The Only Relationship Goal You Should Ever Have

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Everyone has heard of the term codependent, which describes couples who are enmeshed and have no boundaries; you can listen to a podcast episode about co-dependency here. One partner bases their life around keeping the other one happy or at least appeased, and they do not have separate and healthy selves.

Here are some examples. My post about The Man-Child And His Long Suffering Wife is a classic example of this; the wife lives to serve the man and to complain about doing so, and the man allows himself to wallow in the child role, and neither partner can be a whole and healthy adult.

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On the other end of the spectrum, most people have heard of emotionally avoidant partners, who have a pathological level of self-reliance. In this case, a partner is so focused on themselves, their career, their hobbies, and so forth that they cannot be intimate in a healthy way within a relationship. They deny their need for connection and express a lot of ambivalence about commitment. Here is an example.

However, what does healthy interdependence, the midpoint between these two extremes, look like within an intimate partnership?

Interdependence means that you both rely on one another while understanding and respecting that you are separate individuals. You need each other, emotionally, as well as romantically/sexually, as well as on a practical level (i.e., to help one another with housework, childcare, finances, and so forth). You love and respect one another for your individual contributions to the family/couple unit as well as your contributions to the world outside of your unit, like at work or as a friend or family member. Your self-esteem is partially predicated on the success of your relationship and the approval and love of your spouse, but there are many other factors affecting how you think of yourself, e.g., your role as a parent/adult child/sibling, your friendships, your hobbies, work, etc.

When you are interdependent with a teammate in sports, this does not mean that you both have the exact same job on the team. However, neither job is more or less valuable than the other. You support one other and acknowledge that both of you need to be on the team for the team to play effectively. It is no different in a relationship.

Let’s take the common work-outside-the-home man and stay-at-home-mom pairing. When the husband does not feel interdependent with the wife, and in fact feels that they are two entirely distinct entities and her contribution is less valuable than his (many men will not say this directly but will say things like, “Well, we could hire a nanny for the same things you do” or such comments), this is likely indicative of an emotionally avoidant worldview. The man will tend to be distancing and critical, like this. The wife, ironically, ends up feeling very codependent, like her self-esteem rides entirely on whether her husband approves of her parenting/homemaking, like this.

There are just as many relationships where the man is codependent and the woman is emotionally avoidant, like my post The Ice Queen and the Martyr. Or these couples. Here, the man feels his self-esteem is entirely based on his wife’s love and acceptance, and she finds him to be irritating and indicates implicitly that he is replaceable.

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Now, in a healthy relationship, despite your interdependence and mutual reliance on one another, if one of you were to leave or die, the other would not lay down and die.

It would be devastation, certainly, but you know in your core that you would survive. People who feel that they would not survive, or “would have a nervous breakdown,” “would need to move back in with my parents right away” or “would never trust men/women again” are codependent. And on the other extreme, some people can visualize a scenario where their spouse leaves them or dies, and they know they would be able to survive and would be back to work productively the following day or week. These people are emotionally avoidant.

Keep in mind that there are times when people naturally fall on different ends of this spectrum. Most pregnant/nursing women are going to feel more codependent because biologically they feel very vulnerable and dependent on the male’s protection for their and their offspring’s survival. If men can be extra available during this life stage, their wives will always remember it and will go back to a more independent style when this stage is over. When people lose a job or are grieving, or are depressed, they also feel more codependent and need more love.

On the other hand, when people are excited about a new job, or become more financially independent (e.g., a woman who was always financially dependent on her husband and now is working again), they may fall on the more emotionally avoidant end of their spectrum, because they are focusing on the other sides of their personality, not just partner, and are feeling confident. When kids leave home, many women also move more to emotional avoidance, at least compared to where they were before. Any big life transition may change the level of dependence in the relationship, and it may revert or it may not be based on the individual couple’s response to this change.

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Here are some examples of interdependence vs codependence vs emotional avoidance:

Interdependence: we text multiple times a day to see what’s going on or share something funny/cute.

Codependence: we text constantly and when one partner doesn’t check their phone for an hour, the other starts calling incessantly

Emotional avoidance: we never text or call (unless it’s not possible or neither likes communicating this way and they use other forms of communication)


Interdependence: When hosting a party or entertaining, each person has their own role, and each appreciates the other’s contribution.

Codependence: One person does everything and the other feels they would be unable to execute an event like this alone.

Emotional avoidance: Both argue over who does what and what the party will be like and who did more. (Note that a competitive marital dynamic is often related to at least one avoidant partner.)

And a last example:

Interdependence: Both partners initiate sex/affection at different times. Both are aware at least vaguely of how stress/hormones impact the drive of the other, and when your partner doesn’t want sex when you do, it is okay, even if you are disappointed. Sex feels close and connected, or at least doesn’t leave you feeling lonely.

Codependence: You cannot be rejected ever or you feel your partner doesn’t love you. Sex is used more for reassurance seeking than anything else.

Emotional avoidance: Only one person initiates and the other implies they cannot be bothered, even if they consent. Sex is mechanical (even if technically proficient), and there is no kissing, caressing, or talking. At least one partner may feel lonely during or after.

This is a great post to open up a discussion with your partner about healthy interdependence as a relationship goal. To summarize, emotionally avoidant people only want to be wanted, being needed or needing someone else makes them highly uncomfortable. Codependent people mainly want to be needed and needed in a very dramatic, survival-dependent way. Interdependent couples both want and need the other, but could survive without the other if they had to. Which style characterizes you? Your partner? Your relationship as a whole?

Go introspect about this, grasshopper, and till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says, Couples Counseling Can Promote Healthy Interdependence!

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Dr. Samantha Rodman Whiten, aka Dr. Psych Mom, is a clinical psychologist in private practice and the founder of DrPsychMom. She works with adults and couples in her group practice Best Life Behavioral Health.

This article was originally published at Dr. Psych Mom. Reprinted with permission from the author.