Never an emotional borrower nor a lender be...when symbiotic relationships become co-dependant
Updated: Jul 25
The Symbiotic relationship is one where two parties live closely and one always benefits.
If the relationship is Mutual - then both benefit (a goby fish and a shrimp live near each other - the shrimp burrows and the fish spawns there, if a predator approaches, the fish touches the shrimp and they both hide. The shrimp who makes the burrow gets an alarm system, the fish who spawns in the burrow has a safe nest); if Commensalistic - one benefits, the other is unhurt (a mite may attach to a larger insect to travel further); if Parasitic - one benefits the other is harmed (eg a roundworm in a human or animal - the parasite will not always kill the host - there is little benefit, but the host is harmed by the parasite's existence).
Our own relationships can be symbiotic. Hopefully most function on a mutual basis - and some professional ones might too eg. I pay for your service or as a team we all succeed together; under times of stress they may turn to commensalistic relationships - one party needing a little more TLC or support before the balance is redressed and the favour returned as the roller coster of life continues; but the danger is when they become parasitic. The most troublesome part of the parasitic relationship is co-dependency. Harm may be done to one party by another; but for some reason, the host (being harmed) seems to invite it.
A word about co-dependency
The simplest way of describing a co-dependent relationship is when one person needs the other and the other needs to be needed.
It can start off very flattering. As much as it goes against my sense of equality, research suggests that both men and women enjoy horror films more when the man responds as the protector and the woman responds with greater fear - ie. a need for protection. No matter how great the film, enjoyment is affected when the opposite viewer behaviour exists. But outdated stereotypes aside, if at some point in your life you needed to be needed, that is the time when those who are "in need" may appear.
Ask yourself - do you seem to "collect strays"? If so - what is it that you are needing which you believe that caring for others will fulfil.
Generosity and compassion are wonderful traits, but we always need to bear in mind that:
a) If we are doing it for anything other than the wish to gift, we may always be disappointed (eg, you do not give love to expect love in return - you give it freely... it is why you need to think carefully on whom to bestow such value!)
b) We may be overlook or underappreciate those traits from the people who give much to us - perhaps because we do not recognise their gifts
c) If you constantly give, especially without discernment, you will attract takers! (If you do not recognise the value of your gifts, how can you expect others to?)
If you are able to identify and acknowledge what you are seeking as a result of your gifting - and give that to yourself first - two things will happen:
i) You will realise the value of generosity and compassion and direct it both more thoughtfully and meaningfully
ii) The "takers" will disappear from your life
You do not need to STOP giving. You just need to give meaningfully.
Learn to recognise love
Stephen King in "Stand By Me" has his characters converse about their past when one believes he was not loved. He is reassured "I'm sure your parents always loved you, they might not have understood you." Within "Inner Child Therapy" one of the key tenets is that unless it is a case of abuse or neglect, often, parents do love their children, but in the way they recognise as love. The Child, with their individual personality which may be very different to the parent, may not be able to recognise it.
This forms the basis of Dr Gary Chapman's "5 love languages" - he says we have a preference for expressing and receiving love and it often falls within 5 areas:
- words of affirmation
- quality time
- physical touch
- acts of service
We tend to see as more "meaningful" the display which suits our preference. If we like words of affirmation and our partner, friend, parent (and so on) wants to spend time with us it may irritate us and we may feel unloved because they could simply say they love us; but in turn if we show irritation they may think we do not love them. The love is there - but the means of expression is misaligned.
It is worth you thinking for a moment about your preference - and perhaps doing the test at 5lovelanguages.com (your partner, family or friends could do this too for greater insight if you compare notes).
As with all psychometrics (or pseudopsychometrics) our preferences can change, and they are simply preferences rather than rules, but they certainly provide a starting point for conversation and negotiation. The one thing I would say would be a red flag over love is if a partner is not willing to adapt in any way (unless there is a diagnostic reason why this is troublesome for them). ...and even then - you still have a choice as to how you respond...as much as you love someone, you also need to know your boundaries and what you are able to live with contentedly. If within a couple A has a strong preference for the expression which falls lowest for B - B does not need to learn to use that method all the time, but once in a while is always manageable. Similarly, by being aware of B's preferences too, A may start to recognise when love is being shown when previously this may have been overlooked. The most common example of the "act of service"...many people cook for the other because it is an act of love, it can be a bit of a "slap" therefore when it's just dismissed as "dinner".
So to return to what this means for symbiotic relationships:
A mutually beneficial relationship is one where both parties work equally hard to enhance the happiness of the other. Healthy relationships take work - but it doesn't need to be painful, it just needs to be active.
A commensalistic relationship may be one where one party has no strong feelings either way how love is to be expressed or received but the other does - eg. if it doesn't matter to me, but it makes you happy - it's not particularly unhealthy to do it. The danger only arises if the person who hasn't had to adapt begins to think they never need to.
However, even though it may be a matter of survival - a parasitic relationship is never a healthy one - and it is made harder when the host believes they need the parasite (ie. the host needs to be needed).
To address that goes beyond the scope of this article, but I would refer you to the following article on moving forward even from a difficult past "What's Done is Done".
...and what if you are the parasite?
To return to biology, not all parasites are "bad". There are some which can aid fertility; some which boost T-cells to assist with fighting multiple sclerosis, and while you may wish to call someone who "drains" you a "leech" - let us remember that they were first used to heal! Maybe you are just the sort of person who simply needs others...or perhaps you haven't quite learned to find your inner strength. Self-reliance isn't natural - it often has to be taught or nurtured...sometimes it is through parents - my father's mantra is "Create financial freedom for yourself" and "never lend what you cannot afford to lose."; other times it may be learned through counselling or coaching if you have been lucky enough to have that support.
A point I would add here - friends or partners do not owe it to us to teach us this...in fact friends and partners owe us nothing but the mutual demands of friendship or the partnership -...but often the good ones do often teach us too...don't take that for granted!
Psychologists call this "parasitic need" (we don't call people "parasites"!) the "borrowing self". It manifests not in the form of "physically feeding" off a host, but doing so emotionally eg:-
- do you need approval or validation for others for what you perceive to be your shortcomings?
- do you depend on others' reassurances for when you take action?
- do you constantly ask for input from friends or partners?
- do you always listen to the experts rather than balancing that with your own knowledge of yourself?
If the answer is yes, you may have a tendency to "borrow". (...and if you find someone who likes to lend, you can get into a co-dependent circle which is unlikely to end well when one or both parties try to change...see above).
Build up your self reliance
If you know that you tend to "borrow" - (we all do from time to time and in small doses many of us find it pleasant to give that extra bit of support...but that's often the mutual relationship moving to the commensulate for a while rather than it turning parasitic) - try the following to build your ability to self-validate:
1. Practice problem solving on your own. For example, learn a new skill, gather mastery in something, or perhaps even teach others.
2. Find ways you can calm yourself when faced with distress (what does your "crisis kit" include?)
3. If you recognise you have a need for praise or attention, reflect on why - and see if you can fulfil the underlying need yourself.
4. If you notice someone is always "giving" or "helping" - tell them to stop - that you are "ok" right now.
5. Identify and live your values. Fundamentally, if we know what we stand for and work daily to live it, the rest falls into place.
6. When you are faced with different possible solutions or ways to progress - try to identify your personal thinking on how to navigate the path
7. Ask yourself how might learning to take greater responsibility for yourself result in a better relationship with those you may have had a "borrower" one with!?
8. See a situation that makes you anxious first as a possible means of practice at building up yourself.
...and a little tip I use myself - when I hear the negative or critical voices saying "you can't do this" - tell them (sometimes I even do this out loud because it enables me to break my thought spiral) - "You're not welcome in my head, leave" - and immediately do something else...I might do something physical such as shake out.
As Shakespeare says
Neither a borrower nor a lender be,
For loan oft loses both itself and friend
(Hamlet Act , sc 3)
Give freely just know that your gift is valuable.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience For quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances. Twitter/IG @draudreyt