Safe dependency in adult relationships
Updated: Feb 5, 2022
“Recognize and admit that you are emotionally attached to and dependent on your partner in much the same way that a child is on a parent for nurturing, soothing, and protection. Adult attachments may be more reciprocal and less centered on physical contact, but the nature of the emotional bond is the same.”-Sue Johnson, "Hold me tight"
Dependency has been made into a bad word. Dependency holds us back, holds us down, cages us, suffocates us, engulfs us, robs us of being who we are. Dependency is dangerous.
A big part of my work and my dharma is to speak about the importance of safe dependency and the need for safe dependency. In this article I will break down the basic trajectory for how dependency becomes fraught and I will speak about what safe dependency looks like and why safe dependency is not only healthy and normal, but immensely nourishing.
How dependency becomes fraught:
We are born with the instinct to bond. This bond develops steadily as the child’s reliance on their caregiver is met with consistent and attuned care.
This kind of dance of vulnerability met with care is what creates a secure bond.
Security is a prerequisite of autonomy and exploration.
Things become a bit more complex when, in the process of depending on others, we meet their humanity. Our caregivers- even the most attuned ones- have limits and because they do, we experience occasional frustration by our caregiver’s inability to meet our needs perfectly.
The occasional experience of such frustration is required, so that our dependency doesn’t become total and all encompassing. There needs to be some risk in those early relationships because it promotes the kind of differentiation needed for us to experience belonging to our own life.
What we all need is a “good enough parent.” Good enough parents are perfectly at home with their humanity and in turn they also respect that humanity in their children. They understand the value safety and are capable of consistent warmth. They also are keenly aware of the dangers of the kind of dependency that will paralyze the child and will stop them from exploring in the world. In other words, good enough parents no not need their children to be dependent on them.
Lack of security in early relationships stops vulnerability and reaching out. Dependency becomes associated with pain, but because our dependency needs remain strong, there is shame associated with having those needs. Dependency starts to feel painful and suffocating.
When connection with another human hurts, we try to get our dependency needs satisfied while involving humans as little as possible and if we do involve them, we employ all kinds of protective barriers to mitigate the risk of getting hurt.
Sometimes that means that we keep others at arm’s length or we might be intolerant of other peoples imperfections because they present the risk of us being hurt in one way or another. We might unconsciously start managing other people’s ways of being. We might feel hyper-vigilant and we might notice every single way in which they fail. This kind of relating is an attempt to manage the risks associated with being in relationship with an imperfect being.
When connection with other human beings feels too unsafe, we might look for surrogates to get our dependency needs met. We might start relying on food or alcohol or drugs. We might shop excessively or we might lose ourselves in gadgets or in some kind of a fantasy world.
While this risk-free arrangements do offer relief, they do ultimately foster the kind of dependency that is highly costly, both literately and figuratively.
The more we rely on inanimate objects to help us soothe and to help us regulate, the more terrifying our attempts to re-engage with other humans become. Moreover, the tolerance for frustration and disappointment that we need to be in human relationships becomes even lower because inanimate objects challenge us to develop such tolerance not at all.
Safe dependency is dependency that does not cost. Safe dependency is what happens when our inherent neediness and our autonomy are respected at the same time. Safe dependency means never being on the hook for receiving the nourishment needed.
Most importantly, safe dependency can be learned and practiced later on in life. In fact, I have seen it to be life-changing.
Here are some of the elements of the attachment healing work:
Deciding that safe dependency is something you’re interested in experiencing in your relationship(s)
De-shaming safe dependency. Restoring its value as a normal healthy foundational developmental need
Exploring the inherited relational blueprint-individual attachment style
If you’re working with an existing relationship, exploring the relationship attachment
Human connection is by nature imperfect. Building tolerance for the reality that injury can and will occur in all relationships and learning and practicing skills to return to safety is key
Holding the importance of safety and autonomy at the same time and learning tools/practices for how to do that individually and in the relationship
Working to close off exist where dependency needs get met in ways that hurt the individual or the relationship
I am convinced that just like we only use about 10% of our brain, we only enjoy about 10% of love that is available to us. It is never too late to reclaim what has alluded so many in childhood. It is never too late to learn how to return to the place of safety and connection.