By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
I read your chapter excerpt “Self-Reliance: Our Greatest Asset, Our Greatest Liability” and could really relate. My parents divorced when I was four years old and I grew up really fast. I was an only child and I learned to take care of myself because my mom worked two jobs and I only saw my dad occasionally. When she was running late, she knew she could count on me to do my homework and even start dinner when I was still in elementary school.
Only recently, have I begun to realize that being too self-reliant could be a problem. I am engaged to a great guy but Josh has been complaining that I don’t let him nurture or support me. He says that he doesn’t feel close to me at times because I’m too independent and don’t let him in on my private thoughts or feelings.
I love Josh and don’t want to lose him. I’ve dated many other guys but he’s the first one who is loyal, hard working and kind. I’m not sure how I got so lucky to find him, but I’m worried that if I don’t change, he’ll leave like my dad left my mom. My mom is a daughter of divorce too and I guess we both come by being too independent naturally. She is still single after being divorced for 20 years and says she’s too set in her ways to get married again. I’m afraid of ending up alone like she is.
Many of us grew up hearing “True happiness comes from within yourself, not someone else.” We were taught from a young age that it’s not a good thing to depend on others and that being independent is a worthy goal. The truth is that self-reliance is a double-edged sword. While it has many virtues, it can also rob us of true intimacy and the type of partnerships we desire.
Many people are self-reliant to a fault, putting far too much pressure on themselves. They bring self-reliance to a new level because they are unable to rely on anyone. Reliance on others can be healthy and affirming. The problem is that as children of divorce we weren’t always taught how to balance self-reliance with healthy interdependence.
Being raised by a single parent, it sounds like you grew up fast and learned to take care of yourself. In some ways, you were even a caretaker to your mom and she leaned on you heavily since she didn’t have a partner after your dad left. Consequently, you are very independent and don’t want to come across as “needy” or “demanding” with Josh. Yet you have good instincts and realize that this may be a liability because vulnerability can lead to true love and intimacy.
This is the heartbreak of the double-edged sword of reliance. On the surface, it’s wonderful to be independent, self-sufficient, and resilient. But when you believe you must do everything for yourself, you limit your ability to be close to Josh. It’s hard to let him in. It’s hard to let him come through for you. But if you are ever to enjoy the full nature of intimacy, you must. In small doses, self-reliance is positive. But when it pervades your approach to the world it can deprive you of true love, commitment and trust.
While all relationships present us with risks, they are risks worth taking. You must surrender your shield and let others in. Developing interdependence in a relationship is key to overcoming unhealthy self-reliance.
5 Ways to Achieve Interdependence
1. Take ownership if you are too self-reliant. If it’s extreme, pinpoint the source of it and examine your thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs.
2. Challenge your beliefs and attitudes about accepting nurturing and support from your partner. Resist the urge to be self-reliant around hot-button issues such as money, work, or important matters – like how you celebrate holidays or vacations.
3. Visualize yourself in an honest and open relationship and work toward allowing yourself to be more open with your partner – vulnerability is a critical part of intimacy.
4. Remind yourself daily that it’s healthy to accept help from others and a sign of strength rather than weakness. Don’t make important decisions without sharing them with your partner and coming to a mutual agreement.
5. Adopt a mindset that it’s good to count on your partner. Believe that you can share your deepest feelings and it will promote healthy attachment, trust, and intimacy. You can learn to embrace the idea that you don’t have to go through life alone.
Dependence is often seen as a dirty word in our culture. It conjures up images of weakness and insecurity. If we depend too much on others, we may be afraid of losing ourselves. But certain levels of dependence in intimate relationships can be helpful and sustaining. Intimacy serves to help illuminate parts of ourselves never truly realized. Healthy partnerships bring out the best in us, because when we feel safe and loved, we are free to grow and explore who we are as human beings.
If you want to achieve interdependence, you must remember that allowing yourself to depend on others can actually help you to develop your autonomy and strength. Over time, as you reveal vulnerability with your partner, you may realize there is nothing to be afraid of. Letting go of control, fear, and other intense emotions helps to make relationships more solid. As you grow secure in the idea that others love you and will not let you go, you can learn that independence and love do not need to exist on separate planes. When you depend on others, you are at your strongest.
Judith Siegel, in What Children Learn from Their Parents’ Marriage, underscores the importance of interdependence, and asserts that it is what makes the difference between happy and unhappy partnerships. Society prizes self-sufficiency, but when taken to extremes, it can deprive you of love and nurturance. Even though it’s hard, you need to embrace the idea that it’s okay to show weakness and allow others to nurture you. Siegel notes that mutual respect, maintaining trust in word and deed, and reciprocity help sustain interdependence.
Judith Siegel writes, “In marriages where partners do not offer mutual support, partners have become disappointed in each other and have come to believe that they must look out for themselves first.” Siegel explains that mutual dependence is a trademark of a healthy relationship. She believes that reciprocity – being able to give and take support – is an essential ingredient in a successful marriage.
Another expert, Dr. Willard Harley, a marriage counselor and author, defines interdependent behavior as activities of a spouse that are conceived and executed with the interests of both spouses in mind. He maintains that certain levels of dependence in intimate relationships can be beneficial and promote emotional closeness.
Healthy partnerships foster mutual understanding and allow us to feel safe and secure. Reigning in self-reliance will help you build a trusting relationship. Becoming more conscious of your partner’s needs and the value of mutual understanding is critical to developing lasting love.
I’d love to read your comments on this page. Be sure to order my new book “Daughters of Divorce: Overcome The Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship!”