Many of us grew up hearing "The only person you can depend on is yourself." We were taught from a young age that it's not a good thing to lean on others too much and that being independent is admirable. 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 we weren't always taught how to balance self-reliance with healthy interdependence.
Being self-reliant can serve us well as adolescents and single adults as we strive to achieve goals and a sense of identity. For instance, I was raised in a divorced family and learned to be independent from a young age, which helped me to succeed at work and school. But as an adult, developing intimate relationships has been a challenge because it's not always easy to for me to draw the line between being independent and relying upon my partner for emotional support.
Many of the women whom I've counseled struggle with being overly self-reliant and are fearful of depending on their partners for crucial support. Rachel, age 28, describes it like this: "I still feel like I have to take care of me. I feel like I never want to depend on anyone because that's what my mom did, and look what happened to her."
Raised by a single mom, she learned early on the risks of being too dependent on a partner because her mother suffered financially after her father left. Consequently, she doesn't want to come across as "needy" or "demanding" with her boyfriend Nathan. At times, Rachel tends to withdraw or look to her friends for emotional support rather than Nathan -- leaving him feeling excluded and lonely.
This is the tragedy 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 create your own demise. It's hard to let your partner in. It's hard to give him/her room to 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. To avoid this fate you must learn to reign in your self-reliance, to recognize when it prevents you from trusting in your partner, and to acknowledge when it denies your partner of everything you have to give.
Developing interdependence in a relationship is key to overcoming unhealthy self-reliance. While all relationships present us with risks, they are risks worth taking. You must surrender your shield and let others in. Dr. Willard Harley, a marriage counselor, 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.
6 Steps to Achieving 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 family 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 vulnerable with your partner -- a critical aspect of intimacy.
4. Remind yourself daily that it's healthy to accept help from others and a sign of strength rather than weakness. This might also apply to your work setting.
5. Develop a policy of joint agreement if you are in a relationship. This term, coined by Dr. Harley, describes an agreement couples make to resist making decisions without an enthusiastic agreement between them and their partner -- especially important ones that impact both people.
6. Adopt a mindset that it's good to count on your partner. Believe that you can share your deepest feelings with him/her and it will promote healthy attachment, trust and intimacy. You must let them in and 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. But certain levels of dependence in intimate relationships can be helpful and sustaining. Intimacy serves to help illuminate parts of oneself never truly realized. Healthy partnerships bring out the best in people, because when they feel safe and loved, they are free to grow and explore who they are as human beings. Instead of depending on a partner, we need to seek interdependence. We must believe that we do not have to go through life alone.
If you have an issue with being overly self-reliant, 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 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.
Reigning in self-reliance will help you build a trusting relationship. When you first discover that your independent nature sometimes prevents you from true intimacy, you may be unsure about how to change this pattern. It is often hard to decipher whether self-reliance is positive or negative. Becoming more conscious of your partner's needs and the value of mutual understanding is critical to developing lasting love.