From Dependence to Independence to Interdependence, Part 3

One aspect of our psychological growth is the movement from dependence to independence to interdependence. In the final part of this three-part series, we look at interdependence — what it is and how it creates a whole new way of relating to others.

Part 3: Interdependence

Our culture values independence — and this is a value I share. My interest is in helping people find their gift. I enjoy meeting those who have developed their own style — whether in an art form or in their way of life. Meeting a person with a sense of who they are is refreshing.

Independence is important. Unless people can challenge their tradition and develop their own style then the tradition becomes stale. We are stuck simply repeating the past, a past that becomes less and less relevant to how we live. In this way, simply repeating the past leads to the death of the tradition. Without innovation, without people developing their own style, any art form is doomed to sterility. And any individual’s life will simply be a repetition of their life at a particular age. We get stuck with nothing but the ‘good old days’. I don’t see anything wrong with reminiscing, but I do think it is a problem if we feel that nothing has happened in our lives ever since. Independence is needed to renew our traditions and keep ourselves fresh.

Interdependence adds another element. Independence is focused on the individual. The independent person may work with others but this is mainly for their own enjoyment and benefit. Interdependence goes beyond this.

Firstly, interdependence recognises the limitations of independence. Interdependence sees that independence is not separate to dependence but is a way of responding to it. Independence is not doing away with our need for hugs but refining how we ask for and give them. The way we walk is dependent on gravity, the way we talk is how we use our language — not being without it. While independence sees the individual as distinct, interdependence sees how this distinct individual relates to the world around: how their style chooses from and modifies the options available.

Secondly, interdependence seeks goals and projects bigger than the individual. Many of the crises confronting us at the moment (ecological catastrophe and appalling social inequity) are about more than individuals. They are about how individuals relate to each other and groups. This includes rules of trade, laws and resources used in transport (petrol rather than electricity, electricity generated by coal rather than winds or waves) and how groups (parliaments, companies) make decisions.

To make a better world means collaboration — interdependence. It means finding how individuals can contribute and work together for the good of all. This can sound utopian but is I think our everyday experience.

It is common for both people to feel enriched after a good conversation. An innovator, businessperson and marketing whiz can do more together than either one separately. (Should I mention satisfying sex?) From a casual hello to moments of shared intimacy to the building of mutual projects, mutual benefit (interdependence) is the rule rather than the exception.

I think it is worth saying that competition is often dependent on and legitimised by interdependence. Firstly any competition is dependent on shared rules. Without these rules (and people sticking to them) there can be no winner. Markets exist because there are legal rules. People can work for a promotion because they know what is expected. Any competition relies on a shared sense of reality and what the rules are. And there are usually penalties for breaching them — from penalties in sport to imprisonment. In one sense competition is a form of interdependence.

That competition is not enough is acknowledged when people assert that it is by competition that we all improve and benefit. This is to say: competition is not good in itself — it is a way for all of us to gain. Whether this assertion is always true I think is doubtful. A lot depends on how the competition is conducted — and how the rewards are shared around. A sport that was only concerned with the grand final wouldn’t last long. A company where only the most productive employee was paid wouldn’t be viable. Competition is legitimate because it leads to mutual benefit — this is acknowledging the reality that we are, all of us, interdependent.

Interdependence means having a sense of our own contribution and uniqueness. It means respecting the other’s gift too. And it means that we can collaborate for mutual benefit. And the examples of it are all around us.

To develop interdependence I think means:

  1. Embracing our dependence. This means knowing what we need and desire. This can be as simple as knowing we’re thirsty or the lovers’ passionate desire for each other.
  2. Valuing our independence. Knowing that we have a particular way of being and doing and having a sense of what we can contribute.
  3. Moving to the place where we work together. Knowing that we depend on and contribute to each other. Appreciating our own and others independence, where our own and others strengths and limitations are valued and become part of a bigger story.

Where do you see interdependence in your life? Have there been especially precious moments of interdependence for you? Let me know in the comments.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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