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  • Fiona Owen

Co-dependency or Interdependency

What makes a healthy intimate relationship?

What makes a healthy relationship is such an important question and there are many facets to exploring the answer to this. Identifying co-dependency and moving to a healthier interdependency is one part of improving the balance of the relationship and enabling healthier functioning for each partner.

In order for a couple to have a good relationship with each other, they also need to have a healthy relationship with themselves. Trust, respect, honesty and kindness are important for a relationship to function well. If one or both individuals in the partnership do not have these then often the relationship is based on need of the other to complete themselves. This need begins to consume the other and the relationship is no longer one based on wanting to be with the other but one of need.


Co-dependents have low self-esteem and look for something outside of themselves to make them feel better. They find it hard to “be themselves.” Some try to feel better through alcohol, drugs or nicotine - and become addicted. Others may develop compulsive behaviours like being a workaholic, gambling, or indiscriminate sexual activity. Still others form co-dependent partner relationships. Some people will display a number of these behaviours.

Co-dependants are not malicious. They try to take care of a person who is experiencing difficulty, but the caretaking becomes compulsive and defeating. Co-dependents often take on a martyr’s role and become “benefactors” to an individual in need.

The problem is that these repeated rescue attempts allow the needy individual to continue on a destructive course and to become even more dependent on the unhealthy caretaking of the “benefactor.” As this reliance increases, the co-dependent develops a sense of reward and satisfaction from “being needed.” When the caretaking becomes compulsive, the co-dependent feels they have no choice and feel helpless in the relationship, but is unable to break away from the cycle of behaviour that causes it. Co-dependents view themselves as victims. The problem is a loose / loose for each partner. The dependent is enabled to remain dependant and become more dependent. The co-dependent in being the martyr becomes disillusioned and resentful. The situation often feels exhausting and both partners feel trapped.

Awareness is the beginning of change, as no one will behave differently until they can see that the current behaviour is not serving either themselves or anyone else well.

Co-dependency is usually rooted in a person’s childhood and treatment often involves exploration into early childhood issues and their relationship to current destructive behaviour patterns. Treatment includes education, individual and group therapy through which co-dependents rediscover themselves and identify self-defeating behaviour patterns. Treatment also focuses on helping clients getting in touch with feelings that have been buried during childhood and on reconstructing family dynamics. The goal is to allow them to experience their full range of feelings again.


With interdependency each person is involved in the other person's life without sacrificing their own values. If you feel that you are always putting your partner's needs ahead of your own or vice versa, the relationship may be out of balance or not truly interdependent. The first step toward overcoming this is communication. Couples can discuss how each person is feeling and figure out how to adjust in order for decisions to be made together that take the needs of both into account.

Relationships often involve compromise, and there is a distinction between comprising and dependency. There may be times when one person in a relationship makes a sacrifice. For example, if one partner gets a job that is a great opportunity but involves moving to another city, the other person may also move. In an interdependent relationship, the partner with a new job will likely reciprocate, making a sacrifice for the other person. Compromising can help a couple achieve a balance between the needs of both parties, as long as one person doesn’t consistently neglect their own needs. It is also helpful to focus on the gains provided by the relationship instead of focusing solely on the cost.

One way of ensuring that your relationship is on the road to interdependence is to maintain your own identity as an individual as well as a couple. People in interdependent relationships recognize the importance of keeping their identity outside of marriage and feel confident expressing their opinions while still being sensitive to the other person. You maintain your identity through work, friendships or involvement in activities that you engage in independently. In order to avoid becoming disconnected from your partner, balance your independence with time spent together on activities you both enjoy.

Interdependent relationships require effort, nurturing and healthy boundaries. Gaining awareness of your own needs and goals is an important step toward reciprocity in relationships. Making a conscious decision to compromise or make a sacrifice for another person can be a positive thing as long as it doesn’t undermine an individual’s sense of self and well-being. Interdependence means finding acceptance within oneself and then welcoming additional support from external sources. Achieving interdependence as a couple will take effort and compassion, but will lead to healthy and satisfying long-term relationships in the future. Remembering to keep investing in the relationship is also a very important part of ensuring a healthy relationship can be sustained over time.

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