Interdependence and codependence are sometimes used interchangeably, but in fact, they are two drastically different human behaviors.
Interdependence is how much of society works. We rely on others for support and even for survival. How many of us rely on someone keeping the electricity or water on for us, or for supermarkets to stay in operation, or for schools to educate us and our families? How many rely on doctors and therapists for health? For people to build our roads, houses, and other infrastructure? This is how interdependence works. Within families, as well as any close relationship, we form a network that is most ideally suited to benefit our wellbeing and success (as well as survival). Kids, for example, don’t have fully developed brains until they are 18 years old, and it very often takes longer for them to establish financial independence and security. They rely on the support and education provided by their parents until they are able to function with a greater independence.
Interdependence also helps us grow emotionally, as part of a collective, while fulfilling our own needs. Partners in an interdependent romantic relationship work together equally, or take turns carrying the load, but each side brings its strengths and talents to make a stronger unit.
Codependence requires a big “on the other hand.” Codependence isn’t healthy.
In codependent relationships, both sides often are not equally balanced and they don’t benefit from what is brought into the relationship. Codependent people place their entire potential for happiness or success on their partner or family members. They can be spouses, lovers, parents, siblings, children, or friends. Codependent partners only seem to relate to others with obsessiveness, possessiveness, self-sacrifice that borders on martyrdom (usually accompanied with guilt), dysfunctional patterns of communication, and a desire to manipulate in order to assert control. Those who are in codependent relationships are frequently abusive, or they allow themselves to be submissive to abuse. Neediness unhappily runs after distancers and stonewallers. Passive aggression subversively attacks aggression. The cycle never seems to end.
Very often, people in codependent relationships either can’t handle or won’t allow for disagreement. They believe satisfaction can be found only when things go exactly their way and that their own needs are more important than the needs of those around them. They can feel responsible for their partner’s moods. They often blame partners or families for things not going their way because they’re unable to face their individual responsibility. There is usually a duality of insecurity battling ego. And there tends to be a lot of drama with codependent couples, and it’s not uncommon to hear such phrases as “I can never do anything right” and “Why are you always like this?”
Aside from the obvious reasons why codependence should not be mistaken for interdependence, “codependence” has become a catch-all term used by proponents and detractors alike for both co- and interdependence. Detractors misusing the term “codependent” will believe that even interdependence should be avoided, that—to borrow from Simon & Garfunkel—every person is a rock and an island. That independence and individualism should be valued above all. I suppose this may be true of hermits and great white sharks. But humans are a social species. Relationships can strengthen us as individuals, and an interdependent partner can both support and challenge a partner to be and do their best.
As I’ve established, interdependence works best when we improve ourselves first as individuals. Our progress improves the progress of the group, at least ideally. The goal of a healthy interdependence is to build up your own identity rather than losing that identity to a relationship or a group or mob. Interdependence requires accountability and responsibility of all its participants.
Are you caught in a pattern of codependence? Do you have a partner, friend or family member who is trying to control your life with their codependence? Individual counseling may illuminate harmful patterns and help you work toward a healthy interdependence in your relationships.
Erika Kao, PhD may be reached 858-472-8959 or visit drerikakao.com. CA Licensed Psychologist 20112
Disclaimer: In no manner does this column serve to diagnose or treat readers with any psychological disorders or imply a client-provider relationship between Dr. Kao and any reader. No such relationship exists until a client-provider agreement has been signed by client and provider.