By Doris Montalvo Moll
PACT Level 3 Therapist
This work stems from a concern of mine, an initially unarticulated feeling that I have had for some time. This feeling arose during both clinical and nonclinical situations in which I heard statements, such as "I am too dependent," "I have problems with my partner that should not affect me so much," "I do not intend to depend on anyone,” "You should not make your decisions thinking about someone else." I’ve usually heard women say these kinds of things.
Since I am a PACT therapist, my vision of the couple relationship has to do with the idea of interdependence, or mutual dependence. However this concept is complicated at a theoretical level. It has different meanings that are not always related to what we understand from the PACT perspective. In addition, interdependence is not a concept known or used by the general population.
Therefore, the purpose I have in writing this paper is to explore three different concepts — dependence, independence, and interdependence — their meanings and their relevance for human relationships in general and especially in couple relationships. I would like to try to de-pathologize dependence to some extent. At the same time, I’d like to propose an operational way of conveying my view of interdependence, which can perhaps serve for use in session and in other contexts.
In our society today, the idea of independence is highly valued. It seems that the main goal and purpose of healthy growth and education is to become independent. "My child is very independent" and "I am a very independent person" are statements that are made with pride. Independence is considered an important virtue in Western society, including when related to partner relationships. On the contrary, being dependent in any aspect is considered a trait that is undesirable, immature, negative, dangerous, even weak if not pathological.
In fact, the dictionary definition (translated from Diccionario de la Lengua Española, Real Academia de España) of both concepts also reflects this view of independence as positive (freedom, especially that of a state that is neither tributary nor dependent on another; integrity; firmness of character) and dependence as negative (subordination to a power; situation of a person who cannot fend for themself; compulsive need of some substance to experience its effects or to calm the discomfort produced by its deprivation).
More specifically in relation to couples, I often read in psychology forums and blogs statements, such as "Maintaining independence in the couple is the key to a healthy relationship" and "Independence in the couple is freedom" and phrasing, such as "emotional dependence and toxic relationships.” The solutions proposed for the "dependent" person usually have to do with "respecting your partner's independent space," "not projecting your emotional deficiencies and fears on your partner," "always keeping separate spaces for activities," "learning not to need your partner, but to want to share the path."
If we think beyond the pure definition of words, they contain broader meanings determined by culture, sociopolitical context, and the evolution of ideas about human groups. Historically the dominant narrative in the Western, white, and androcentric world values independence as freedom and self-sufficiency. It is associated with masculinity, while dependence is related to weakness, inferiority, and femininity. Nowadays despite changes and developments in terms of feminist thinking, my impression is that this bias is still very much present.
I see both men and especially women who value themselves and consider depending on another person as a negative in all aspects. They especially believe that the behavior of the other has an influence on one's own psychological and emotional state. It seems that the way to overcome the female gender stereotype has to be by identifying and striving for the opposite stereotype. So what seems to emerge and has taken root, especially for women in my opinion, is that somehow it is necessary to become emotionally independent from others and specifically from the partner, to stop feeling (or at least repress) certain desires and needs because they do not fit with the idea of an independent, autonomous, and powerful woman and therefore imply subjugation and lack of autonomy.
I want to point out that we can find discordant narratives in parts of the non-Western world, sometimes considered underdeveloped, where dependence and interdependence are the basis of the social fabric. I have always liked the African proverb: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
On the other hand, interdependence is a less widespread concept and has a more neutral definition in principle: a relationship of reciprocal dependence between two or more people or things (translated from Diccionario de la Lengua Española, Real Academia Española). It is rather less loaded with implicit meanings related to social and gender aspects. However since we have already seen that dependence does not sound at all positive, by extension interdependence gets misunderstood as a negative, too.
Dependence, Independence, Interdependence in Psychology
From an evolutionary and psychobiological point of view, independence, dependence, and interdependence are simply realities. Most mammals form bonds of dependence and interdependence from birth. Even some species of birds bond for life with a mate. Other animals live independently and in solitude, such as some specific reptiles. No one doubts that in a pack of wolves all members depend on each other. Whether good or bad, this is simply part of the survival strategy of that animal species.
Human beings are no exception. We are largely determined by our psychobiology and ontogenetic development. The reality is that at birth we are completely dependent on our caregiver. We develop as a person only if this bond of dependence exists. Research has left no doubt that it is not possible to develop an essential part of human socioemotional functioning without this bond. In terms of evolution, our species has also survived by forming groups or herds, so it seems easy to think that the tendency to establish dependency bonds is biologically programmed.
At this point it is important to briefly mention the concept of attachment. John Bowlby, author of the attachment theory, described it as the long-lasting affectional bond between two individuals, the first being the bond between the infant and their caregiver, the biological function of which is to protect the infant from danger. Research has shown that the formation of attachment relationships continues throughout the lifespan, and that adult romantic relationships are in fact attachment bonds. However while working closely with Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth developed the experimental procedure of the Strange Situation in order to measure types of attachment. She proposed in a theoretical review (rooted in the psychoanalytic context) a very sharp differentiation between attachment and dependence, considering the latter as a series of infantile behaviors that involve immaturity and helplessness.
In the scientific literature on couple relationships, dependence is usually linked to issues of violence and abuse in the couple when talking about codependence and emotional dependence. Even the actor-partner interdependence model (APIM) has been used to explain violence in the couple. Independence, in couple issues, is mentioned as opposed to dependence.
The Concept of Interdependence
The idea of interdependence was initially raised in the field of social psychology by Kurt Lewin, who stated that the essence of a group is the interdependence of its members, which results in the group being a dynamic whole, so that a change of state in one of its members or subgroups produces changes of state in any other member or subgroup. This idea was further developed by Morton Deutsch, who proposed the theory of social interdependence. The basic premise is that the way participants' goals are structured determines the way they interact, and the pattern of interaction determines the outcome of the situation.
Deutsch conceptualized two types of social interdependence: positive and negative. Positive social interdependence exists when a positive correlation exists between the achievement of individuals' goals, i.e., individuals perceive that they can achieve their goals if and only if the other individuals with whom they are linked achieve theirs. Negative interdependence exists when there is a negative correlation between the achievement of individuals' goals: individuals perceive that they can achieve their goals if and only if the other individuals with whom they are linked fail to achieve theirs.
Returning to the aspect of the gender perspective, the work of Carol Gilligan deserves to be mentioned. Gilligan provided a counterpoint and extension of Kohlberg's theory of moral development. Gilligan identified the ethics of care as a different voice, coming from women (who were not included in Kohlberg's initial studies). This different voice is characterized by defining morality in terms of interpersonal relationships and responsibility rather than abstract rules or principles. It is based on the premise that humans are inherently relational beings, and our condition is one of connection and interdependence.
Interdependence in Couples
First, I posit that the concepts of dependence and independence are unidirectional and linear, i.e., one person is dependent on another, one person is independent of another. As such, it has little to do with the circular and complex reality of interactions. On the other hand, as I have argued above, interdependence in any human group is a fact. The reality from a systemic point of view is obvious: the behavior of one member of the system necessarily affects the rest of the system.
If we take attachment into account, thinking that we can be independent of our attachment figure (aka partner) simply does not make sense. It is also true that independence as autonomy and individuation is unquestionably something desirable that is part of the development and maturation of the human being. So how can we transcend this duality of dependence and independence in an operational way without simply stating that there must be a balance between the two?
I believe that the concept of interdependence can serve to integrate this duality. Interdependence is bidirectional, circular, and therefore more in line with the reality of interactions. If we transfer interdependence from the field of social psychology to the couple's relationship, we are somehow suggesting that something that is a reality (i.e., we are interdependent) can be structured toward cooperation or toward competition. In this sense, the idea is to make an active and conscious decision to direct a dynamic (which is inherent in the relationship) toward what we want to achieve, i.e., our life goals, both individual and shared, consisting in what Deutsch calls positive interdependence. This involves cooperation and collaboration — and the only way we can achieve our goals as a couple.
Often though, what we see in couples is a dynamic closer to negative interdependence, where in many situations the underlying belief is, “In order for me to achieve my goals, you will have to lose or sacrifice yours.” One wins, the other loses. However in a couple relationship, it is not possible for one to win and the other to lose. One way or another, if one loses both end up losing.
Winning and losing lead to accumulated discomfort, resentment, and a sense of injustice, which erodes the relationship and limits the growth potential of both members. This dynamic is often explained by using the two simple, linear concepts of independence (I prioritize my goals, wants, and needs) and dependence (I prioritize your goals, wants, and needs). Considering this, the fears — sometimes considered necessary evils in the couple relationship — are loss of freedom, loss of autonomy, subjugation, and sacrifice of what I want or need.
Instead, positive interdependence leads to maximum autonomy and individuation. It promotes individual growth not limitation. Positive interdependence requires us to take full responsibility for our desires and needs while taking full responsibility for the desires and needs of the other. It involves honesty, both with oneself and with the other, freedom, reciprocity, and full equality.
Both of us always win.
Moreover as the African proverb said, together is how we get far. Cooperation and collaboration have been and still are the basis of the development and evolution of the human species. Our individual potential is multiplied in a cooperative relationship.
Now, how do we express this in a simple, understandable, and precise way, which can serve to disseminate this approach both in and out of session and in non-professional forums?
One option: Maturity is accepting that what you do (say, think, feel) affects me and what I do (say, think, feel) affects you. Maturity is accepting that my needs are as important as yours, and yours are as important as mine. If I don't take care of your needs, I will have problems. If I don't take care of mine, I will have problems.
Within PACT, interdependence is an aspect of secure functioning, which is broader, meaning that secure functioning is based on positive interdependence but includes other important aspects, such as shared purpose, vision, and principles. That in turn is the user interface of our approach. In addition to PACT being the guide and foundation for couples therapy and in our own relationships for those of us who are part of this model, I would like some of this user interface to be present in the general population so it can help on a more basic level to orient ourselves in the complex world of relationships.
I’d like to stop hearing and reading statements that promote a simplistic, biased, and blaming view for many people. Instead, I believe partners in relationship would benefit from hearing and reading headlines, such as "Five Keys to Why Interdependence in Couples Is Better than Independence,” and articles, such as "Interdependence is the new independence: depend on your partner and feel freer than ever.”
Ainsworth, M. (1969). Object Relations, Dependency, and Attachment: a theoretical review of the infant-mother relationship. Child Development, 40, 969-1025
Bowlby, J. (1969/1982). Attachment and loss. Volume I. New York: Basic Books.
Diccionario de la Lengua Española (2022). https://dle.rae.es
Gilligan, Carol. (1982). In a different voice: psychological theory and women's development. Harvard University Press.
Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (2009). An Educational Psychology Success Story: social interdependence theory and cooperative learning. Educational Researcher, 38(5), 365–379. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X09339057
Lewin, K. (1948). Resolving social conflicts; selected papers on group dynamics. Harper.
Young-Eisendrath, P. (2000). Women and desire: beyond wanting to be wanted. Harmony Books.