Co-Dependency and Inter-Dependency in Relationships
There are a lot of theories around the term co-dependency. It is often used in the self-help community to describe unhealthy behaviour in relationships and family dynamics. But it is important to note that it is not a term that many mental health professionals use. I personally see it more as one of those concepts that many throw around when they are unhappy in their relationship and are trying to notice behaviours that lead to that unhappiness. But it is also a term that leads to assumptions of unhealthy relationship dynamics when there really aren’t any issues that need to be addressed. One of those dynamics that is constantly being linked to co-dependency are D/s relationships.
I have a real problem with people misusing or appropriating terms. Co-dependency is more often than not mentioned in the same breath as narcissism, for instance. Nowadays everyone seems to call another person a narcissist the moment they feel mistreated. It takes away from that there are actual people with narcissistic personality disorder who abuse people. And one of the ways how these real narcissists keep their victims in a relationship with them is to manipulate them into a co-dependent dynamic.
Co-dependency is not always about conscious efforts to control someone though. I think a relationship can become co-dependent without either partner pushing it into a direction of dependency. It can just naturally evolve that way, and it is first later that one realizes that things were quite unhealthy. That is by the way a very important point to note: co-dependency is about behaviour that affects the partners in a relationship negatively. The same sort of behaviour can make one person feel bad, but can also make another person feel good. It can help someone with growth, and it can force someone to stay stuck. It is all about awareness, relationship dynamics and needs.
My Relationship with my Ex was Co-Dependent
I have been in a relationship that was very co-dependent. It was not an abusive relationship. it wasn’t a D/s relationship. It was a relationship where things changed and we accidentaly ended up in a situation that neither of us wanted. We had been together for six years when my mental health declined and I started getting hospitalized for mental illness.
Before that, our relationship was quite balanced. We took care of each other, we both had a say in things, we planned together. We both had our strengths and weaknesses, but generally, it was a good relationship. I had helped him to get clean after 20 years of amphetamine addiction. He helped me start a new life. I was good with money, he loved doing practical things. I wanted to focus on my studies and academia, he liked working with his hands and fight for worker’s rights. It was good.
But when I suddenly couldn’t contribute to the relationship in the same way anymore and my stability went out the window, he was just as lost as I was. We suddenly had new roles in the dynamic: he was the caretaker, I was the one that needed care. I needed help from him, and couldn’t give as much as I took. I felt really bad about it and he burnt out trying to do his best. The dynamics that we had had before had worked perfectly for us, and now we were both in positions that were foreign to us and that in no way met our needs.
But due to our emotional attachment to each other, there was no easy way out. We were stuck with each other in a relationship dynamics neither of us wanted or would have chosen with each other. He constantly felt like he was enabling my avoidant behaviour, and my mental illness, and I felt guilty for taking so much of his energy. I needed his support in ways he couldn’t give it. And because neither of us was able to adjust properly to the new situation, we ended up co-dependent. I was dependent on his practical help: he went grocery shopping, he drove me to appointments, he admitted me to the hospital when I couldn’t. And he was constantly worried about my well-being, was scared and very unhappy. We had no one outside our relationship that could help us, we were isolated.
It was sad. I had loved him, he had loved me. But the new situation really messed up our relationship, we felt stuck with each other. We were in a co-dependent relationship where neither of us was the abuser, but where both our needs were unmet and we both felt miserable. It took us six years after things went south to finally break up. We still care deeply about each other, even today. But a relationship between us would never work, knowing how we are both doing and where we are at in life.
So it is totally possible to end up in a co-dependent relationship without anyone being an abuser. Life can push you into changing your dynamics without you choosing to do so. And then you are stuck, and because you have romantic feelings for each other, it can be difficult to get unstuck, especially when both partners are struggling. I genuinely think that this could happen to anyone if life events affect a relationship: illness, losing a job, getting children, tragedy, financial issues. So being self-aware and catching it right from the start is very important. I wasn’t doing well enough to do anything about my relationship becoming a negative in my life. But if you are aware of what is happening, then I am quite sure that there are ways to turn things around for the better again.
Inter-Dependency and my D/s Relationship
My current relationship is a D/s relationship and a lot of people assume that co-dependency naturally becomes an issue in such a connection. There is a power exchange after all: and a power exchange seems unhealthy to the majority of people. But I personally think that D/s relationships are about inter-dependency instead. Inter-dependency can look like co-dependency, but the important distinction is that those in a relationship with inter-dependency do not feel bad and would not deem their dynamics as unhealthy. That doesn’t mean that a D/s dynamics doesn’t have its issues because of the power imbalance.
My Master and I are still slowly trying to expand our sexual D/s dynamics into other areas of our life. It is a slow process because I am usually someone who is in control and dislikes to obey without questioning. But I personally feel that we are making progress. I only address him as Master now and I am trying my best to please him and listen to his commands. I am sure that we still have a lot of work to do but we are both really willing and whenever we are both well enough, we communicate about things and give each other feedback.
I think the kind of relationship we are in right now could be described as a caretaker Dom and a submissive. I have come a long way to accept that I need to be taken care of. In my previous two relationships, being in the position where I needed support and guidance, didn’t feel good. I felt guilt and shame for needing help, for always craving a lot of the attention. For constantly talking about how I feel and what is going on with me. So I eventually turned silent. But in this relationship, I am expected to communicate, to give status reports, to tell my Master how I am doing, what I need. It is refreshing that I don’t have to hold back.
But there is still this little part of me that feels the guilt and the shame I have felt before. The fear that my needs make my Master feel stuck with me. I know that he has needs that I can’t meet, and that my needs (at the moment), stand in the way for him getting what he wants. But I also know that this is not forever. We are right now in a situation where I don’t have health care coverage (because the Canadian system sucks more than people think), and no professional support for my mental and physical illnesses. He is my sole support. And I know that it can become overwhelming for him. He expresses that sometimes. Hopefully that will change in the future though, and I can at least become independent to the point that I am not standing in the way for his needs.
Being in a caretaker – submissive dynamic doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Despite things being a bit in extremes at the moment, generally, both our needs are being met. He is a natural caretaker and it makes him feel good when he can take care of me. I can give him the appreciation and gratitude that he craves. And I can ask for help and support without feeling guilty for stealing his attention. I know that we need to work a bit more on making this balanced but I assume that once I have more support from professionals, it will improve. We are interdependent in this area. But we are definitely not co-dependent: we both enjoy being in those roles in our relationship.
Manipulation and Control
Manipulation and control are often mentioned as one of the biggest issues in co-dependent relationships. In these areas, abuse can easily happen. I am not saying that there aren’t abusive D/s relationships, there sure are. But in the best of worlds, all D/s dynamics are based on consent and safety. Communication happens and everyone has their partners’ well-being in mind. As I mentioned before, I am usually someone who is in control. In the bedroom, I love giving up control. It is a huge turn on for me. But outside of the bedroom, I really struggle with it. That doesn’t mean that giving up control makes me feel bad.
I think it is more of an issue that I have trouble doing what I want to be doing. My need, my want, is to give up control. And being without control doesn’t mean that I am the weak part in the relationship. To me it is quite the opposite: I am the one who constantly needs to overwrite the instinctive part of me that wants to question and feel like an active agent. That shows strength.
D/s is also about manipulation. You are conditioning a mind to do as it is told: with positive reinforcements and with punishments. If that isn’t manipulation, then I don’t know what is. But yet again, there is consent. I want to be trained, I want to learn to obey. I have a need and I want that need to be met. And I do not feel negative about it. I am more amused than anything about it all, honestly. I love the mindgames that my Master plays sometimes. And I also admit that I sometimes try to manipulate him as well, sometimes consciously, sometimes subconsciously.
I know that the power imbalance and the manipulative in a D/s relationship can seem like abuse. But it is not. If there is consent, communication and an honest expression of needs, a respect for boundaries and checking in with each other, then it is way healthier than most vanilla relationships are.
From my own experiences, co-dependency has a lot do with an overwhelming feeling of being stuck with your partner. You are dependent on them, and they are dependent on you (or the feeling your dependency gives them). You might lose your sense of self. I don’t have that feeling in my D/s relationship. Instead, I feel more freedom than I have ever felt before. I feel like the restraints that I had always felt, are gone now. I can be who I truly am: a submissive brat. And it is an amazing feeling.
I sometimes worry that my Master feels stuck with me, because he is aware of that without him, everything would fall apart for me. But then I see how my gratitude, appreciation and submission makes him smile. How he looks forward to hug me, to kiss me, to fuck me. We have chosen this relationship, we were both very aware of what we walked into. We have both consented to a D/s dynamic. Despite all the issues that my illnesses might pose, we are happy with each other.
I think before calling a relationship co-dependent, it is important to take a closer look at how the people in the relationship are actually feeling in their connection. Inter-dependency isn’t unhealthy: you can be happy with each other even though there is a dependency. I have experienced both co-dependency and inter-dependency. And I think the main difference lies in if you have actively chosen, agreed to and consented to the dynamic you are in. Co-dependency is involuntary, inter-dependency is voluntary.