Why Healthy Relationships Are Based On Interdependence Vs. Codependency

There's a big difference between these two relationship dynamics ... Huge.

Why Healthy Relationships Are Based On Interdependence Vs. Codependency Getty

By Lauren Vinopal

The notion of having a “better half” is as problematic as it is widespread.

Having a romantic partnership in which one person is responsible for the other’s ability to reach their full potential suggests that individuals can’t effectively achieve their goals without a warm body sleeping next to them.

This definition of the better half is a recipe for codependency in relationships — where one partner sacrifices all for, and ends up defined by, their relationship.


Instead, social scientists push couples to aim for mutual interdependence, meaning no one is beholden to the other for their goals, but both help the other achieve them.

What is interdependence vs. codependency in relationships?

According to the most simple of definitions, interdependence means "the state of being dependent upon one another: ;mutual dependence."

Experts have come up with their own neat-and-tidy term for it — the Michelangelo phenomenon, whereby partners don’t create greatness out of nothing, but help sculpt what’s already there, supporting "each other’s efforts toward achieving personally desired goals and particularly toward attaining an ideal self."


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And that’s how a partner can bring out the best in you — no sacrifice necessary.

“Michelangelo created sculptures from stone, but felt that it was important not to impose his perspective on the stone,” Marisa Cohen, a psychology professor and relationship coach, tells Fatherly. “To tie this to relationships, your partner shouldn’t define you, but allow you to reveal yourself. While working together in an interdependent manner, one partner is allowing the other to become their ideal self and supporting them along the way."

The Michelangelo effect stems from the theory of interdependence in psychology, which states that all relationships are a mutual exchange and costs and benefits.


The best relationships are associated with greater gains and the worst relationships with substantial losses.

When both individuals make comparable sacrifices for the sake of the other, partnered people give themselves somewhat of an edge over singles.

Research shows that people who report higher levels of relationship satisfaction are more likely to meet the goals they set, and other studies indicate that having a conscientious spouse predicts career success.

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While interdependence sounds a lot like codependency on the surface, the two have essential differences.


Interdependent relationships enable individual growth through balance, whereas codependent relationships hinder it with a lack thereof.

For instance, if someone wants to start a business and they’re in a codependent marriage, they’ll likely be too exhausted by the demands of their spouse and the level of stress in their relationship to even entertain the idea, let alone execute it or succeed at it.

But in a healthy, interdependent relationship, a person would have the support of their spouse to help achieve this goal, and that support would later be reciprocated to help the other reach their own potential.

Interdependence is basically what psychologists mean when they talk about being a good teammate — those whose team scores the most are also good at making assists.


The differences between codependency and interdependency come down to relationship satisfaction, relationship affirmation, and secure attachment, Weltfreid says.

If couples are generally happy within their relationships and one is not terrified of the other leaving (or always standing with one foot partly out the door themselves), interdependence becomes increasingly more likely.

Security in relationships takes time to build, which suggests that the Michelangelo phenomenon may be more powerful in long-term relationships.


Still, since the effect is driven by variables that fluctuate, such as relationship satisfaction and partner affirmation, it takes work to maintain over time.

So, it’s not as simple as saying that a good spouse makes someone better. They have to reciprocate in order for Michelangelo to show up.

“In healthy interdependent relationships, both partners are able to maintain their autonomy while also depending on one another for care, support, and nurturance of their aspirations,” Weltfreid says.

“The Michelangelo phenomenon occurs when partners influence one another in the direction of their ideal selves.”

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Lauren Vinopal is a writer who focuses on relationships, dating, and love. For more of her relationship content, visit her author profile on Fatherly.