The word ‘dependency’ can strike fear in some people when it comes to talking about relationships. Growing up, I absorbed a lot of cultural messages about how people should be independent, capable of doing things on their own, and don’t need to rely on anyone else to get things done. These have been both beneficial and detrimental lessons in my life.
But what if we look at dependency as something to cultivate on purpose? How do we differentiate between negative and positive dependency? And is it really so bad to build your life around or with another person?
To make things a little tricker, let’s add power exchange to all of that, a relationship model that often puts dependency right in the center.
What are Codependency and Interdependency?
Most people have heard the word codependent. We may have some idea as to what this looks like or causes. Many of us may think of manipulation, verbal or emotional abuse, gaslighting. According to a paper published in the Journal of Mental Health, codependency can be described as “an unhealthy devotion to a relationship a the cost of one’s personal and psychological needs.” PsychCentral.com describes codependency as a “one-side relationship where on person relies on the other for meeting nearly all of their emotional and self-esteem needs.” Symptoms may include low self-esteem, the need to people-please, poor boundaries, and being reactive.
On the flip side is interdependent. This word is newer to me and I wasn’t sure what it meant specifically when I first heard it. The Oxford dictionary simply defines interdependence as “the dependence of two or more people or things on each other.” To dig a little deeper, PsychCentral.com writes that “interdependency requires two people capable of autonomy…their lives are intertwined and they’re affected by and need each other. However, they share power equally and take responsibility for their own feelings, actions, and contributions to the relationship.”
From these two paragraphs, it’s very easy to see that codependency is “bad” and interdependency is “good”. Codependency grows out of a negative power imbalance where one person is compulsive needing to keep their partner tied to them through closeness and narrow support systems. People in these relationships may say things like “I can’t live without you” and if one is having a bad day, so is the other. Interdependency grows out of an equal power balance where both people surrender power at different times for the other person’s own good without keeping score. These relationships are consistent and predictable and aren’t self-centered.
Check the end of this blog post for more in-depth reading about codependency and interdependency.
Codependency, Interdependency, and Power Exchange
One common characteristic of a codependent relationship is an imbalance of power. Another characteristic is when one person takes on the responsibility for the other. At first glance, this sounds like power exchange. A Dominant has more power in a relationship while also taking on the responsibility of caring for the submissive under whatever terms and conditions are agreed upon.
We often say that consent is the difference between BDSM and abuse. It’s a simplified phrase but I think it’s an important one to keep in mind when we’re looking at codependency and comparing it to a power exchange relationship. Especially if we’re looking at a relationship like mine – 24/7 TPE M/s. I have purposefully entered a relationship that has a power imbalance, a reliance on my Dominant, and an inability to function (in some ways) without the relationship. I don’t shy away from the phrase codependent when discussing my M/s as much as I used to but it isn’t entirely accurate for us either.
Sir Luke and His victor are an M/s couple I’m friends with who describe their dynamic as codependent. While victor isn’t incapable of being independent if need be, he doesn’t want to be. I’ve heard them describe themselves as obsessed and reliant on each other to the point that if the dynamic needed to end, both of them would be distressed and in a difficult place. This is a very surface look at their relationship since it isn’t mine to explain in detail but they are a very loving and happy couple by every measure. I would go so far as to say that their methods have made them one of the strongest, most admirable M/s couples I know. I admire the way that they have created codependence and assessed the risks of this choice and decided the benefits are worth it.
Their dynamic has led me to ask myself a lot of questions. If we choose to engage in codependency consciously via power exchange, is it still negative? I don’t think so and Sir Luke and His Victor certainly don’t think so. They are devoted to a specific quality of life and acknowledging that achieving that quality of life means moving into codependent territory with purpose. Making the conscious choice to utilize various aspects of codependent relationships in order to deepen and shape their power exchange may seem like an extreme one but both are involved by choice.
If we choose to engage in codependency consciously via power exchange, is it still negative?
If we are able to function easily after this kind of relationship ends, were we ever truly dependent on that other person? Does the concept of dependency also need after effects in order to be “real”? And does agreeing to a codependent style relationship negate the essence of codependency in the first place?
On the other side is describing M/s as interdependent. Daddy and I more frequently describe our M/s this way even though we have codependent elements. We want our dynamic to support us as individuals while simultaneously allowing us to support one another. Daddy wants me to have good self-esteem, confidence, and be capable of independence. Consistency and predictability are important to both of us in our lives and dynamic. While Daddy is responsible for my care, I’m still responsible for my emotions, my reactions, and my general well-being.
Most power exchange folk I know describe their relationship this way whether or not they know the word interdependence specifically. They engage in power exchange dynamics because it buoys them through life in a positive, healing, and supportive manner rather than the Dominant bullying the submissive into a dynamic (or the other way around!). Dominance and submission are often described as things that come from within. There is the age-old question “Is a Master a Master if they have no slave?” and vice versa. Many of us believe that yes, a Master is a Master no matter what and a slave is a slave. The existence of one doesn’t rely on the other. Interdependence emerges from this belief allows the core selves of Master and slave to entwine and support one another.
They engage in power exchange dynamics because it buoys them through life in a positive, healing, and supportive manner…
However, I think that some core concepts of power exchange conflicts directly with the concepts of interdependence. The largest point of power exchange is the exchange. I have given power over my life to Daddy in exchange for being taken care of. There are many more nuances than that but we aren’t on completely equal footing all the time in our lives. I want my sense of self, my sense of slavehood, to be enmeshed with who Daddy is. I value the times when I have the opportunity to align myself to his sense of will and am able to become more of the person that he values rather than being truly independent. Power exchange gives me the ability to stop worrying about individual decisions and instead rely on him and his ideas to move through my life.
Dependency In My Dynamic
Early in our relationship, I found it painful to be away from Daddy. It manifested as pain in my joints, in constant anxiety, a deep need to be around him, touching him. I had recently left a difficult, negatively codependent relationship and to want to, to need to, be around someone so much that I felt physically ill when I wasn’t was terrifying.
Looking back, there are other reasons I felt this way physically, but the emotional desire to be near Daddy was very real. It continues to be. There are plenty of nights that we will lay in bed together and I will tell him that I missed him today. There was nothing unusual about the day – he went to work and came home – but I missed him. I missed seeing him, hearing him, being able to touch him or ask for a kiss. I haven’t experienced this as intensely in previous relationships. Perhaps its the nature of the power exchange or whatever force it is that keeps drawing us back together again, but the need to be with him, near him, is very real to me.
We’ve both struggled with harmful codependent relationships in the past and have been determined to not repeat those negative cycles. But we also hold this idea that power exchange is codependency in a sense. We’ve previously described our relationship as “co-supportive”. We’ve begun interdependency instead since it’s positive, describes the way we have woven our dynamic together into our lives. The power exchange exists in a way that I yield to his choices as he leads us to build a life together. It’s about working as a team rather than him coercing me into what he wants.
…power exchange is codependency in a sense.
I’ve moved from identifying as a submissive to identifying as a slave last spring and it’s also brought a change in some of the ways I view my dependence on the dynamic and on Daddy. I am aware that I thrive best in a dynamic with someone who will set standards and expectations and keep me accountable. I think part of it the shift has been realizing that giving up being in charge all the time isn’t the same as reducing my responsibilities. I may not decide how or when to handle them but it doesn’t negate the fact that things have to be taken care of. If anything, the responsibilities feel heavier because I want to please Daddy and not disappoint him. If anything, my guilt comes from knowing that I would rather be in an interdependent/codependent dynamic than doing life on my own. I don’t ever want my partner, no matter the kind of relationship we have, to be in a relationship that they feel obligated to stay in. I don’t want them to feel trapped because they know or believe that I would struggle more without them. However, Daddy has been just as much of a contributor to this dynamic as me and has agreed to take on responsibilities in exchange for receiving my service.
I’m comfortable admitting that I am dependent on Daddy. My quality of life is vastly improved by living with and serving him. I absolutely depend on my dynamic to build the skills that most people don’t even think about – eating twice a day, keeping up on house chores, leaving the house, etc. My mental and physical illnesses have made this difficult to various degrees in the past and continue to do so. I turn to my dynamic, to Daddy, to continue checking my expectations of my body and mind. I turn to my protocols and commands and the shape of our dynamic when I don’t know how to move through life.
Risk Awareness and Safety
One of the typical questions an s-type gets when saying that they are in an M/s dynamic or total power exchange dynamic is “Well if your Master ordered you to cut your arm off, wouldn’t you have to do it?”
This is the part where you roll your eyes. Here’s the thing, I wouldn’t serve someone who made shitty decisions. I wouldn’t be collared to someone who wanted to cause me true put-me-in-the-hospital-or-a-grave bodily harm. I have learned how to remove people from my life who encourage me to make bad decisions. I’ve also learned how to be devoted to someone I am also critical of. Daddy encourages me to question him and believes that in doing so, we will learn to understand one another better. I have learned how to become dependent without becoming hopeless. I have spent time developing the skills and self-awareness to be in a dynamic that has a dependency element to it.
I wouldn’t serve someone who made shitty decisions.
If my dynamic became toxically codependent or Daddy began giving orders that go against our ethical code, I have plenty of ground to stand on and push back. I have people that I discuss our dynamic with and listen to their thoughts carefully. I value their outside opinion because it can be very easy to slip into bad habits without realizing it. Daddy and I have plans in place if our relationship did go sideways and I needed to remove myself for any reason.
Because we’ve both been in negative codependent relationships, we both know what to keep an eye out for in regards to our own previous patterns and behaviors. We have conversations about red flags or concerns and explore if it’s emotional baggage coming up that needs to be handled or if our relationship is going off course. We want to succeed. We want to grow in positive ways together. So we have these conversations no matter what.
It’s hard to do this in M/s in general. Who do you look to for healthy representation of consensual M/s dynamics? (Hint: This is why I say get involved in communities!) And when you add elements of codependency on purpose, it gets harder to see what’s healthy and what you think is healthy.
I think codependency is a two-sided coin with many negative elements but a few positive ones. I think interdependency is healthy and more people need to learn the word and everything that goes with it. Relationships are hard and intentionally built relationships, like power exchange ones, come with the need to be honest and critical of not just the relationship as a whole, but of your partner’s behavior and your behavior. If codependent elements pop up, I wouldn’t freak out about it but calmly assess why these elements have come up.
I think what matters the most is your satisfaction in the relationship. Are your needs being met? Are many of your wants? Do you feel supported and loved and cherished? Do your values and ethics still feel good to you?
So, ultimately, use the language that feels right to you to describe your language. Be active in your relationship rather than letting it happen to you. What some of us consider deal breakers are needs for others. If elements look like codependency or toxic or negative to other people, take a moment, consider it, and decide what to do from there. Maybe you’re okay with it or maybe it needs to change. Either one is perfectly okay.
Sources & Resources
Springer, C. A., Britt, T. W., & Schlenker, B. R. (1998). Codependency: Clarifying the construct. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 20(2), 141–158.