A lot of times, when couples come in to see me, one or both of the partners will have the idea that a problem in the relationship is that one or both of the partners is too dependent on the other. Often, in this regard, the partners will use the term “co-dependence” which has come into the vernacular from addiction theory and become sort of a dirty word.
Partners have the idea that a strong person stands on his own two feet and does not need things from his partner, and that needing things is “weak”. Certainly, being able to stand on one’s own two feet is a good and important life skill that helps us in many arenas, and through many challenges, of life. However, the whole purpose of being in a relationship is actually to be able to lean on another person and not go through life alone. Through our adult relationships, we get our attachment needs (those that earlier in life were hopefully met by our parents) met. Thus, when we are scared. we can reach for reassurance, when we are hurt, we can reach for comfort, when we feel ashamed, we can reach for acceptance and validation.
When both partners feel secure in a relationship (and here I often put the tips of my fingers together to form an A-frame shape) and can lean into the relationship for support, then the structure of the relationship is strong. In fact, a lot of the work we do in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is to help partners learn to reach for what they need from their partner and respond to their partner’s reaches in kind.
And here we get to the crux of the matter. The truth is that relationship distress occurs when partners are too scared to reach for what they need from each other. Instead, they try to get their attachment needs met through indirect means that lead to confusion, arguing, pursuit and withdrawal, and distance, instead of the result they are hoping for. And, when there is distress in the relationship, it becomes even scarier to reach and lean in. In fact, it takes a whole lot of courage. It actually takes a lot more strength to learn to be interdependent with one’s partner than to stand separately on one’s own two feet. Personal strength in relationship leads to interdependence which leads to a stronger relationship. Independence, it turns out, is not all that it’s cracked up to be.