needs secondary or put them indefinitely on hold. And you’ll think twice about asking for what you want for fear you’ll be negatively judged for proclaiming your desire.

Healthy unions require you not just to act for the good of the relationship but for your own good, too. The tension between these two priorities is more or less inevitable, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing so long as the more dependent party can courageously step up and risk offending their partner. Otherwise, they’re likely to end up feeling manipulated, exploited, and bullied—especially if they’ve committed themselves to a self-absorbed narcissist.

What’s most paradoxical about over-dependency is that the person “on the bottom” is in some ways also “on the top.” And by taking more responsibility for their mate’s welfare than their own, they’re definable as classically co-dependent—comparable to an alcoholic’s wife unwittingly “enabling” their spouse’s drinking by making excuses for them.

Ironically, such hyper-solicitude can make their partner feel smothered by their “needy love” and, to regain their freedom, may prompt them to desert their overly dependent spouse altogether.

On the contrary, the excessively dependent individual (who could be male as well as female) can be overly demanding. For the sake of relational security, they may require constant assurance that their partner approves of them, which can also place undue strain on the relationship.

Unhealthy independence

The dependent person’s compelling need to be needed, so as to feel valued, is personally and interpersonally dysfunctional. But when the need isn’t over-the-top, it’s adaptive because it’s a prerequisite for intimacy. Yet if the dependent person is with someone who’s unhealthily independent, that individual may be so intent on doing everything for themself that it throws the relationship off-balance. For one thing, it seriously undermines the possibilities for a giving, heartfelt connection between the two.

In the book Attached (2010), A. Levine and R. Heller emphatically state:

Depending on others is part of our genetic makeup, and although our practical dependence on others diminishes as we become adults with more self-reliance, our emotional dependence on loved ones remains strong.

A seemingly contradictory element here is that the independent partner would appear to be psychologically stronger than their more dependent counterpart. But inasmuch as depending on one’s partner requires the courage to make oneself more relationally vulnerable, the dependency-resistant, over-autonomous partner may betray a certain frailty in their independence.

Subconsciously, they may be afraid that they can’t maintain their individuality if they let themselves depend more on their partner, acknowledge their weaknesses, or admit a comparative lack of knowledge.

Moreover, this same fear may not permit them to accept their partner’s influence. And what, relationally speaking, is ideal for both partners is to possess a growth mindset, to be receptive to their mate’s varying beliefs, ideas, and behaviors. And, too, if they’re intent on defending or denying their vulnerability, their sympathetic understanding and compassion for their partner’s feelings will remain stifled and rudimentary.

Dependent or independent: Handled cautiously, both are auspicious for relationships

In contemporary American culture—more competitive than cooperative—proactive, ambitious individualism is applauded whereas passivity is typically frowned upon, and dependency has taken on a variety of negative connotations. As currently employed, it suggests weakness, inadequacy, immaturity, mindless conformity, and even a lack of character.

Healthy dependency. Yet dependency in a relational context can be comprehended as allowing yourself—or daring—to be vulnerable with your significant other. That means opening up to them to reveal your most private misgivings, sorrows, doubts, and fears. And as I and others (most memorably, Brené Brown) have noted, such an honest, candid admission takes more courage than most people recognize.

The willingness to confide in your partner—despite the possibility that such disclosure could be weaponized against you—is crucial because true intimacy requires a lot more than the gratification of sexual appetites. Here, to make your connection with your partner more meaningful by being deeply “known” by them, you expose your fragilities rather than concealing them.

After all, if a relationship is to be as trusting, solid, and satisfying as possible, it can’t be limited to sharing merely what’s mundane or commonplace, to what you could comfortably share with a grocery clerk. And done with tact and sensitivity, and with respect and appreciation for what your partner can tolerate, such intimate disclosures usually augment the all-important elements of understanding and compassion between you.

Moreover, the willingness to admit personal flaws is an open invitation for your partner to do likewise. And that can lead to both of you experiencing a familiarity and freedom not characterizing your other relationships.

Finally, enacting the right kind of relational dependency enables you to welcome and be responsive to (versus threatened by) your partner’s varying viewpoint on issues relevant to each of you. In an appropriately dependent relationship, both partners grow and evolve together without—for the sake of the relationship—feeling any need to forfeit their viewpoint. And unquestionably it’s to their mutual developmental advantage to be influenced by their partner’s ideas, which they might then come to view as valid and useful.

Healthy independence. Partners need to feel they can rely on each other to respond compassionately when they turn to them for understanding and support. But in happy relationships, they also need to stand on their own two feet. This is where safeguarding a substantial part of your pre-commitment independence is crucial if you’re to hold on to yourself, even as you give yourself permission to depend on your partner to address your fundamental dependency needs.

Feeling controlled by your partner, or subordinate and constrained by them, inevitably culminates in frustration and resentment. So if your union is to be balanced, if you’re to experience your relationship importance as equal to theirs, feeling acceptably independent from them is essential.

The freedom to pursue your particular hopes and dreams shouldn’t be obstructed by being in a so-called “intimate” relationship. Keeping faith with this aspiration is pivotal if your self-confidence and self-respect aren't to erode. Healthy relationships, therefore, offer both parties the liberty to move in directions that the other person may not share but, lovingly, is willing to endorse.

To conclude, whether one is overly dependent or independent, too much of a good thing ceases to be a virtue. But if all a relationship’s positive attributes are in equilibrium, the sum may well be greater than its parts.

© 2022 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.


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