How to Dodge the Dilemma of Relationship Dependency
If you’re in a relationship, I’d like you to take a moment to consider the following question:
How dependent are you on your partner?
Now, I’m not referring to emotional dependence here. Rather, I’m asking about your level of dependence in the literal sense: how much or to what degree do you rely on your partner for aid or support with respect to certain things in your life?
The reason I ask is because I’ve always considered myself to be a pretty independent person. I chose to study business as an undergrad in part because I had grown up observing my parents, who - despite being extremely adept physicians - struck me as quite vulnerable at various points in their lives due to their lack of business and financial expertise.
I consequently came to associate knowledge with power, and I spent the first 26 years of my life in school, working to set myself up well for the future. And truthfully, I thought I’d succeeded. I landed a great job, was financially independent, and had a solid handle on all of the administrative aspects of my life.
But after my marriage fell apart and my husband moved out, I received quite a rude awakening when I realized exactly how dependent on him I had been.
There were an irritating number of things that I soon discovered I didn’t know about our house and its inner workings. Now, in my defense, our home had been a new construction when we bought it. So everything had been built with the latest technology and was wayyyy more complicated than it needed to be in order to perform its basic intended function.
But the unfortunate fact was, I was hopelessly helpless when it came to tasks like: programming the thermostat and our sprinkler system, figuring out how exactly to control the TV and successfully interface with its many accompanying accessories, tackling car issues, and determining what to do if something broke (like one day when the garage door mysteriously stopped operating and I couldn’t get my car out to go to work - I mean what in the actual fuck?!). All of these items were things that my husband had historically handled.
He had worked from home, and he was pretty handy when it came to assembling things, fixing things, rigging things, etc. And because I’d started dating him when I was 19 years old, these were skills and tasks I basically never took the time or put in the effort to learn because I had never needed to and never foresaw needing to for that matter.
[As an aside, thankfully he and I separately managed our finances and were both savvy when it came to credit and investment, or else I could easily imagine how the process of paying bills and figuring out how to manage credit cards and finances might have quickly deteriorated into a colossal shitshow as well.]
After he moved out, I felt so impotent and pathetic. I mean, this stuff I’d find myself getting hung up on was seriously basic household shit - stuff that I felt I should’ve been able to do. And it was incredibly frustrating to feel that helpless, that useless.
I didn’t want to admit that he held so much power over me. But at the same time, I found myself in a position where I regularly had to resign myself to reaching out and asking him how to do certain things.
Many of us have seen this kind of thing happen with respect to our parents or grandparents. Back in the 1940s and ‘50s, it was relatively common for men to have careers and manage the family’s finances while women were homemakers.
But women had (and continue to have) a longer life expectancy than men. So, as a result, we’ve often seen the following scenario play out among older couples: the man passes away, and his widow is left behind, oblivious to her financial situation and reliant on her kids to sort things out for her.
And while that depicts one common pattern of relationship dependency, it only shows one side of the coin. Because if the man in that same circumstance outlives his wife or their relationship ends for some reason, he may find that he was dependent on her with respect to their home life.
Regardless of sex, whichever partner spends more time at home dealing with house-related matters frequently has superior knowledge of “household operations”, so to speak, such as how to clean certain things, whom to call to address issues that arise, what needs to get done when from a maintenance perspective, or even how to cook, or properly care for children or pets, and so forth. And oftentimes, the other partner to the relationship will find themselves in a position of dependency when it comes to the household realm.
There’s a dilemma at work here surrounding dependency on our partners that I feel warrants discussion. And this dilemma stems from our tendency to divide labor in our relationships.
We look to split and distribute various tasks and chores with our partners because it’s efficient to do so. By divvying up responsibilities, each party to the relationship can enable the other to focus their energy more directly and effectively on fewer things.
But the problem with this tactic is that it tends to create a situation in which there are some tasks that each member of the couple never ends up doing or learning for themselves. And a dynamic like that often serves to render one or both parties helpless and vulnerable when, inevitably (either due to death or the relationship’s demise), their partner is no longer in the picture.
Can you see the dependency dilemma that’s been created?
Although I’m taking pains to point out the negative effects of this pattern, to be clear, I am not suggesting that we should all just seek to fend for ourselves and never request or accept help from others. One of the wonderful benefits of being in a partnership lies in the symbiotic and synergistic nature of the relationship - each person can contribute and provide benefit to the other. As one of the strengths and advantages of a partnership, this is a quality that should be leveraged.
No, what I am advocating for is competence and capability as opposed to reliance. Although we may look to our partners to do something for us, we should also take on the responsibility of learning and understanding how to do it ourselves, in case we ever need to know.
Sadly, no partnership lasts forever. Your significant other could suffer an accident, or your relationship could implode, or any other number of things could happen that might leave you in the world without them.
And yes. You can and will survive and manage that situation if or when it happens. But if you can be better prepared for it? Trust me, it will make it less painful to go through. You don’t want to be struggling to try and figure out the same sort of inane shit that I was when you’re also grieving over the loss of your partner.
My point is, I think we should all take a step back in our relationships and really acknowledge what it is that we don’t know. Really acknowledge what the other person does for us. And yes, practice gratitude for it, but also learn how to do it ourselves in case we might need to some day.
We don’t have to fall victim to the relationship dependency dilemma.
Now, it’s important to acknowledge that being dependent on another person can be necessary at certain times in our lives. When we’re young, when we’re suffering from an illness, when we’re struggling to manage all that’s on our plate, and in myriad other circumstances, it can be important to surrender and look for leverage where we can find it by allowing others to lend us a hand and provide us with support.
But it’s one thing to accept help when needed and another to be consistently reliant on another person.
So I’d like to invite you to take a little more responsibility and ownership of your life.
How? Well, here are a few tips I could’ve benefited from:
Try taking some time and investing in your own personal growth & development.
Ex: set an hour aside each Sunday to learn something new and useful from your partner, from a handy or skilled friend, or even from a YouTube video. Maybe take a basic finance course, learn how something works, etc.
Gather a list of helpful resources to keep in a drawer or on your fridge for assistance if you need it.
Ex: the names and phone numbers of local repair people or companies, contact information for your kids’ doctors, etc.
Create a calendar to capture household-related maintenance reminders.
Ex: when the sprinkler system might need to get blown out and winterized, when the HVAC air filter might need to be replaced, etc.
Let’s start taking it upon ourselves to be a bit more capable, handy, and prepared. Let’s learn some new things that, sure, might be mundane, but also might be useful to know. Let’s acquire more life skills.
Because, honestly, why the fuck not?
At worst, it’ll be a boring way to spend a weekend or two. But at best, it could improve our competence, broaden our skill sets, and render us better prepared for whatever life may bring. And wouldn’t you agree that’s reason enough?