Is it better to be dependent or independent in a relationship?

A student asked me a question about relationships, but I’m reframing the question a bit here:

Is it better to be dependent or independent in a relationship?

Dependency is never a good thing.

Here is something marriage counsellors will often tell you: “A healthy relationship is one where two whole individuals come together to enrich each other. An unhealthy relationship is one where two non-whole individuals come together expecting the other (or the relationship) to make them whole.”

What I mean by a whole/wholesome individual is minimally, one who is able to love himself or herself.

I think it is part of the struggle of the human experience to go through phases of disliking or hating who we are. I suppose it’s an important process of discovering more about we who are and what we want out of life. There can be no end to the amount of imperfections we can find within ourselves. We are saturated with imperfections at every nook and cranny of our being. And it’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of self-disgust at every imperfection.

The Japanese have a concept in their aesthetic philosophy known as “wabi-sabi,” which is a cultivated ability of appreciating beauty in the imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. And I do think that that is a very powerful idea to embrace, to be able to look at our imperfections in their full glory and learn to see beauty in that.

Allow me to digress a bit into this. One of the most fascinating things I’ve learnt about visual art is that you need to add imperfections either as noise in digital art, or “imperfect” brush strokes or seemingly “unmatching” colours to the canvas to increase the level of realism and beauty in a picture. If you didn’t do that, the image looks too clean, almost like a cartoon. In a similar way, I do like to think of my own imperfections as contributing to the aesthetic quality of who I am.

Why is this important in a relationship? Because if we don’t know how to love ourselves, we outsource the love of ourselves to an external party, and become entirely dependent on the other person to make us feel whole, and with it comes the insecurity of losing that wholeness. It often gets confused with the insecurity of losing the person who can make us feel loved and wholesome, and depending on the individual that insecurity may manifest itself in different ways: either sacrificing far too much of yourself or who you are just to please the partner in the hopes that the partner will stay; and/or, attempting to manipulate and control the partner in the hopes that the partner never leaves your grasp.

These are things I am sharing from personal experience. Because I was once in a relationship with someone who could not love herself. She was very dependent in the relationship, and thus was very clingy and fearful of losing me to the extent that I was emotionally manipulated into giving up a lot of my friendships and personal hobbies and interests much to my own personal detriment. And in many ways, I too am to blame for this, because I should have stood my ground. But I think at some point, I also forgot how to love myself and prioritised the relationship as if it would make me whole and wholesome, that I was willing to give up all these things that mattered so dearly to me. In the end, we gave up so much, we sacrificed so much of who we once were for the sake of preserving the relationship, that we both became empty shells of who we used to be.

The moral of the story is this: Don’t be dependent on your partner to feel loved and whole. And don’t be dependent on the relationship either. It is our lives and it is really up to us to make ourselves feel loved and whole. Relationships are meant to enrich us. Relationships are not meant to save us from ourselves. So don’t ever prioritise your partner or the relationship at the expense of giving up who you are.

But even if we make such mistakes, that’s ok. It’s normal to make such mistakes. Even I made such a mistake. I guess it’s an important learning experience, perhaps it’s an important experience for our own growth and development. Humanity seems to repeat this mistake again and again, and we know this because stories like these are recorded even in the earliest of writings. The history of humanity is filled with many stories of heartbreaks, miseries, and regretful sacrifices people made for the sake of one’s partners or the relationship.

We just have to learn to love ourselves so that we can be better and kinder to ourselves, our friends, and our partners.

Author: Jonathan Y. H. Sim

Jonathan Sim is an Instructor with the Department of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He is passionate about teaching and he continues to research fun and innovative ways of engaging students to learn effectively. He has been teaching general education modules to a diverse range of undergraduate students and adult learners at the University.

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