The Four Dependencies: How to Know if You’re in a Healthy Relationship…or Not.

The day she’s born is one of joy. Her parents take her home from the hospital, excitement and trepidation swirling inside of them.

“Can we do this?” they wonder, as they count fingers and toes and tiptoe into her room at night to make sure she’s still breathing.

Her dependence on them is both terrifying, overwhelming and sobering. She relies on them for everything in those early years. Her exuberance for life is thrilling and exhausting. Her demands are incessant. Her curiosity about everything is equal parts frustrating and humorous.

Slowly, as the years go by, her desire to assert herself and achieve some independence grows. She tests out the word “no” with varying results. She bucks against the rules and suffers the consequences. Her parents give her more and more freedom as she grows in responsibility and gains trust. She uses that freedom to make decisions without first consulting them. Some of those decisions work well, some don’t.

Finally the day comes for her to leave home. Her parents brush tears from their eyes as she climbs in her car and drives away. Have they given her the tools and resources for her to stand on her own two feet and make her own way in the world?

They watch her achieve milestones: college graduation, her first professional job. They meet the man she marries, watch her commit herself to him. They delight in the grandchildren that come along. And they appreciate the relationship they have with her now, one based on mutual love and encouragement. Though she will always need them in certain ways, her needs have changed. She is an adult.

But what if that’s not what happened at all?   

What if, instead, her father abandoned the family when she was young? What if her mom fell apart? What if her childhood was lost in an instant?

Her mom falls into a deep, chronic depression, interspersed with moments of frenetic energy as the revolving door of men swings around. As the oldest she becomes responsible for her siblings. She gets them up in the morning, gets them dressed, fed, walks to school with them.

She is ten.

Her mom relies heavily on her to help in other ways because of her long work shifts. So she often cooks dinner, does laundry and other household chores. She is a built-in babysitter when mom has a date. Or, when mom is feeling overwhelmed, depressed or just bitter about the cards life has dealt her, she sits on the bed and listens to mom gripe and complain. Sometimes she tucks mom in to bed before picking up the empty bottles of wine and throwing them away.

As she transitions into adolescence, her resentment towards mom grows. But what can she do? Mom needs her. Her siblings need her. She questions what kind of future awaits her. Will she ever be able to do things she wants to do?

She discovers that guys like her, but their attention is confusing. One in particular keeps asking her out. She’s thrilled that he notices her because he’s pretty cute. That must mean she’s special. She starts seeing him, but secretly. She knows mom would be angry, would forbid it. But she wonders if that’s just because it would put a crimp in mom’s lifestyle.

Their relationship is stormy. Equal parts exhilaration when he’s treating her well combine with confusion and hurt when he’s not. He acts jealous when she talks to other guys at school. He doesn’t like it when she wants to hang out with girlfriends. He wants her with him all the time. She finds herself doing things for him that she knows are wrong, like letting him copy her homework. And touch her. It’s thrilling and scary at the same time. “But that’s what love is,” she tells herself, as she thinks about her mom and the men that have come and gone over the years.

Sometimes he reminds her of her mom. But the thought of losing him is terrifying. He loves her. Who would she be without him? Yes, he hurts her sometimes with his words. He’s even gotten rough a couple times. But he’s always sorry afterwards and she knows he means it when he says it won’t happen again.

He dumps her, unexpectedly. He says she won’t put out. He says she’s become boring. He says a lot of things that hurt her…and stick.

She finally graduates high school, and starts at the local community college so that she can continue to help out at home. She dates other guys, but she struggles to find one that wants more than sex. Every time she sleeps with a guy they end up leaving her. Why can’t they love her for who she is, not just what she gives them?

“You’re too codependent,” her friends say. But what does that even mean? Could it be true?

She feels growing frustration with men…and her mom. Why do the people she loves keep letting her down? Even her siblings still rely on her too much. They take and take, but they don’t give back.

She determines to stop expecting anything from anyone—that way she can’t get hurt. She begins pushing people away, even friends. She refuses guys who want to hang out or hook up. She focuses on her studies, but she’s lonely. “Well, better than being let down,” she argues.

Over time, however, she finds herself struggling with depression and anxiety. Encouraged to get help, she finally goes to the college counseling department. Maybe they can help her figure things out.

Here’s what she learns…

Being intentional means caring enough about others to first take care of yourself. You need to be healthy. Your relationships need to be healthy.

“Are they?” her therapist asks.

“How do I know?” she throws back.

“The answer to that is…it depends.”

“Depends on what?”

“On what you are dependent on for health and happiness.”


“From infancy until young adulthood we are dependent on our parents,” her therapist states. “They sustain us with the necessary things in life. They love and support us, guide us with teachings and corrections. That is, if they’re doing their jobs properly. To be dependent is to rely on or be controlled by someone, or something. Being dependent is not necessarily negative, as is the case with children. But when we mature and reach adulthood it’s expected that we become less dependent, less reliant, on our parents. We make decisions for ourselves, we begin paying our own way instead of having them foot the bill for all or most of our expenses.  Most parents look forward to their adult children achieving these milestones.”

“Not my mom,” she thinks to herself.


“Those milestones,” the therapist continues,” indicate that we’ve attained a measure of independence. Being independent means being able to make decisions without the help of others. Being completely independent means we’re not relying on anybody for anything.”

“That’s a good thing, right?” she asks.

“Is it?” her therapist challenges. “Is it even possible to be completely independent? Sometimes we take the desire to be independent to extremes.”

“What do you mean?” she asks.

“Our desire to not rely on others is often borne out of pain, disappointment, betrayal. We don’t want to be let down anymore. We don’t trust people. We see needing others as a weakness, and conversely, we see “standing on our own two feet” as a strength. The truth is, we’re all dependent in one way or another. Sometimes our dependency is healthy, sometimes it’s not.”

“You mean being codependent?” she questions.


“Yes, exactly. Sometimes our reliance on others can be excessive and prevent us from developing the necessary life skills to be able to live intentionally and contribute to the well-being of others in healthy, balanced ways. It’s even possible to rely on others for our sense of identity and well-being. When that happens, it can be an indication of codependency. A codependent relationship requires two people. Person A exhibits some type of psychological or physiological dependency, often resulting in addictive behavior. That dependency leads Person A to lean too heavily on Person B. Person B, in turn, thrives on Person A’s neediness. The two form a highly dysfunctional, one-sided relationship. One takes, the other gives. Both depend on that for their sense of worth.”

She thinks about her mom’s neediness. About all the guys in her life who’ve taken from her but given nothing back. She thinks about her siblings’ dependence on her in multiple ways.

“How can I know if I’m in a codependent relationship? Is there some kind of test or checklist?” she asks.

“Sort of. People who are codependent often exhibit these attributes.” The therapist gives her a handout, and she reads the following:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Struggling to say “no” or stand up for yourself
  • Wanting to please or take care of others at the expense of your own health
  • Emotional reactivity
  • Being overly controlling
  • Poor communication skills
  • Lying
  • A constant need to be with the other person
  • Having your happiness tied up in how that other person treats you
  • Denying that there are problems

As she reads through the list she recognizes several of the traits in herself.


“So why isn’t being independent the answer?” she asks again in frustration. “I don’t get it.”

“Well, none of us can be completely self-sufficient, can we? Nor should we want to be.”

“We shouldn’t? Why not?” she responds.

“Think about it for a moment. What do you need to sustain life? To sustain well-being? You need food, clothing and shelter. We’re all dependent on the natural resources that God created. We need these equally. We also rely on each other for support, comfort, encouragement and yes, love.”

“Yeah, but that’s the problem,” she says bitterly. “People let you down. Or they lean on you too much.”

“You’re right. That does happen. People aren’t perfect. Relationships aren’t perfect. Knowing how to identify the difference between an interdependent versus a codependent relationship is really important.”

“Interdependent?” she asks. “What’s the difference?”

“Well, interdependent relationships are about balance. There’s a mutual reliance, a give and take between two people, or within a family, or even in a community. To be interdependent you have to be confident about the relationship without losing your identity. You love being with that person, but you’re able to function without him, and he without you. Your self-worth doesn’t come from being with that person.”

“Where does it come from then?”

“Aaaah. Well that’s a conversation for another day.”

She leaves her appointment pondering everything that they discussed, and how it relates to her. The therapist has given her a lot to think about, along with some things to write and reflect on. She looks forward to her next session so that she can continue to make some important changes about how she views relationships. She knows it will take time. There’s a lot to be unlearned, and she’s got some serious trust issues to work through. But finally, she sees hope.

What about you?

Are you struggling in an unhealthy relationship? Are you too dependent on all the wrong people, or too independent? Both are recipes for relationship disaster!

From a Christian perspective, dependency is not unhealthy, as long as your dependency is on God.

Behold, God is my helper; the Lord is the upholder of my life.” (Psalm 54:4, ESV)

Trusting in God completely, letting Him guide and direct your life, is the healthiest decision you can make. Only He can show you what real love looks like. This kind of love is necessary for healthy, interdependent relationships with others.

To learn whether you’re in a codependent or interdependent relationship, download my free quiz.



  1. Karen Collins on June 15, 2019 at 2:24 am

    Excellent and right on target!

    • Debbie Pierce on June 16, 2019 at 4:51 am

      Thanks Karen, i appreciate that!

  2. Alisha Ross on December 26, 2019 at 5:39 am

    I have been absent for a while, but now I remember why I used to love this web site. Thank you, I will try and check back more often. How frequently you update your web site?

    • Debbie Pierce on January 2, 2020 at 7:40 pm

      Thanks Alisha! Sorry to just now be responding. The website is updated every time a new blog posts. I’ve taken off December and part of January (from blog writing) as I’m putting together some exciting new content…a book, a new curriculum for couples and my course for women will be on a new platform soon. So stay tuned, and come back and check it out as often as you want.

  3. Dylan Weeks on December 7, 2022 at 11:46 am

    Great shaare

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