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Codependent vs. Interdependent

Codependency is an emotional virus that is so implicit in our culture that most people don't realize they are infected.  However, "codependent" is a word I frequently hear misused in my work.  Many people fear they are in an unhealthy relationship, yet describe a normal dependency on their partner.  On the other hand, I have listened to clients describe clearly unhealthy dependency who feel they are in a healthy relationship.  How does one distinguish healthy vs. unhealthy bonding?  There are now countless books available for the self-help consumer to discover and work through their dysfunctional codependent habits and develop healthier ones.  This writing is intended just to simplify the distinction between codependence and interdependence.

We enter into relationships because we a social beings with needs which can sometimes best be met by other people.  When I visit my local favorite coffee stand, I enter into a relationship with the barista.  She meets my caffeine needs better than if I make my own lattes.  At the same time, I'm meeting her financial needs.  Social reciprocity is the norm in our increasingly interdependent society.  Your work supervisor is counting on you for a productive work day; In turn, you depend on him/her to sign off on your paycheck.  I depend on drivers of other cars to not be distracted so I can get home safely, and they depend on me for the same reason.  

In romantic relationships like marriage, it's good to think in terms of a team.  Working together, life can be easier and nicer than working separately.  I cook dinner, and my wife offers to clean up.  In some cases, this can cut our individual workload in half.  We depend on each other for companionship, meeting sexual needs, and financial security.  We have shared parenting responsibilities, look out for each others' safety, and complement each others' strengths (for example, she sews up the holes in my favorite old jacket and I install new light fixtures). It's good to have a team when we have so many needs. So when does dependence become unhealthy?

Emotional Dependence

"No one can make you angry unless you let them." I remember a teacher say this when I was very young. Since then, I have heard this idea expressed repeatedly in many different situations. This sentiment suggests that we are somehow responsible for our own emotional response to others. It seems commonplace in our culture to take responsibility for just some of our feelings. 

However, consider the phrase, "You make me so happy." It's a very romantic notion that my happiness is somehow dependent on another person. And it's now a cultural standard that we depend on others for our good feelings, as stated in so many love songs and movies. But how healthy is this?

I Can't Smile Without You

"You are my sunshine, my only sunshine."  "You make me so very happy."  "I can't smile without you."  We are so indoctrinated to believe that our happiness is dependent on another person. However consider this truth: the more responsibility you take for someone's happiness, the more blame you will accept for their unhappiness. In other words, if someone can make me happy, I can also put on them the burden of my unhappiness. If I am smiling, you must be doing something right. If I'm upset, then you are a failure as a partner. It's you're fault I'm miserable. These are the 

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