Healthy Dependence in Relationships

What comes to mind when you hear the word “dependence”? Is it a clingy ex lover? Perhaps a family member? Dependence is a word attached to many concepts, but it is rarely associated with positivity. In our society where independence is highly valued, being seen as dependent on someone or something may be viewed in a negative light. However, from a therapeutic perspective dependence is something most every functioning individual experiences, and is actually key to forming healthy relationships.

What is Dependence?
What we understand as dependence is tied to a concept within the therapist community known as attachment. Attachment is a motivational force that urges us to seek out and maintain emotional and physical connection with others. The behavior of wanting to maintain those connections is what we call dependence. Dependence is the reliable need to feel connected to others. There is no such thing as complete independence of others, as humans are biologically social creatures who thrive in the presence of others.

Attachment and the dependence that comes with it offers us a secure base. When we are toddlers wanting to explore the world, we often see our mothers or fathers as secure bases. We take a few wobbly steps outside the room, looking back every so often to make sure dad is still there to run back to if we see something scary. We observe the same behaviors in adult romantic relationships. We use our significant other as a secure base, exploring our other passions and adventures such as careers, hobbies and travel, but rely on being able to come back to our partners to meet our emotional needs.

To give a working example; when something devastating happens such as a breakup, a death or a lost job, have you ever had the desire to go back to your childhood home, your parents, or something familiar and nostalgic? This is the desire to go back to a secure base; a place or person where you felt healthy dependence.

Difference between healthy/unhealthy dependence
The presence of dependence comes hand in hand with the fear of losing the emotional connections we establish. It is whether we let that fear cripple or motivate us that determines if our dependence is healthy or unhealthy.

Healthy dependence lies between two unhealthy extremes; avoidance and enmeshment. When our dependence on someone becomes too high our attachment becomes enmeshed, and when our dependence is too low our attachment becomes avoidant.

Example of Enmeshed Dependence
Tomaj never does anything without Jillian’s approval. He fears what she thinks of his decisions and tries to behave in accordance with what Jillian expects of him. Tomaj is often anxious about Jillian leaving him and believes he would not be able to live without her.

Example of Avoidant Dependence
Jennifer buries herself in work and hobbies. She leaves almost no time to spend with her girlfriend, Akida. The idea of sharing intimate feelings with Akida makes Jennifer uncomfortable and she gets upset when Akida tries to discuss problems with their relationship.

Example of Healthy Dependence
Lars and Sadie openly communicate about problems in their relationship. They communicate their expectations in the relationship and they both try their best to meet each other’s needs. Lars depends on Sadie to be supportive when he feels self-conscious and Sadie depends on Lars to actively listen and respond to her when she feels depressed.

Which of these dependent types do you identify with most? Is your relationship healthy or tipping toward enmeshment or avoidance? Chances are, there are some signs of enmeshment or avoidance. However, that doesn’t mean that your relationship is unsalvageable. It is uncommon that relationships default to healthy dependence. Therapy can help people come to understand each other better, and can make even the strongest relationships stronger.

If you want to learn more about how to foster a healthier relationship, please contact Life Enhancement Counseling Services today at 407-443-8862 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced mental health counselors.


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