Maintaining the dependence/independence balance in your relationship

In any healthy relationship, it can be difficult to get the balance right between our need for independence and our need to lean on each other and know we can count on each other for nurturance and support. Relationships can feel unbalanced when they are skewed too far one way or the other. A few examples of this may be:-

  • A couple keep their money separate, make individual rather than joint financial investments, and ensure all bills are always split 50/50. They reason that this makes sense because, if the relationship ended tomorrow, it would be a simple matter to sort out their affairs and move on. This works well until they start their family, one is no longer able to work full-time and therefore earn 50% of the household income, and is spending the majority of their time doing the unpaid work of parenting and running the household.
  • A couple share the belief that relationships should involve doing everything together. They always socialize together, share all of their down-time and leisure activities with each other, and choose to work together in setting up a joint business. Although this works well for them for a while, they find themselves getting into frequent arguments about business decisions, where to go out, which friends they should catch up with, and what they should be doing on the weekend.
  • One partner becomes very sick with a chronic illness, and needs his partner to look after him, and to run the household as well as bringing in their sole income. She does this gladly at first, but as time goes on, she becomes increasingly exhausted and overwhelmed. She doesn't talk to him about this though, as she knows it's not his fault, and doesn't think it's OK for her to feel this way. They become less intimate, and barely talk to each other.


It can be tough to get the balance right, especially where things beyond our control may affect our capacity to give as well as receive, and to find creative ways to structure our competing needs for separateness and togetherness, autonomy and reliance on each other. Sometimes it's about having to update the way we do this - to realise that what worked well at one stage of our lives has to be reworked at another stage.


Using the examples above, restructuring may look something like this.


  • We maintain our need for financial independence by ensuring that some of our investments remain separate, but we agree that a proportion of the main wage-earner's income is used to pay bills, and the primary parent's unpaid work is regarded as an equivalent contribution to the household budget.
  • We revisit the idea that we 'should' do everything together, and acknowledge that while at times we wish to socialize with the same group of friends, and that spending time together is always going to be very important to us. at other times it's OK to do things separately. 
  • We acknowledge that my illness means I cannot earn an income or run the household, but we work out what things I can still do that will share the load. We also work out the ways that I can give you emotional support - giving you a massage, listening and tuning in when you talk to me about the things that are important to you, spending time together doing things we can still both enjoy. We also work out ways we can each get some of our needs met by others, for example, having a carer come in to spend time with me while you go out with friends.


Balancing independence and dependency needs isn't easy even within ourselves, and is more complex between two people! What's most important is to recognise that both are OK and important, we don't have to choose one at the expense of the other, and it's necessary to review how we keep the balance right for us as circumstances change.


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