Dependency paradox: Dependency allows for freedom

Feeling that independence is good and dependence is bad

When trying to define what makes one a healthy, well-adjusted adult, independence often comes to mind. An independent person conveys the idea of somebody who is self-sufficient and able to handle their problems on their own. The independent person has control over their life. A lack of independence would mean a lack of control over one’s life. When independence is defined as freedom, dependence is synonymous with loss of that freedom, thus loss of self. But does dependency really lead to a lack of freedom?

The notion of dependence to which I’m referring is in interpersonal relationships, both romantic and platonic. I’d like to focus on romantic relationships. It is a common belief of today that a dependence on a partner, emotional or otherwise, restricts the freedom of the dependent partner. Dependence evokes ideas of being controlled. Due to this idea, there is strong reservation to avoid any dependence on a partner, which yields more superficial relationships. However, is there another case to be made? Is it possible that dependence itself is not the opposite of freedom, but a precondition for it? Could our dependence on someone else allow for more freedom of exploration and a broader expression of self than independence would have allowed?

Tracing the source of negative viewpoints on dependency

Child development

Dependency is not just seen as a negative thing in adult relationships. It has also been viewed for decades as negative in child development. Allowing for an emotional dependence on a parent to overcome difficulty was seen as hindering a child’s ability to develop emotional resilience. In the 1940s, expert advice was against parental support of children in times of distress, specifically favoring allowing the child to self-soothe over relying on the support from a parent.

In the 1940s experts warned that “coddling” would result in needy and insecure children who would become emotionally unhealthy and maladjusted adults.

Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, Attached

What study of attachment theory started by John Bowlby discovered, however, was actually somewhat the opposite. Children who had received little to no emotional support in times of difficulty or inconsistent emotional support ended up developing deep fears of abandonment and difficulty in recovering from stressful scenarios. When they became distressed, the unsupported children had significantly more difficulty recovering after the stress had abated. The responses to stress varied, but the source of the recovery difficulty was the same: lack of a consistent support system from their parents.

Adult development

A similar concept has pervaded general advice on adult relationships. Specifically, there is a belief that adults with emotional dependencies on their partners are not “self-sufficient” and need to improve on handling their emotional difficulties on their own.

Today’s experts offer advice that goes something like this: Your happiness is something that should come from within and should not be dependent on your lover or mate. Your well-being is not their responsibility, and theirs is not yours.

Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, Attached

This idea of the necessity of self-sufficiency has also created a space where partners can be blamed for asking for support from their spouse, getting called “codependent”.

Adult attachment theory teaches us that Karen’s basic assumption, that she can and should control her emotional needs and soothe herself in the face of stress, is simply wrong.

Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, Attached

The same concerns that worried psychologists in the 40s regarding the development of emotional resilience in children continue to be applied to adult relationships. But is this idea accurate? Is it possible that dependence is actually required for resilience rather than an obstacle to it?

A different notion of dependence: it allows for a secure base

Attachment theory is based on the assertion that the need to be in a close relationship is embedded in our genes.

Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, Attached

In times of danger or distress, we rely on our emotional bonds with other people to calm ourselves and bring us back to a level of safety. This is called having a “secure base”. Knowing that we have a secure base via our bonds with others allows us to feel comfortable taking risks, as we know that we can return to the support system for reassurance if something goes wrong. Examples of this are calling a friend after a breakup, talking to parents after a bad day at work, and talking to a partner after dealing with a tough situation. The psyche’s ability to regulate our emotional bonds with others is called the “attachment system”. The field of attachment theory studies how the attachment system functions. The attachment system is “activated” when those emotional bonds are threatened. Depending on the person’s attachment “style”, the reactions caused by the attachment system vary. For those of an “anxious” attachment system, a threatening of attachment bonds causes a chronic state of “fight or flight”. Until they receive reassurance from their partner, the person experiencing an activated attachment system might be consumed with anxiety around the health of their relationship, thus restricting the person’s ability to explore the world.

The result of a functional secure base

If you go out into the world and take a risk, you know that you will be able to go to your partner if that risk does not work out. Because of support system, you are able to take bigger risks in the world, allowing for more freedom than was previously possible.

The result of a dysfunctional or nonexistent secure base

In the event of a threat (either a threat to the emotional bond or some other kind of difficulty), the lack of a secure base can result in an inability to return to a state of security. This can manifest as mental paralysis (for an anxiously attached partner) or as isolating behavior (for an avoidantly attached partner). This inability to return to a state of security inhibits further risk taking and exploration.

When complete independence is prioritized in a relationship, partners are deprived of the secure base that allows for confidence in risk taking.

The issue of codependence: over-dependence on a partner weakens oneself

What is life to do to this heap of half-battered existence which they call their communion and which they would gladly call their happiness, if it were possible, and their future? Thus each loses himself for the sake of the other and loses the other and many others that wanted still to come.

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

There is always the risk of too much dependence on a partner. When partners become too reliant on each other, each partner becomes more fragile. First off, the partner is going to have bad days. There are going to be times when they are not going to be in a space to provide support. In those times, the upset party needs to have others they can go to in order to heal. Trying to depend on a partner who is not in a place to provide support will cause more damage than good. When the relationship encounters issues, they risk jeopardizing the healing process by not giving themselves or their partner sufficient space. In the worst case scenario, one also needs to be protected from a potential break-up. Losing a committed partner is akin to losing a piece of yourself. You need other relationships in your life to help rebuild that piece. It is also valuable to have that support system so that you can evaluate your relationship objectively and from the perspective of other people. If you are in an unhealthy relationship, having a support network outside of the relationship can give you the courage to walk away.

People who have a supportive family, good relationships with friends or even a positive connection to religious groups, community groups, or similar organizations will generally tend to exhibit more resilience in the face of adversity.

Donald J. Robertson, Build Your Resilience

The true path to resilience is via having multiple people that can function as a support system in times of difficulty. Relying on a single person for all of your emotional support is unfair and unrealistic. Dependency on a partner can be beneficial to the depth and connection in a relationship, but it is important to maintain healthy emotional bonds with others that you can turn to in times of distress.

It is through communication, not intimacy avoidance, that solitude is protected

The highest task of a bond between two people: each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

There is immense value in dependency, but it requires balance. Through a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between independence, dependence, and love, we might be able to find a space for both freedom of expression and security.

Last modified on 2022-01-11