What does it mean to “need” others (and to be needed in return) the exact right amount? Even though I’m a therapist myself, I’ve struggled with this in my own relationships. When I was younger, I sometimes relied on my romantic relationships for validation and sense of self, and was often crushed when I didn’t feel supported enough. Now, I’m in a different place: I’m married with two kids, and although my partner improves my life immensely, and I want his support and care, I often struggle with telling him that I “need” him.
What is a healthy relationship, when it comes to needing and being needed? Collectively, we seem to not know the answer. The Internet is filled with relationship quizzes promising to answer the question, “Am I codependent?” and also snappy lists that claim they can diagnose us or our partners as the opposite. We may receive so many messages about being emotionally needy, or not needy enough, that we begin to consider therapy for codependency or relationship issues, or wonder if we are “too much” or “not enough” for our loved ones.
As human beings, we love to put everything into neat, tidy categories. We can do the same thing when we try to understand our own relational tendencies. If we feel like we take on other people’s needs too much, we may be quick to label ourselves as codependent, and if we avoid relying on other people at all, we may be labeled by others as a plethora of things (emotionally unavailable, too aloof, avoidant, etc.).
Generally speaking, both of these extremes– codependency or counterdependency, for lack of a better term– involve a lack of clarity around who owns whose needs. A more independent person might fear being shouldered with needs that aren’t their own: it may feel like too much pressure or too much risk of failure. They also may not want to burden other people with their own needs, especially if they pride themselves on being self reliant. A more dependent person (since codependency is a clinical term, and likely doesn’t apply to everyone who tends more towards “dependency” in relationships) might not know how to meet their own needs as easily, and so they may try to turn to others to soothe them in ways that may exceed a healthy relationship. They may also feel more comfortable trying to take care of others rather than looking after themselves, and so they may gravitate to taking on more of other people’s “stuff” than is ideal for them.
However, there may be an alternative, middle path between them: interdependence. In healthier relationships, there is a clear distinction between what’s “mine” and “yours.” Each person has their own, separate identity, core beliefs, and often, other personal needs they know are theirs alone to fulfill (including needs for purpose, meaning, and self-care). Simultaneously, they are able to turn towards other people, offer support, and be supported in return.
While they don’t expect their relationship to meet their core needs (or expect themselves to meet their loved one’s every need), they are able and willing to meet different relational needs that come up, when appropriate, because they are an active participant in their relationship. In other words, they know that they are responsible for a part of their relationship, and they also know that they are responsible for themselves.
A synonym of interdependence is reciprocity. When we are interdependent, we are able to show up for those we love, and we choose to have people in our lives who we know we can trust to show up for us. For some of us, depending on how we grew up, it can feel uncomfortable to rely on other people. We also live in a country that prizes independence. However, when we look at the big picture, there’s no denying that we need connection with and support from each other. Many aspects of our lives are interwoven with other people’s: someone else bakes our bread, we care for someone else’s children, we read and watch and listen to stories someone else has told. All of these small give-and-takes enrich our lives.
Our relationships with the people closest to us are no different. We all bring something to the table to be shared, and also have parts of our lives that are not shared. There is no shame in depending on others, and there is also real joy in knowing how to depend on yourself. We need both skill sets for our relationships to truly thrive.
I may never stop learning the art of interdependence. In my friendships and romantic relationship, I still sometimes wonder if I am “too much” or “too little.” But I know that my dual practices of being accountable to myself and meeting my own needs, and also vulnerable with others and receptive to their needs, are what keep me moving forward on the path of balance and interdependence.