We all know that Independence Day on July 4th is a national holiday celebrating the fledgling American colonies’ declaration that they were no longer Britain’s satellite territory. The 13 colonies were “independent” and no longer connected to the mother ship, so to speak. Such clear boundaries can be made between national states (with or without a fight!). A Black or White definition of IN or OUT is conventional when talking about our country’s original Declaration of Independence. (We see that the British continue to struggle – witness the Brexit dilemma today.) But what does “independence” mean in human relationships?
The Couple Unit
I say we celebrate Interdependence Day – today, in the month of July, and every day of the year! The point I’ll make here is that “Interdependence” in relationships, especially between two lovers, is a delicate – some say paradoxical – balance between independence and connection. Yin and Yang. So I propose that not getting this balance “right,” i.e., acceptable to both partners, can contribute to folks deciding to split up. I’d like to explore with you how to do this balance – in your present, or future relationships.
The Yin-Yang symbol is the closest I’ve found to depict the metaphor that psychologist Stan Tatkin calls a “couple bubble” (Wired for Love (2011), Wired for Dating (2016)). When I look at relationships – my own, colleagues, and those of the couples with whom I work in therapy – I can confirm that secure, functioning healthy relationships are two whole people who come together to create a unit (call it a “bubble,” if you like). As you journey on your Life’s Road together, you remain connected by an invisible cord. If one stumbles, the other is there to help you up. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. What’s not good for the goose, also not good for the gander. I have your back, you have mine. Thus, both backs are covered! Who else do you awaken at 3 a.m. with a nightmare? No one likes being so awakened… but I do it for you, and you for me. In sickness and in health, those vows are indeed real boots-on-the-ground.
A Little History
Gestalt psychology or gestaltism (German: Gestalt [ɡəˈʃtalt], meaning “shape”, “form”) is a major contributor to the PACT (Psychobiologic Approach to Couples Therapy) in which I’ve been trained. As a theory of mind from the Berlin School of experimental psychology, Gestalt psychology examines laws that help up acquire and maintain meaningful perceptions in our seemingly chaotic world. Gestalt psychology’s central principle is that the mind forms a global whole with self-organizing tendencies. That is, when the human mind’s perceptual system forms a percept or gestalt, the whole has a reality of its own, independent of the parts. Our brain tends to generate whole forms, especially when recognizing global figures, instead of collections of simpler and unrelated elements (points, lines, curves).
“The whole is other (not greater) than the sum of the parts” is the correctly translated famous phrase from Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka. “This is not a principle of addition,” he has been quoted. “The whole has an independent existence.”
And so I suggest to you that there’s you, there’s me, and then there’s our Couple Unit. Our Whole is other (not greater) than you or me. “We” is a separate interdependent unit.
A Little Definition
Defining “dependence” as relying on someone or something is neutral. Our society prides itself on our frontier beginnings with its emphasis, and perhaps myth, of self-sufficiency. Our culture has demonized dependency as weakness and neediness, and especially “co-dependence” as even more extreme.
And further, co-dependence has a bad name; since this concept and definition is associated with Alcoholics Anonymous, the designated “alcoholic” and, often, a partner are labeled as “codependent.” Such a label is triggered when you see expressed excessive needs to be taken care of, leading to submissive and clinging behavior and fear of separation.
Interdependence differs from co-dependence. Interdependence develops from a deep connectedness and intimate bonding. This profoundly satisfying sense of safety and secure functioning does not happen, with most couples, automatically. The development of interdependence happens when couples intentionally learn who is the other; what makes them tick; when and why they stop ticking; and how to soothe each other when the tick-tocking becomes irregular or dysfunctional.
How to Interdependize Yourselves
Yes, I just made up that word. I like it because it captures the fact that to become, to be, an interdependent couple is a process – an ongoing process. Ah, perhaps a lifelong process. Multiple psychological theories can be interwoven to give you an idea of how interdependence develops in a child in a healthy way.
“Separation-individuation” is a foundational conception in psychology. Margaret Mahler developed this idea as a theory based on infant and toddler observations in her NYC clinic in the late 1950s. In order to become our own “individual” self, we need to “separate” from the adults who raised us. The process starts on a physical basis when the toddler learns to walk upright on his own two feet. Wow, I can walk away from Mom/Dad.
Add Attachment Theory to this picture. The more securely attached the toddler is to his primary caretaker(s), i.e., the less ambivalent about this bond, the freer emotionally and physically he’ll feel to explore his environment. A more securely attached toddler will typically scoot off and explore his surroundings, then touch back with Mom/Dad either visually or come back to connect physically, then scoot off again. A less securely attached toddler might cling to his caretaker, on the one hand, or play alone in what looks like a mechanical way. The balance of coming and going is what’s crucial.
Other stage theories emphasize a similar balance of coming and going. To and fro. In and out. Up and down. You get the idea. All stage theories in psychology that I can think of embrace some aspect of this Ying/Yang. Loss is built in; in order to move forward, you must leave something behind.
Jean Piaget. The cognitive psychologist began in the 1930s to talk about how children’s thinking differed inherently from that of adults. He noted that when you take in something new, you modify it. (“Assimilate,” then “accommodate”.) Thus, growth happens when a child changes an object to meet his needs. But his mental structures also adapt to newness by changing to meet environmental needs – Yin-Yang.
Erik Erikson. In the 1950s, he developed eight psychosocial stages of development from birth to death. And his wife and collaborator, Joan Erikson, added a ninth stage. In each stage, the person confronts, struggles, and then masters new challenges. The conflict between individual biological forces and sociocultural forces needs to be negotiated. The toddler in Stage 2 [ages 1-3] eventually masters autonomy over his body, thereby avoiding the shame and doubt brought on by his loss of control over his body.
Sigmund Freud. Even earlier, starting at the turn of the 20th century, Freud was writing about the predictable psychosexual stages whereby children’s interest and behavior focused on specific body parts as they matured, e.g., the mouth during breast-feeding, the anus during toilet-training. Disappointment or failure (e.g., due to physical dysfunction, parental or societal disapproval) might mean that person was stopped (“fixated”) at a particular stage, left unresolved and preoccupied with issues related to an earlier erogenous zone and psychological themes.
You and Your Couple Unit
Take the pulse of your Interdependent Couple Unit. Do you have complementary strengths? (You make dinner, I’ll clean up. I’ll put the kids to bed tonight if you do those bills.) Do you have similar strengths? And take turns? Do you have similar or different anxieties? Emotional triggers? How well do you know one another (especially your own and your partner’s attachment style, which means you know when to lean in and on the other and when to lean back and give the other space)?
I’d love to hear from you: do my comments help you to understand better what has worked well, or not, in your couple relationship? I’m developing a couple assessment plan and want to know what interests, troubles, and excites you. Comment here or on my website. Follow me on Twitter #JoyDryerPhD. Happy Interdependence Day, today and every day.