Home > attachment theory, boundaries, dependence, interdependence > Boundaries, Dependence and Interdependence

Boundaries, Dependence and Interdependence

We often discuss boundaries in terms of the therapeutic relationship but the truth is that all healthy relationships require boundaries. Boundaries are what tell us where we end and where the other person begins; what is our responsibility and what is the others. Boundaries allow us to concentrate on the things we can actually control and not take on things we cannot.

Even though boundaries are present in all relationships, they are more noticeable in therapy for several reasons. The first is that the therapeutic relationship is a weird duck, unlike any other type of relationship we have, although it can take on characteristics of other relationships: parent, friend, mentor, lover etc. Because of the unique nature of the relationship, we run into boundaries in places we usually wouldn’t which makes us take notice. Not being able to know about the other person’s thoughts and feelings can feel very unnatural and therefore is more noticeable. Another reason they are so noticeable is that therapists are trained (or should be in theory) to be very conscious of boundaries and to hold them clearly. The therapist needs to be especially conscious of the boundaries as they do not come naturally in therapy, and in some cases can be a boundary which occurs in no other type of relationship.

Clear boundaries are necessary in therapy to protect both the therapist and the patient. Therapy needs to be all about the patient’s needs. This is especially reparative if the patient did not experience having the relationship with their caregiver at a young age be about their needs. Having only the patient’s needs in the room provides the clarity you need to understand your own unconscious patterns and behaviors. But all human beings have needs, including therapists. The best they are able to do is to put aside their own needs for the time they spend with you, either in session or when making contact via phone, text or email between sessions. To get to know someone is to get to know their needs. Therefore, if a client gets to know the therapist, the client gets to know a therapist’s needs and the relationship is no longer only about the client’s needs. That would be the end of therapy. Hence all the restrictions about how much a therapist is willing to self-disclose; it’s their way of keeping the therapeutic field clear for the work that needs to be done. And it follows that no one can live a healthy life continually ignoring their own needs so a therapist has to have time when he is not in contact with his clients to attend to his own needs, hence the limitations on contact.

It is very understandable to get upset about the boundaries and be upset by them. The boundaries in a healthy therapeutic relationship can actually give rise to a lot of ambiguity in the relationship. How do I know if someone actually likes or cares for me if they can’t tell me? How can I trust this is real if I can’t know what they’re thinking or feeling? However, the fact that they cause discomfort or even in some cases acute pain, does not mean anyone is doing anything wrong. In a sense, the boundaries are the painful thing we have to accept in order to avoid much worse pain and damage. And how we react to the boundaries – Which ones upset us? How do we feel about them? What do they show us about what we believe? – is often very revealing of our unconscious motivations and desires. Which is why they are not only necessary, but also very useful for the work being done.

So an important part of boundaries is so that I can know what I am responsible for, but responsibility is something into which we are supposed to be able to grow. Human beings are born while they’re brain is still developing, our frontal cortex doesn’t really come “online” until around the age of two. Physiologically, we’re an open system, so that being connected with other human beings affects both our nervous system and our brain development. In order to fully develop, all human beings need to depend on a stronger, wiser other, an attachment figure, until they can learn emotional regulation, form a good sense of self and self-worth, and learn to trust in their capability to deal with anything that life brings their way. In other words, we learn to cope by being around someone who can cope and is attuned enough to our needs to show us how its done.

If you are not able to undergo this period of dependency and learning as a child, the developmental needs go underground, usually buried under a wide variety of coping mechanisms which attempt to make up for that which you did not get, but they do not disappear. So in order to heal and finish developing into a complete self-sufficient person, some people will need to depend on their therapists for a while, especially for a sense of security, acceptance and emotional regulation. A good, safe therapist should provide a safe, containing place to express ALL of our emotions, even long denied ones and teach us how to tolerate them and separate our feelings from reality. It’s also an opportunity to experience that making your needs known and moving closer to get them met, is a good and healthy thing to do. A place to unlearn the false lessons of a less than perfect childhood.

There are two types of dependency: a healthy dependency which is a natural part of human development (would anyone look at a three year old and say “you’re too dependent?” OK anyone you’d want to know?) and a pathological dependence when we refuse to take responsibility for our own lives and want to STAY dependent on someone else to tell us what to do, how to live, what to think etc. Which if you didn’t get what you need, is often what you’re looking for. We should have had a time of dependency, when we were looked after and someone did tell us those things. But the problem is that the time for that in our lives is past. There is a fine line between healthy dependency and pathological dependency. What will actually differentiate them is a skilled, self-aware therapist holding the correct boundaries so that a client can depend on them for things they cannot do for themselves (emotional regulation, soothing, security, trust, intimacy, understanding, reality checking) and not having the therapist do anything for them they are capable of themselves. A therapist who will slowly allow the patient to take on more responsibility as they grow and increase their skills. This doesn’t have to be picture perfect but should be pretty consistent. Or as described in the literature “good enough” since no one ever gets it perfect.

In my experience, a lot of healing consisted of running into the boundaries and sorting out what my therapist could provide and what he couldn’t. And when he couldn’t provide something, to discern if the reason was because I was capable of doing it myself (even if I wasn’t sure or believed in that capability) or that it was something impossible for anyone to provide. Talking about how we react to boundaries and the beliefs that underlie those reactions allows us to see which expectations are reasonable and what are not possible to ask for as adults (at least in a healthy relationship). Expectations work in both directions; we often need to learn to expect more in certain areas (our need for comfort and understanding is legitimate and is a reasonable expectation) and less in others (no one can love me enough or hold me long enough or say the right words to erase the loss and deprivation I experienced in childhood. Those losses can only be grieved).

Which leads us to one of the reasons that the boundaries can become a source of almost agony. They are SO painful because they identify for us very real losses we have been avoiding being aware of, let alone mourning, for our whole life. For good reason, we did not have the resources to face those losses when we experienced them, and even though now we do, on a very deep level we believe that facing those losses will destroy us (because at one point they would have.) Not to mention, they’re PAINFUL. Only insane people WANT to be in pain. So we long to be taken care of in a way we’ve longed for our whole lives and it’s the fact of a consistent, caring person NOT being able to provide that perfect love we’ve been looking for that identifies the very real losses. There are expectations which as children are healthy but which become impossible to meet as we achieve adulthood. Our ability to take in and integrate some things on a deep level is compromised. Which doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless. We can form an “earned” secure attachment, mourn our losses and heal. Our therapists can help show us we matter and how to get our needs met (including believing that our needs are legitimate in the first place!) so that we can live a fuller life.

The pain caused by the boundaries is why it can be so difficult for therapists to hold clear boundaries, let alone anyone in a “normal” relationship. There are often things you can do in the short term that would provide relief, but short circuit the process of getting to the source of the pain and actually “clearing” it out. Unless you understand that facing the pain of those losses will heal someone, it’s hard to stay with them while they experience the pain without trying to fix it, even if intellectually you understand it’s impossible to do so. My therapist has often talked about learning the hard lessons of what he could and could not be to his patients as he grew as a therapist.

So boundaries, while they can trigger deep feelings of deprivation and worthlessness, are actually a loving thing to do for someone. It is less painful to hear you cannot have something than to be promised you can have it, only to be failed again. And it is in fighting through this pain that we can learn to understand that what we feel in response to those boundaries is no longer true. That they are not about depriving us or an indication that we’re worthless. On the contrary, we matter enough for someone to put themselves through discomfort to do what is right for us, no matter how it feels to them.

Over time, as we work through all the issues that are invoked by the boundaries, and by being with a therapist in a right brain to right brain way, we implicitly learn the skills we need from our therapist so that we no longer need to be dependent. We can learn to have compassion about our healthy needs, recognize which can still be met, learn how to meet them and learn to trust our ability to face whatever life brings. We often start by looking for a place of perfect safety only to learn that true safety lies in our ability to tolerate hurt and turn to others for comfort. This is a painstakingly slow process, chaotic, confusing, painful and often impossible to recognize while it’s happening.

A skilled therapist will slowly expect more from a patient as time goes by much the way a good parent slowly allows a child to do more for themselves and become independent. Just as a child will explore then return to the parent for reassurance before engaging in more and further exploration, will a patient move further and closer in an ever expanding cycle as they work in therapy.

Which brings us to one of the primary goals of therapy, interdependence. Human beings NEVER stop needing other human beings nor do we stop forming attachments. It is through our connections with other people that our needs are meant. All of us, including the most capable of adults, will occasionally need to depend on other people (ie the death of a parent, finding out you have cancer). But for a healthy adult, there are also times where others can depend on them. We will still have attachment figures (spouses, good friends, mentors, children) whose proximity is important to us but the need shifts back and forth. And when someone else can not immediately meet our needs (due to needs of their own, there are those pesky boundaries again), we are capable of taking care of ourselves and getting through until we can get the help we need. Because interdependence requires the shifting back and forth of needs between being dependent and being depended on, it is impossible to be interdependent with our therapist. The therapeutic relationship needs to focused ONLY on the clients needs. Which is why one of the goals of a therapist is to get you to look outward, beyond therapy. To live as a fully developed human being, you need to be able to practice interdependence, which you cannot do with your therapist. In some ways, remaining a patient in therapy forever is analogous to the adult who never leaves their parents. It’s a legitimate choice, but one that can limit a life.

  1. True North
    October 6, 2011 at 4:25 am

    Really good explanation of boundaries and dependence. As one who came from a therapist with loose and sloppy boundaries I know how important it is for a therapist to keep steady, firm boundaries as that therapy ended in a disaster. Although there are times that I absolutely hate them, I do understand the need for them and that a therapist who has clear boundaries is really showing his care for you. Just like a good parent.

    Good luck with the blog. I look forward to reading more of your writings. Plus… I wanted to be the first response to your new endeavor. I am very happy for you.


  2. October 6, 2011 at 9:15 am

    Thank you TN! How fitting that you left the first comment having walked along this journey with me for so long. And let’s face it, having listened to endless babble about the Boundary Ninja. 🙂


  3. Dragonfly
    October 6, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    How exciting! yey ! go spread your knowledge to the world and thanks AG for teaching me so much already. I look forward to reading the rest of your blog 🙂
    Like TN, I also know the importance of having tight boundaries and the devastation and confusion it causes if they are not firmly held.


    • October 6, 2011 at 3:15 pm

      Thanks Draggers, I am so encouraged by everyone’s enthusiasm for my doing this. ((()))


  4. Strummergirl
    October 6, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    Congratulations, AG!! SO happy for you, and grateful for all the help you’ve given me. Really looking forward to reading more!! 🙂


    • October 6, 2011 at 4:16 pm

      Thanks for reading SG! And thanks again for the name. 😀


  5. April
    October 13, 2011 at 10:40 pm

    Thank you for writing about your experiences and sharing your wisdom. It has really helped me to read your messages. My therapist doesn’t go in much for jargon or book recommendations, so in reading your posts I have suddenly learned a lot. I don’t feel as weird anymore, I’m excited about the idea that I might make some progress one of these days, and I just ordered one of the books you mentioned. Thanks.


    • October 13, 2011 at 11:45 pm

      April, Thanks for reading. I am really glad to hear that you have found this so helpful. One of the things I most appreciated about the Boundary Ninja was his ability to normalize my feelings and actions. He would work to place them in context so that I could see that I was having reasonable reactions to unreasonable circumstances. It made me feel so less damaged and so more able to heal. Thank you for taking the time to say thank you. AG


  6. Marijke
    March 25, 2014 at 5:54 am

    Hello everyone,

    If you don’t mind, AG, I’m going to (try to) reproduce part of my last session with T as it says so much about the struggles all of us here seem to deal with when it comes to attachment, dependence, shame and vulnerability.

    We were both sitting on the floor. Usually we sit on a pile of mattresses against the wall but I was feeling particularly vulnerable and felt like sitting even lower. I was sitting against a big pillow, which she always places against the radiator before I arrive, she knows I’m often cold. Which I find very sweet.

    I’ve been seeing T for 14 months, there’s huge maternal transference going on – which we talk about and work with. For a bit less than a year, dependence has been an issue between us. As in: she encourages it and I hate it.

    The conversation went more or less like this:

    Me: “I still don’t know what to do with this dependence thing. I hate it”
    T: “what do you hate about it?”
    Me: “I hate feeling dependent and vulnerable. I hate the longing and craving for comfort when I can’t get it. I only see you for 50 minutes a week. The time between sessions is excruciating at times when the craving gets strong.”
    T: “and you’re resisting it”
    Me: “Yes”
    T: “so it’s getting stronger”
    Me: “hmmm”
    T: “does it relate to feelings of being in love?”

    At this point all my alarms went off. I have never in my life told anyone that I was in love with them – except for my wife. I’ve always, and still often do, felt utterly unlovable, repulsive, ashamed, … So admitting to T that I was ‘in love’ with her, was just beyond imagining. So I denied it completely, even to myself by very quickly (like with the speed of light :)) coupling being in love with mature, adult stuff like eroticism and sex – which I only very, very, very slightly feel in the transference with T.
    If denial was a sport, I’d be four times Olympic champion…

    Vulnerable moments like this often are followed by some intense breath work and hugging or holding – all very appropriate. But I was holding back this time, feeling such contact would somehow confuse me. I felt a need to dig deeper.

    Me: “I hate having to be vulnerable like this. I’m scared and I don’t trust it. I feel like I’m going to get rejected and hurt. And judged, and shamed, and… I feel I’m so vulnerable at the core, that I just can’t take the risk.
    Of course, the pain finds its way out somehow. I’ve tried everything imaginable to avoid it.”

    T: “how then?”

    Me: “It feels like inside I’m this brittle dried leaf, whirling in the wind with nothing to hold onto. I’ve been overeating for 40 years to heap enough weight on me to not be crumbled and swept away into a void.“

    T: “and by becoming an expert at constructing explanations in your head”

    I couldn’t see her face, but heard her saying this with a tender smile. As a somatic T, she tries rrreeaallly hard to get me out of my head and into my body, where the emotions are that I’ve been fleeing since forever.

    In the following days the thing she said about being in love kept bugging me. So I tried to find stuff on the web about maternal and erotic transference and realized that, of course, a baby is in love with its mother and there is also an erotic component to that. Nothing however to do with the sexuality we later develop as adolescents. Anyway, it made sense that my T, being a somatic T but also psychoanalytically trained would see things in such a way.

    And it made me accept that yes, this intense longing to be with her did resemble what I used to feel when being in love with someone. It’s very baby like though. The best image that represents this is that of a very young infant in a sling: oblivious of everything except its mothers body, sounds and smell, at utter peace, being carried and protected.
    I would never want to be part of my T’s life as an adult. I very much realize the T I experience in the setting and boundaries of my weekly sessions could never be this way in an outside world relationship.

    Admitting to myself that I was in love with her like a baby with its mother was one thing. It didn’t help with the craving to connect though. So I ruminated, cogitated, hesitated… in short did everything to resist texting her and… eventually did. I told her about the being in love thing and that I missed her. And there was no answer. So I grew more and more activated and, finally (after texting her about feeling horrible, like a ‘leaden parasite’) picked up the phone and dialed her number. She hates texting and e-mail and encourages me to contact her by an old fashioned phone call but I really do find the direct contact difficult.

    It went like this:
    Me: “I can’t figure out what to do about this intense longing for you. This dependence thing hurts so much.”
    T: “so you’re resisting it”
    Me “yes”
    T: “you want it get it over with as quickly as possible”
    Me: “yes”
    T: “I’ll tell you something that happened to me when I was training as a therapist. I went through something similar with one of my teachers. He told me that “when you have a good fire going, you wouldn’t want to pour a bucket of water over it, would you?”.

    I loved the analogy but couldn’t help resisting a bit longer: “but when you get too close to the fire, you can also get burnt”, I replied.

    T: “or you could stay close and be warmed by it”

    This conversation happened four days ago. It has helped me to finally start accepting the dependence, instead of resisting it. I feel more relaxed, aware of this intense fire in my heart and accepting it. It feels wonderful to know she understands and accepts it too.

    And, miraculously (or not), its painful power has diminished and I feel a lot better about myself…

    Bless you all



    • March 25, 2014 at 10:26 am

      I don’t mind at all Marijke. I think that was a beautiful picture of both how difficult and scary it is for us to allow ourselves to experience a necessary dependence but how important it is to try and stop fighting that resistance. This is really a major turning point in your work. I am glad that you have a therapist who understands and embraces her role in your life. Thank you for sharing this, I think a lot of people will find it helpful to read. xx AG


  7. dimayla
    July 24, 2015 at 9:58 am

    An amazingly good piece of writing, my sincere admirations for it! Fascinating explanation of those dynamics!!!


    • July 26, 2015 at 10:02 pm

      Welcome to my blog and thanks for commenting. I appreciate you taking the time to say yo are enjoying it! ~ AG


  8. Maggie
    April 14, 2017 at 8:27 am

    Disagree about only “insane people want to be in pain”. Trauma and pain may have been the only “love” (though its not “love” to an outsider) that a child received so some mix pain as equaling love. U are categorizing the very thing that helped some of us stay alive, even if the pain wasn’t love, it was something, some connection to a much needed attachment figure
    Careful getting into your generalizations. I’m not insane nor or other people who only had pain as at least a way of connection from otherwise a terrifying, “its up to me” childhood.
    We are not INSANE.


    • April 28, 2017 at 12:28 pm

      Thank for commenting, I am sorry that it has taken so long for me to reply to your comment. I seem to have hit a nerve. I do want to make it clear that I was not using “insane” in a clinical sense, but in a rhetorical one. I was not trying to actually say that seeking out pain makes you insane. Connection is crucially important for human beings and being connected by pain is better than having none. But I would argue that the person is still not seeking pain, but seeking connection. Pain is unfortunately the price for seeking out that connection.

      So it was not my intention to condemn anyone in any way and I am sorry it struck you that way. The point I was trying to make is that it is counter-intuitive for most people (especially those without trauma or neglect in their background, the ones blessed enough to have “good enough” parents) to move towards pain. If our reactions have not been warped by abuse or neglect, we move away from pain.

      If someone seeks out pain as a way to connect, I would honor that behavior as having provided them a way to survive intact. I would also not condemn them or see them as damaged, I would see the fault as lying with the persons who left that as an only option for getting their needs met. Connection should not be painful in the main, it should be comforting and strengthening. But I would still not look upon it as a behavior that should be continued. An important part of healing is to recognize those behavior patterns that totally made sense and were reasonable in reaction to unreasonable circumstances, so that we look upon them with acceptance and compassion, but also recognize that those patterns have become maladaptive and are harming us going forward. Thank you for giving me a chance to clarify as I would not want anyone to come away from reading this with a sense of condemnation.



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