Growing up did you hear any advice like this?
“Don’t depend on others for your happiness.”
“If you want something done right, do it yourself.”
“You’ve got to learn to stand on your own two feet.”
Being independent is a source of pride for many of us. It’s woven into the fabric of our culture. When author Dr. Wayne Baker recently surveyed Americans about their values, he found over 85% said “they would rather depend on themselves than on others.”
But in relationships, too much independence brings trouble.
Understanding Different Types of Attachment
There’s a lot of confusion about the value of depending on each other. Many of us believe that if we need someone else emotionally, we are being overly dependent – even childish.
But what we really need is secure attachment. Some working definitions may help:
Secure attachment – a relationship in which we believe that the other person is going to come through for us, and believes that we are basically good; we think the same about them.
Insecure attachment – a relationship in which we feel unsure about our well- being at some level. We feel a bit anxious and afraid that we are going to be abandoned, mistreated or shamed.
In healthy relationships, we learn how to ask for what we need. But with insecure attachment, we learn mostly how NOT to ask for what we need.
Instead, we may learn to cope by trying to be really good, so we are never abandoned or shamed. We may seek frequent reassurance, and not trust that we are loved and wanted. Or, we may become avoidant or distant, so we never feel the paralyzing fear that we’re going to feel rejected and ashamed.
If we feel anxious about what happens when we try to connect with another person, we may hold back instead of being more open with our own thoughts and feelings, to avoid being misunderstood or feeling hurt. Over time, we may confuse avoidance for healthy emotional independence.
Knowing our Need for Connection Makes Us Stronger
It’s so important for all of us to acknowledge that we need other people.
It is in our nature to live in connection with other people on many different levels — from being recognized at the grocery store, to having friends that know us from a long way back, to enjoying family relationships where we’re accepted, to having an intimate partner.
“We are born to need each other,” says Dr. Sue Johnson, founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples. “The human brain is wired for close connection with a few irreplaceable others. Accepting your need for this special kind of emotional connection is not a sign of weakness, but maturity and strength.”
Accepting our need for emotional connection is interdependence — a foundation of attuned support that a healthy relationship is built on.
How a Healthy Sense of Self Develops in Relationships
We learn models for relating from important people in our lives — parents, siblings, and any extended family, and influential teachers or neighbors. Our interactions give us a sense of what being connected and attuned is about.
As we get to know others, they help us see and understand ourselves.
Seeing yourself in a relationship is a bit like traveling to a different culture. When someone else reflects on us, and lets us know how they see us, they may be looking through their own lens and biases. We can observe and react to that, and do some reflection to figure out what they saw in us, and why.
Looking at how others respond helps us build a complete picture of how we matter to others, and how we make a difference in the larger scheme of things. We gain a sense of self and self-worth, which begins in our family of origin, and develops as we move on to other relationships.
What Healthy Relationships Teach Us
Healthy relationships are warm and supportive. In them, we learn how to make our way as imperfect people living together. For example:
- Children may come to know themselves as whole, able to see their own strengths, differences and shortcomings.
- As parents, we may load fewer expectations or demands on our children out of our own anxieties or issues from our past. We can help children develop who they are, grow to know themselves, feel accepted for their own uniqueness, shortcomings and good points.
- We are able to speak for our feelings instead of exploding with them, when something goes wrong in a relationship. For example, if someone was irritable or tired and hurt us — we can share empathy and repair the hurt without getting angry or defensive.
- We can offer strong, supportive relationships to those around us.
We learn from secure attachment that our faults and failings are not all there is to us. Healthy relationships help us attune to others, and find acceptance and safety as we move through the world.
Even Imperfect Relationships Can Provide Strength and Healing
It’s very rare for a person to grow up in a family situation that is so sound that they have never experienced fear or rejection. Most adults come into relationships with wounds at some level, because that is the nature of growing up.
As people mature into their 20s and 30s, they begin to find and look back on those wounds and painful experiences. When they can take them to a supportive partner for compassion, their relationship can help heal those wounds. Turning to each other for understanding and healing also strengthens the relationship.
When a relationship is really strong, then partners can accept each other and all their imperfections — even in the dark ugly moments that we all have — and believe those are is not all there is. Our partner can stay with us until we come back to our saner minds. A healthy supportive partnership can even be part of the process that helps restore our own well being.
How Stronger Relationships Help Our Larger World
Not only do strong relationships help us adjust to new people and situations, it helps the world around us work better.
What happens, for example, if you have a fight with your spouse or partner in the morning, and then you go out driving? Maybe you’re more likely to blare your horn at somebody else on the road. Then they are more agitated when they go into work. There’s a chain reaction of how we move through the world.
But when we’re stronger within ourselves, and in our relationship, maybe we don’t experience the same response to the fight with our spouse — or we don’t fight at all. In an attuned relationship, we may more easily understand, for instance:
- Our partner is irritable because they are stressed about work.
- We see, deep down, why our partner is annoyed so we don’t take it personally.
- We use the opportunity to be soothing to our spouse or partner.
The Upward Spiral of Healthy Relationships
Learning how to be a strong support for each other, how to help each other feel calm, safe and wholly okay, is an upward spiral. It’s the reverse of what happens when relationships descend into patterns of anger, withdrawal and defensive arguing.
A healthy relationship doesn’t require perfect people, or those who are always at their best. It’s between people who feel safe being themselves together, warts and all. It’s about making repairs when things don’t go well, between couples and between parent and child.
Depending on a partner for emotional support takes trust. When you and your partner are vulnerable enough so you can know your emotional needs and help each other, both of your are being true to your interdependent nature. True intimacy grows. You find your relationship is a rewarding, safe haven for you both, and gives you more strength and faith in yourself as you find your way in the world.
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