The Difference Between Codependence and Interdependence

Darlene Lancer LMFT

The Difference Between Codependence and Interdependence

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Codependent couple, wrists bound but can't leaveLeonid/Adobe

Pandemics demonstrate how we’re all interconnected. I love that the Internet allows us to connect one-to-one all over the planet. We’re all interconnected. But are you codependent or interdependent?

We're All Interconnected

Society is highly specialized and interdependent so that few of us would know how to survive without running water, electricity, and a supermarket. We’re also dependent upon our personal relationships. Human brains aren't fully developed for 18 years, and psychological and financial independence from our parents takes even longer. Moreover, as adults, we depend upon others to fill sexual, social, and emotional needs, such as friendship, communication, nurturing, appreciation, learning, love, and touch. The closer a relationship, the more we're interconnected.

The Debate

Many believe that because we’re wired for dependency and that“codependency” is normal and shouldn’t be considered a problem to correct. They claim it’s not only natural, but healthy and beneficial to be dependent upon an intimate relationship. They blame the codependency movement for breaking up marriages and people’s loneliness. I agree that we all have dependency needs and that healthy relationships can meet those needs and greatly benefit us.

However, codependency’s detractors don’t understand – probably from lack of personal experience – that codependents don’t reap those relationship benefits. Often they’re in unhealthy relationships, and they relate to others in unhealthy ways with patterns of obsession, self-sacrifice, dysfunctional communication, and control, which are both self-destructive and hurtful to others. They’re often abusive or allow themselves to be abused.

Codependent Couples

As explained in Codependency for Dummies, codependent couples are usually out-of-balance. Frequently, there are struggles for power and control. There may be an imbalance of power or one partner has taken on responsibilities for the other. They’re anxious, resentful, and feel guilty and responsible for their partner’s needs, feelings and moods, and even at times, behavior. Then they try to control one another to feel okay and get their own needs met. Rather than respect each other’s separateness and individuality, they can’t tolerate disagreement and appease or blame one another without taking responsibility for themselves. Often, what they dislike in their partner is the very thing they can't accept in themselves.

Despite their pain, they can feel trapped in the relationship because they fear that they can't function on their own. Some codependent marriages are cooperative and not abusive. Generally, one or both spouses are tip-toeing around the other. There's no drama, but no passion either, because real intimacy is sacrificed. Their mutual codependency and insecurity make intimacy threatening, since being honest and known risks rejection or dissolution of their fragile self.

Like Aspen trees, on the surface each partner may appear to be physically and even mentally and emotionally independent, yet, at an unconscious level, they're two insecure adults dependent upon each other to express a whole. For instance, a woman who has trouble expressing anger marries an angry man who expresses it for her. Or a man who is extremely closed and shy marries a woman who’s emotionally open and gregarious. They need each other to express their full humanity.

In other cases, it’s more obvious that one partner needs the other for emotional stability, as in the case of alcoholic relationships. Financial dependence doesn’t necessarily create codependence, where the dependent partner has good self-esteem and emotional support outside the marriage.  Even spouses who appear more capable and stronger may be equally dependent on the relationship. They need someone to care for in order to feel needed, worthwhile, and not alone, while their other partner feels valued by receiving. Successful narcissists can be very dependent. They need someone to adore and look up to them.

Interdependent Couples

What makes interconnections healthy is interdependency – not codependency.  Paradoxically, interdependency requires two people capable of autonomy – the ability to function independently. When couples love each other, it’s normal to feel attached, desire closeness, be concerned for one another, and to depend upon each other. Their lives are intertwined, and they’re affected by and need each other.

However, they share power equally and take responsibility for their own feelings, actions, and contribution to the relationship. Because they have self-esteem and healthy boundaries, they can manage their thoughts and feelings on their own and don’t have to control someone else to feel okay. They can allow for each others’ differences and honor one another’s separateness. Thus, they’re not afraid to be honest and can listen to their partner’s feelings and needs without feeling guilty or becoming defensive.  Since their self-esteem doesn’t depend upon their partner, they don’t fear intimacy, and independence doesn’t threaten the relationship. In fact, the relationship gives them more freedom. There’s mutual respect and support for one another’s personal goals, but both are committed to the relationship.

Codependency for Dummies, 2nd ed. (2015) John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Hoboken, N.J.

Irwin, H. J. (1995) Codependence, Narcissism, and Childhood Trauma. Journal of Clinical Psychology 51:5.

© Darlene Lancer 2012

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Darlene Lancer is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and expert author on relationships, narcissism, and codependency. She’s counseled individuals and couples for over 30 years and coaches internationally. Her books include "Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You," "Dealing with a Narcissist," and "Codependency for Dummies," plus six ebooks, webinars, and other resource materials. Her books are available on Amazon, other online booksellers and her website, www.whatiscodependency.com, where you can get a free copy of “14 Tips for Letting Go.”

Los Angeles, CA
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