The difference between codependency and interdependency in couples

Rick and Patti Sharga enjoying each other’s company after 28 years of marriage on their 2017 Maui summer getaway. Jacquelyn Sharga | Lariat

Healthy isn’t always what’s “normal” … 

The definition of a “healthy” relationship varies from couple to couple. Ideally, a relationship that is healthy is interdependent. A codependent relationship can become unhealthy fast, and is oftentimes hard to spot without an outside opinion or past experience. 

“There’re various aspects to a healthy relationship,” said Saddleback College’s chair of the Nutrition department Dr. Lori Hoolihan. “I think you need to have mutual respect for each other, very strong communication skills, and don’t demean each other. There always needs to be mutual respect, but also understanding and commitment.”

A codependent relationship directly counteracts any respect that could be present in a relationship. When a couple is codependent one partner needs the other partner, who, in turn, needs to be needed. This circular relationship is what experts refer to when they describe codependency as a cycle.

“Interdependency does mean that you’re dependent on each other, but not codependent,” Hoolihan said. “Codependency is where you’re dependent on the other person, and they’re actually enabling you to be dependent on them. So, one person needs to be dependent on the other and the other person needs them to be dependent on them, but it’s not an equal playing field.” 

This codependent enabling can be a subconscious behavior, but most times is a manipulation tactic that has been perfected by the manipulator. When a person is codependent on someone, it’s not necessarily their fault, but it’s a nasty habit that needs to be broken before it solidifies and becomes a way of life for them. Codependency on both sides can lead to a world of hurt for anyone that enters a codependent person’s life.

In codependent relationships there will always be an unspoken stagnancy between the pairing. In interdependent relationships, there are no underlying threats towards one another being allowed to grow as an individual, if anything, it’s encouraged. Being dependent on another person can actually be a good thing, as long as there is a balance to it.

“Interdependency is much more equal, where you’re equally dependent on each other,” Hoolihan said. “You don’t want to be overly dependent on anyone, but there’s nothing wrong with being dependent on someone for emotional support. Being in a mutually committed relationship makes you feel more secure and gives you more resilience to things like stress.”

An interdependent relationship is something that many people don’t know about until after much trial and error. In interdependent relationships there’s a mutual understanding and balance of self and each other. The individuals in the couple are still individuals, but can look to each other for emotional and mental support without the risk of infringing on each other’s personal experiences.

One of the downsides of being in a couple, and there are downsides, is that the people in those relationships are by default no longer seen as an individual. Once you get into a romantic relationship, your individual thoughts, feelings, opinions and life are looked at in a quizzical manner if not in direct association with your significant other.

This can be extremely frustrating considering you have been and always will be your own person, but there’s this societal mindset that says, “if you are not mentally, emotionally and physically linked to your significant other, then something is wrong with your relationship.” But how does this affect the people that crave independence while simultaneously seeking comfort within their interpersonal relationships?

It becomes less about who you are as an individual and more about who you are as a couple. Suddenly, that says all about your character. For some people, this is true, you don’t know their true colors until they are seen coexisting with another person, but for a lot of people this is not the case.

For the people that this scenario does not apply to, they feel that they do not have the time to be fake. So their “true colors” can be seen on display 24/7 in every relationship that they have, because romantic relationships aren’t the only relationships that exist in everyday life.

There’s familial, platonic, communal and, perhaps the most important relationship, the relationship you have with yourself. Most people consider themselves to be themselves in all of these relationships, so why is it that the only “me” that matters nowadays is the “me that’s in a romantic relationship” and not about the “me who I think is most important”? 

When you are in a publicly romantic relationship, it is no longer “hey, how are you?” Instead it becomes “hey, how are you and …” And this is fine, until it’s just not.

The talk about mental health is becoming more and more normalized each and every day, and that’s fantastic! We should be prioritizing and promoting the message of the “you put you first” mindset. The problem is that this message isn’t as strongly emphasized to the individuals who are in relationships, which can be very damaging to one’s mental health. 

“I think a lot of people lose their sense of self when they get into a relationship,” Hoolihan said. “They kind of tend to compromise too much and it’s really important to keep your sense of identity, because it can actually bring strength into the relationship, as long as the other person doesn’t feel intimidated. You have to be strong and resilient for yourself, even in a relationship.” 

Suddenly, individual choices feel like selfish choices, and that’s because we have been raised to think that codependency is okay, when it is absolutely not. The line between interdependence and codependency gets really blurry when you have what feels like 7 billion different opinions on what exactly a normal relationship is.

The truth of the matter is that “normal” differs from couple to couple, and more importantly, person to person. And if you don’t know what you think a healthy relationship should be, don’t worry, Google has about 75,000 answers for you.

Regardless of what you decide is healthy and normal for you, that is a decision that you need to make for you. Regardless of what the people around you are saying, you should always do what is best for you. Regardless of who you choose to be romantic with, you are always going to be more than just a couple.

“If you’re half of a person, you’re gonna attract another half of a person in order to make you whole,” Hoolihan said. “You have to go into a relationship being a whole person yourself, you have to be complete yourself, you have to be comfortable with yourself. Then you will attract another whole person.”

Just because someone is in a relationship does not mean that they no longer want to be their own person. People tend to look over the variables in a problem and focus on the sum, which in this case would be one person plus one person equals a relationship. The real problem in this equation is just how deeply this codependent mindset is instilled in us. 

Whether it be from movies, TV shows, music or our own parents, the codependent mindset has been passed down for generations. Codependency can oftentimes lead to an abusive and unsafe atmosphere within relationships. Having a healthy relationship doesn’t mean your relationship has to be perfect, but it does mean that abuse should never be a part of it.