Defining Healthy Dependence

Defining Healthy Dependence

In an attempt to understand and treat clients, therapists often use terms, such as codependent, toxic, narcissistic. These words then find their way into pop culture and, like a bad game of telephone, can lose their intended meaning or become distorted.

I’ve had clients come in, claiming that their spouse was a narcissist when after a few sessions we were able to uncover that their spouse was simply under-skilled at communicating empathy.

In another instance, a partner described their mate as bipolar when they were kind and cheery most of the time but struggled to be able to calm themselves down when feeling disconnected from the partner during conflict.

I’ve found people can have a difficult time accurately assessing what behaviors are healthy and unhealthy in their romantic relationships. In our highly individualistic culture, one word gets a particularly bad rap: dependency.


When is dependency healthy and when is it toxic?

Our need to depend on a romantic partner is related to the basic human need for safety and survival. So much so that our brains come prewired with a system that helps us make the best use of the caregivers we had. Some people have had very positive experiences growing up, depending effortlessly on family in a healthy way, while others have had to adjust and learn to become over- or under-reliant on others to feel safe in the world.

Partners depend on each other in many ways, i.e. financially or sharing childrearing responsibilities to name a few. However, most important to the long-term success of a couple is the ability to depend on each other emotionally. This means that both partners trust that the other will respond in a helpful way if the other is distressed.


Mutuality is a word that describes the perfect intersection of healthy independence and interdependence.  Couples who excel in this skill know what they need in a relationship, know how to broker it in a relational way, and also comfortably receive what they’ve asked for.

When there is a breakdown in any of the above-mentioned components, dependency can take a turn for the dark side. Additionally, in order to be able to operate within a state of mutuality, both members have to understand and accept that their partners will inevitably have a different perspective during conflicts — and that this is healthy and necessary.

Heathy vs. Unhealthy

If you’re feeling a little confused by these concepts, I have outlined some traits of couples who know how to depend on each other in a healthy way and of couples who do not. I once told a couple who was struggling to understand the concept of healthy interdependence, “you want to lean on each other — but not so hard either of you fall over.”

How healthy dependency manifests in a relationship:

  1. Balance of give and take. Each member brings different strengths and weaknesses to a relationship, but both people most of the time have a feeling that no one person is overly accommodating. Both members are able to ask for help when they need it. 
  2. Trust in working things out. For partners who trust each other, the relationship never feels threatened during times of conflict. When things get heated, feelings get talked about rather than acted out in anger. 
  3. Ability to say no. These couples aren’t afraid to say no to each other and take time apart for themselves. Each person is able to tolerate the feeling of being disappointed and the guilt of disappointing the other. 
  4. Feeling understood. When either member of the couple is in some form of emotional distress, the other knows how to interact with them in a way that supports them feeling better. Or they are curious and ask how they can help. These couples also understand the quirks of their partner and can accept them as part of a great whole.
  5. Having empathy and compassion. Partners who can simultaneously think about their own needs and desires as well as their partners are easily able to operate in mutuality. Too often one or both members find themselves unable to consider the other person’s perspective and become stuck.
  6. Fulfillment. These couples are able to enjoy time together as well as time apart, culminating in a feeling of fulfilment. It is common for these couples to have several activities/friendships outside of the relationship that bring them joy.
  7. Navigating from conflict to resolution or repair. How do couples find their way to a win/win situation during conflict? Both moving forward in a way that is in alignment to the agreement of mutuality and respect as governing virtues in the relationship. If they did or said anything out of anger during a conflict, they quickly apologize for any transgressions and try to modify behavior moving forward.

Several indicators also alert me when one or both members of a couple may be trying to depend on a partner in an unhealthy way or, conversely, may be engaging in unhealthy care taking behaviors.

How unhealthy dependency manifests in a relationship:

  1. Perpetual disappointment. Do you feel disappointed by your partner and how they respond to your feelings? I’m not talking about annoyances, like hair in the sink or piles of clothes on the floor, but rather harboring painful soul-killing feelings of not feeling seen or understood by a partner.
  2. Drained. When your partner expresses any kind of disappointment in your actions, you feel emotionally spent. As a distancing strategy from both feelings and intimacy, some partners respond with minimization or deflection if their partner expresses discontent with something they’ve done.
  3. Burnt out. Burnout is a sign of unhealthy caretaking behavior alongside the absence of having appropriate boundaries and being in touch with your own needs. Often times in couples, partners unconsciously show love in the way the want to be loved. When people take on problems without being asked and try to fix them, there is often an unconscious rescue fantasy in the caretaker. The person who caretakes often does so because it feels inherently tied to their value in the relationship.
  4. Identifying as a Type A overachiever. Some people become so proficient in taking care of themselves as a defense against the fear of potential disappointment of depending on another. On the surface, these individuals look very high-functioning, but if their drive to succeed is propelled by fear, they will often be left with feelings of loneliness and emptiness, even when desired career dreams have been achieved.
  5. Oversharing or keeping secrets. I see partners who, without even pausing to think about how what they are going to say will land on their partner, divulge some seriously traumatizing content or criticisms of their partner. Also, I have seen partners be overly obscure when relaying details about the interworking of their daily life — not even in an attempt to be deceptive but rather to not have to deal with the other person’s opinions, reactions, or needs.

If you are experiencing some or even all of the above-mentioned unhealthy examples in your relationship, likely some suboptimal childhood experiences have engrained unhealthy behaviors, beliefs, and fears around depending on a romantic partner. Even if you and your partner are engaging in unhealthy ways of relating, remember that you both can learn new ways of interacting that will allow for the healing of dysfunctional patterning created in childhood or previous relationships.

This is one of the things I love most about being a couple’s therapist: watching partners do better when they know better. Relationships can be remarkable vehicles for growth when properly guided. Interdependence is not only the most enjoyable way to relate, it is also a birth right.

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