Relationships are all about closeness. Taking the risk to open your heart and letting your partner know the real you is the most profound type of sharing. This level of intimacy can be emotionally and spiritually rejuvenating.

A healthy relationship is like a high-wire circus act. Lean too far in any one direction and you’ll topple. This balancing act involves autonomy (maintaining your individual identity, values and goals) and connection (you and your partner share many experiences and have become a “we”). Lean too far toward autonomy and you sacrifice intimacy. On the other end of the spectrum, if you continually sacrifice what’s most important to you for the sake of the relationship, you’ve given up what makes you uniquely you.

Intimacy versus unhealthy dependency

Intimacy is the emotional, physical and spiritual closeness you experience with your partner. Intimacy is not a fixed thing. You may have noticed that the closeness you feel with your partner ebbs and flows. This is normal. You’re likely to feel autonomous at times and deeply connected to your partner at others.

Ideally, intimacy shouldn’t subsume your individuality; instead, it should sustain and augment your uniqueness.

But when you become unable to complete the simplest tasks on your own, you’re no longer appropriately close to your partner—you’re unhealthily dependent. If this is the case, you feel helpless and incompetent without your partner. You need your partner to function, to make basic decisions, to feel good about yourself.

Healthy dependency

We all depend on our partners for love, kindness, validation, support (and more) while we still hold onto our own identities. Your own “I” and the relationship’s “we” exist side by side. When you learn that you can depend on your partner to meet your needs, your sense of trust is strengthened and the intimacy in your relationship deepens.

There may be times when intimacy gives way to dependency, especially when you cope with painful events. In these moments your partner may act as the life-jacket that keeps you afloat. Take Andy and Donna:

Andy was consumed with grief when his father passed away. Feeling despondent, he needed to take time off from work. For several months, he was dependent on Donna, who took charge of all the household responsibilities and helped support Andy until he climbed out of his despair. Reflecting on this time in their relationship, Andy recalled, “Donna had to remind me to shower and spend time with the kids. It was like my brain stopped working and I had to rely on hers.”

We all need our partners to help us shoulder burdens as we cope with stressful experiences. This doesn’t mean that we are dependent upon our mates in an unhealthy way.

Has unhealthy dependency crept into your relationship?

Here are a few questions to help you determine whether or not unhealthy dependency is becoming problem for you:

  • Have you given up most of your individual pursuits and interests in an effort to please your partner?
  • Do you find that you cannot make a decision without your partner? (Not to be confused with the appropriate practice of valuing your partner’s opinion before making a decision that affects both of you.)
  • Have you abandoned important personal values in an effort to maintain your relationship?
  • Do you need to know everything your partner is thinking and feeling in order to feel secure in the relationship?
  • Do you become angry and feel abandoned whenever your partner attempts to do something alone?

Answering “yes” to most or all of these questions may indicate that intimacy has given way to unhealthy dependency.

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Author's Bio: 

Richard Nicastro, Ph.D. is a psychologist and relationship coach who is passionate about helping couples protect the sanctuary of their relationship. Rich and his wife Lucia founded LifeTalk Coaching, an internet-based coaching business that helps couples strengthen their relationships.