I’m a grandma now. That means I once again get to delight in developmental milestones of a little one, but this time I also get the joy of watching my own child watch his child grow. Recently, I got to be a part of observing the developmental process as my little granddaughter went from army crawling to being able to crawl across a room by herself. It was amazing to watch her daily progress and her determination to figure it out. She is a curious and tenacious little soul when it comes to being able to move around in her world. She’s already working at pulling herself up to things and wanting to take those first steps on her own. She’s such a joy to watch!
It is easy to see the development of a baby growing into a toddler and learning some basic, yet critically important life skills. It can be much harder to see our development that continues as adults.
This month as we reflect on the interdependent relationship between men and women, it’s valuable to break down the process of development in moving from dependence to independence to interdependence. Some of those tasks happen naturally and are easy to see, but sometimes we get stuck in underdeveloped or unhealthy patterns.
One night while my granddaughter was practicing her crawling, she was moving toward her mother, who was enticing her with a favorite treat. The problem was, there was a corner of a wall that was getting in the way of her moving forward. Her legs and hips were halted at the corner. She kept sitting up and trying to go back to crawling, but it just moved her further behind the corner and away from her goal. She just didn’t have the experience and understanding to know how to maneuver her body around the corner so that she could keep going. Her daddy stepped in to help and scooted her over away from the obstacle so she could continue the journey to her treat.
The same thing can happen to us in relationships as adults. We crawl ourselves into a corner and don’t continue to develop because we don’t know how to get out, and sometimes we don’t even realize that we are stuck because the pattern has become familiar to our human brain.
It is normal to begin our lives and relationships in a state of dependence. Just like my granddaughter needed her daddy to move her away from something she wasn’t yet able to navigate, there are elements of human relationships that we need help with while we learn skills. This can include communication, listening, conflict negotiation, problem identification, problem solving, prioritizing goals, setting boundaries, and demonstrating empathy. We are not born knowing how to do these things. We need other people in connected relationships to help us learn them. While we work to understand how to implement these mature relationship skills, we are dependent on others who do know how to do them.
In time, and with effort and persistence, our dependence can give way to independence as we learn and practice these skills. We increase our emotional intelligence as we watch others model the skills and we implement them ourselves. This journey to independence takes time and perseverance, but we demonstrate that we want to be more relationally mature as we develop these skills and bring them to our relationships, rather than depending on another person to fulfill these relationship needs.
When two people come to a relationship each being able to independently communicate, problem-solve, show empathy, etc., they are able to develop an interdependent relationship. They can learn together the reciprocity of managing our own needs and wants and balancing them with the needs and wants of another. There certainly will be times that one is stronger and the other is weaker. Times of illness or overwhelm may lead to one partner caring more of the load. There also may be skills, such as empathy, where one partner is naturally more skilled. That doesn’t mean the other person doesn’t need to show up with the skills of empathy they do have. It just means that there’s a give and take in relationships that allows reciprocity and balance to happen. This resilience, coupled with independence, is what leads to healthy interdependence.
One way this process can go wrong is for one person to stay in a mode of dependence, either not wanting to learn a skill or not seeing that a skill is needed to develop mature relationships. The other person, who has the skill of independence in that area, can often take on the adult role for both people in the relationship. This is called codependence. If left unaddressed, this pattern can lead to imbalance and unhealthy relationship patterns. It can lead to getting stuck in corners and not being able to grow and develop the relationship.
Healthy relationships between men and women are built upon healthy growth and development of individuals. As we each take ownership of our development, just like my little granddaughter, and practice more every day to move from dependence to independence, we increase our capacity to nurture relationships of interdependence.