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Healthy Dependency in Relationships

We all want it. We want to be healthy. We want to be in relationships. We recognize that to be in a relationship creates some degree of dependency. Despite this desire, many of us have no idea how to create healthy dependency in our relationships. This is about making healthy dependency in relationships possible.

The Need for Dependency

Before we can speak about how to reach a healthy dependency, we must first recognize why dependency is required. We are all born dependent. In fact, humans are the least developed mammal at birth. We’ll require more care and support than any other mammal and much more time.

In our adolescence, we begin to assert our independence. (For more, see Erikson’s stages in Childhood and Society.) We begin to embrace the ideas that the West was won by the lone cowboy on his trusty steed and his reliable rifle. This myth of the American Western is simple fiction. The West was won by wagon trains, and it is where the phrase “circle the wagons” comes from. At some point during our development, we realize that we need our parents. Maybe it’s when we wreck our car or when we see the first bill from college, but we decide once again that other people can be helpful to us.

This is the phase when we can become interdependent on one another. We can start to work in ways that are mutually beneficial. With parents, that may be harder; but with our peers, we can look for ways to work together rather than always competing. Instead of seeing everyone as a competitor, we can begin to work together for everyone’s best interest. See The Science of Trust for the Nash equilibrium, which explains how working towards everyone’s best interests benefits us, too. (See also The Evolution of Cooperation for more on the mathematics behind interdependence and cooperation, and Adam Grant’s Give and Take for how being generous results in better outcomes in the end.)

For more on the progression of dependent to independent and finally to interdependence, see The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

Relationships are Dependency

Though it’s not obvious, every relationship we’re in is a form of dependency. We’re dependent on the other person in the relationship – even if it’s just to be a sympathetic ear. That isn’t to say that the relationship needs to be deep or that every relationship creates a great deal of dependency, but those relationships that are more interdependent are those relationships that really matter.

We’re more effective when we can have many interdependent relationships. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on the need to get emotional support from multiple people and places.)

Speaking Truth to Power

Once we realize that we need to be dependent, we must work our way towards understanding the difference between dysfunctional dependency and healthy dependency. The litmus test – for me – for healthy dependency is the ability to speak truth (in love) to those who we’ve given power over us – that is, those with whom we’re in a relationship. Let me unpack that.

There’s an inherent power balance in relationships. In healthy relationships, that power is ever-changing, ebbing and flowing from one person to the other. For the person in power, they enable healthy relationships by holding their power in service of the other. (See Humilitas for this as a definition of humility.) For the person who is momentarily out of power, the ability to speak truth with love is the best assessment of health of the relationship.

Speaking truth to power is an active of courage. The person with power can, of course, harm the person of lesser power, and therefore it’s a risky thing to speak truth to them. (See Find Your Courage for more on how courage overcomes fear.)

The person of power can choose to become angry and stop supporting the person with less power. (See Choice Theory for choosing our emotions, and Emotion and Adaptation for how our emotions are formed.) According to Eastern philosophy, anger is disappointment directed. (See A Force for Good for more.) Anger is, then, some prediction we’ve made about someone’s behavior that didn’t come to pass. We expected them to behave one way, and they actually behaved in a different, disappointing way. We are prediction machines – it’s a fundamental aspect of our consciousness. (See Mindreading and The Body Keeps Score for more.)

So, others may be angry because they predict a different behavior from us (likely compliance), and when we speak our truth, they must accept that their prediction was bad and what they’re going to do about it. As Inside Jokes explains, we laugh at a joke, because we recognize that the prediction engine has failed in a small way and discovering and correcting for the missed prediction, we get a small reward.

The challenge for the person who has more power is to listen without choosing anger. The challenge for the person with less power is to summon the courage to speak the truth in a way that the other person can recognize the concern and relationship. (For more on relationships, see The Dance of Connection.)

Wholehearted Authenticity

The words for this are different. Brene Brown tends to use “wholehearted people” or “authentic people.” (See Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection.) Most of the time, I speak of stable core or integrated self-image. (See Braving the Wilderness, Rising Strong, and Beyond Boundaries.) Though the language is different, the intent and concept are not. Wholehearted people are authentic. They know who they are and who they are not. They’re tolerant of others’ perspectives, views, and values while maintaining their own.

I’d love to give you a direct path towards the kind of wholehearted authenticity that makes it easier to have healthy relationships and healthy dependency – but I don’t have a straight path to offer. I can start you with my post, How to Be Yourself, and share that, in Daring Greatly, Brene Brown explains that the most wholehearted people she knows are also vulnerable. (See more on vulnerability, see Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited.) One factor that helps in becoming authentic is being clear on who you are.

Creating Clarity

For most people, the Industrial Revolution is about steam engines and the power that they brought to work. With greater power, greater achievements were possible. While this is certainly true, it’s not the only driver for the dramatic increase in productivity. The other key factor was standardization. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, everything was crafted and therefore not standardized. With the advent of machinery, it became both possible and more essential to maintain standards. Bolts needed to be exactly the same size so that they could be replaced. We needed the consistency, and that came from clarity. Clarity in what a bolt and other parts should be – exactly – allowed for mass production, replication, replacement, and ultimately productivity.

In our own lives, clarity isn’t as easy. One tool that we can use to get clearer about ourselves is boundaries.

Boundaries for Me

Henry Cloud and John Townsend wrote Boundaries, and John Townsend followed up with Beyond Boundaries. These two works encourage us to define what is “us” and “not us.” Too often, boundaries are confused. People say, “You can’t do that to me,” but the truth is that boundaries are about us – what we will do and what we’ll allow – not other people. The boundary may be “If you smoke, then I’m going to leave. I refuse to be in the presence of cigarette smoke.” You’ll note that the structure of this is how the person is going to be themselves, and their statement about them – not the other person. Done correctly, discovering your boundaries is a way to get greater clarity about who you are – and thereby become better at being in relationships and healthy dependency.

Another key to boundaries covered in Beyond Boundaries is the difference between a defining boundary and temporary boundaries. A defining (or permanent) boundary is one that, if changed, would fundamentally change who you are. Temporary boundaries are erected after you’ve been injured, harmed, or simply when you need to focus on your needs. Temporary boundaries define what you will or won’t do in the short term to allow for your recovery.

Too often in relationships, we become so dependent on the relationship itself that we allow ourselves to be influenced too much by the other person. (See The Nurture Assumption for peer pressure and The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for how our belongingness can drive our behaviors.)

The Role of Trust

I mentioned while explaining anger that we’re prediction machines, and we try to predict others’ behaviors. When we’re angry, it’s most frequently someone’s behavior that didn’t match our prediction. Trust is our reliance on those predictions knowing that most of the time we’ll be right, and some of the time we’ll be wrong. Healthy dependency is built on trust. It’s a trust that the other person won’t use your dependency against you. It’s a trust that they’ll be there when you need them.

The key to understanding trust is to realize its power. Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order
is a study in how trust, placed in different places, influences the world, our societies, and our economic productivity. The short version is that more trust is better. The less we trust our prediction of others’ behavior, the more resources we must waste validating our trust.

Ronald Regan picked up a Russian proverb, “Doveryay, no proveryay,” which translates to “Trust, but verify.” He turned it into a strategy for dealing with Michail Gorbachev. This proverb is a shortcut to understanding the cost of not trusting. When you have no trust, you must verify everything. The greater the trust, the less effort is wasted on verification.

In the context of dependency and relationships, we can cause a relationship damage when we become too dependent and insecure about the relationship and therefore seek constant reassurance.

Types of Attachment

It was the work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth that led to the perspective of three kinds of attachments that children form with their parents: secure, anxious-avoidant, and anxious-ambivalent. Much like the work of Michell in The Marshmallow Test, the adverse childhood events (ACE) study leading to adult diseases and Fetal Origins of Adult Disease (FOAD), attachment style is an indicator for how we’ll connect with others as an adult. (See How Children Succeed for more on ACE and Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for coverage of both ACE and FOAD.)

In Daring to Trust, David Richo offers a way to transform your adult experience of relationships to be more positive no matter what attachment style you started your adolescent life with. He helps understand when to trust others – and when trusting others isn’t warranted.

Broken Attachment – Approach-Avoidance

Some people exit their childhood and adolescence with a sense of connection to others that isn’t balanced. The style of interaction forms an approach-avoidance cycle. Often, this cycle operates as one person in a relationship approaches, causing the other person to flee. The cycle operates in reverse when the second person begins to reapproach, and the first person begins to avoid. This becomes a sick cycle, with the relationship constantly oscillating between approach and avoidance and never settling into connection. (See The Dance of Connection for more.)

In even more broken situations, one person may be incapable of maintaining an intimate relationship. In Intimacy Anorexia, Douglas Weiss explains that some people have never learned to be intimate with other people. Their history has led them to dysfunctional types of superficial connection. In these cases, the cycle never reverses, and one person in the relationship is always (or nearly always) approaching while the other person is constantly avoiding. This scenario is mostly found in marriages.

Dependency in Marriage

John Gottman is famous for his research demonstrating a 91% accuracy in prediction about whether a couple would remain married for 3 years based on evaluation of only three minutes. The key is that the couple had to argue. Gottman explains in The Science of Trust how there are a handful of factors which push towards divorce and some – like emotional attunement – which lead towards intimacy and away from divorce.

Perhaps the best explanation of appropriate dependency in marriage comes from Team Genius and its explanations of the kinds of two-person teams that are effective – and why they’re effective. These patterns are prototypical examples of how two people can work together, be mutually dependent, and be productive.


At some level, the ability to be in a relationship that demonstrates healthy dependency it must be possible to detach oneself from the outcomes, both of the relationship itself and the joint work that is being attempted through the relationship. The more firmly entrenched in the relationship itself and the outcomes, the less willing we become to speak our truth and to do the hard work it takes to improve the relationship. (For more on getting teams to do the work to be able to effectively produce, see Collaborative Intelligence by Richard Hackman)

Over time, we’ve developed a sense that we’re in control. In Compelled to Control, J. Keith Miller explains that everyone wants to control – and no one wants to be controlled. Conceptually, both cannot be true at the same time. The way that society has come to understand and harness nature more completely leads us to believe – incorrectly – in our societal and personal levels of control, which ultimately leads us away from detachment. If we are in control, then we’re responsible; when we don’t achieve the outcomes we desire, then we’re responsible, and we should be upset with ourselves. However, since we really only have some degree of influence, we should not be surprised when we occasionally fail to get the results we want.

Working on detaching isn’t always easy and is sometimes confused with disengagement, which can seem like a negative thing, but the concept of detachment comes up too often when looking for ways to become a better, wholehearted, person. (See The Heartmath Solution for more.)

The Ebb and Flow

When I started explaining healthy relationships and dependency, I explained the ebb and flow of power is essential to a healthy relationship. However, what does that mean? Well, let’s look at the divorce rate as it pertains to women being able to find and maintain a job that pays them a livable wage. Instead of so-called “pink-collar” jobs that offered money for luxuries, during World War II, women began working blue-collar and professional jobs, which paid enough money to support themselves, and the result was a wave of divorce. (See Divorce and The Anatomy of Love for more.) It wasn’t just “no fault” divorce laws, it was the fact that women were no longer trapped in relationships with a constant power imbalance. Divorce is bad, but unhealthy marriages are worse – at least in some cases. When the power started to ebb and flow between spouses, some marriages couldn’t survive the changes.

Another way to look at the situation is that both people in a relationship should be whole before they enter the relationship. Please understand, I’m not saying that they can’t be better in the relationship, I’m saying that they’re at least whole to start. When Terri and I got engaged, I designed a custom engagement ring. It’s a heart made of two diamonds. They’re two pear shaped diamonds that are each – in their own right – beautiful and complete.

Unsafe People

While it may be ideal to be in a power-balanced relationship with people who are complete and whole, this isn’t the case that most of us find ourselves in every day. We find ourselves dealing with other humans with faults like us – and faults that are different than ours. In Safe People, Henry Cloud and John Townsend enumerate ways that people may be unsafe. Unfortunately, they don’t explain how to be in relationships with people who aren’t safe. It’s certainly helpful to be able to identify the ways in which people may be unsafe, because it changes your predictions of their behavior and encourages you to take less risks by trusting them in those areas.

At some level, being in relationships with unsafe people is about establishing your boundaries. (See their book Boundaries and Townsend’s book Beyond Boundaries for more.) However, it’s more than that. It’s about learning the skills that you need to have hard conversations. (See Crucial Conversations for more.) It’s about learning the skills you need to be in a conflict with someone and at the same time not think of them as a villain. (See Words Can Change Your Brain, Nonviolent Communication, and Why Are We Yelling? for techniques for managing conflict.)


Overall, the feeling that pervades healthy dependency is safety – not when the person provides for your needs, but when the person cannot provide for your needs. The safety exists when you’re able to be only partially dependent upon them and know that there is a mutual intent of caring for and supporting each other.

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