If you’ve ever listened to Beyoncé you probably understand the importance of having independence in a relationship. On the other hand, relationships in which your partner completely dependent on you are never pretty. But even more important (and less talked about) than these two concepts is the amount of interdependence in your close relationships. As it turns out, interdependence is a major determinant of relational success.1
So what is interdependence? Well, it depends on what type of relationship you’re talking about. Your most intimate relationships are the most entangled, which means that these people have the most influence on your daily goals and activities. Researchers have categorized our daily lives through a causal interchain sequence in which one behavior leads to a new behavior, and one event leads to a new event.2 For example, rushing to work and spilling your coffee all over your new shirt forces you to either a) go back home and change or b) show up to work on time with a stained shirt.
Interdependence is the degree to which your interchain sequence meshes with another person’s. Specifically, people can either interfere with or facilitate each your interchain sequence (and vice-versa).2 For example, if your partner’s car breaks down, they might need you to drive them around for a week. This new carpool service you’re providing interferes with your daily routine because now you have to make accommodations for another person’s transportation needs. Or, you may come home from work to find that your roommate has cleaned the house and prepared dinner. This helps your daily routine because you no longer need to waste time on preparing a meal. If you live with someone you likely go through episodes like these all the time – and both interference and facilitation combine to create interdependence in your relationships.2
At this point, we have only discussed dyadic (i.e., two people) interdependence; however, our more peripheral relationships (e.g., peers, acquaintances, coworkers, etc.) experience interdependence as well – just a different kind. These less intimate relationships are characterized by different forms of social network interdependence. For example, the size (number of people), density (actual connections formed within a potential network), and clustering (number of “subgroups”) within a network define the interdependence that exists within that group. Take for instance, social media. It is possible to have 5,000 Instagram followers, but to only have meaningful relationships with 50 of the people in that group. Therein lies the difference between size and connection.
Similarly, the reachability (degrees of separation between network members) and overlap (shared network members) of a social network describe the ways in which we get to know the people in our social networks.3 For example, many of your 5,000 Instagram followers might be friends of a friend. Or, perhaps you share followers with other Instagram “celebrities.” Basically, unlike dyadic interdependence, social network interdependence relies less on specific interactions and more on the characteristics of a person’s social circle.
But the question remains: how important is interdependence in the forming and maintaining of our relationships? The short answer: very. When you feel like your partner is constantly getting in your way you will tend to evaluate that relationship more negatively.1 On the other hand, if you feel as though your partner helps you out with your daily routine, you might think of them and the relationship in a more positive light –which leads to fewer feelings of anger, sadness, and jealousy toward your partners.4 Not surprisingly, spending a lot of time with another person (e.g., living together) spikes your perceptions of interference and facilitation. It is extremely important to balance the amount of favors you do/receive from for your loved ones, because an imbalance in these behaviors is going to disrupt your interchain sequence and, ultimately, harm your relationships.
The jury is still out when it comes to the importance of network interdependence. On the one hand, couples who have a high level of network overlap tend to have more successful relationships.5 On the other hand, people with networks that are too large and not dense enough tend to be less happy with their friendships.3 Because most people have massive social networks (especially in the digital era),6 it becomes difficult to figure out which relationships are the most impactful. It’s probably safe to say that the closer we are to our social circle, the more they influence our everyday lives, both collectively and individually. It is less clear whether this type of influence is good or bad, and the pendulum most likely swings both ways depending on the types of people you associates with. One thing is for sure though: others judge us by the company we keep. It is imperative to understand just how closely we are tied to one another, and how those ties change our lives.
1Solomon, D. H., Knobloch, L. K., Theiss, J. A., & McLaren, R. M. (2016). Relational turbulence theory: Explaining variation in subjective experiences and communication within romantic relationships. Human Communication Research. 32(4), 469-503.
2Berscheid, E. (1983). Emotion. In H. H. Kelley, E. Berscheid, A. Christensen, J. Harvey, T. L. Huston, G. Levinger, E. McClintock, L. A. Peplau, D. R. Peterson (Eds.), Close Relationships (pp. 110– 168). San Francisco: Freeman.
3Surra, C. A. (1988). The influence of the interactive network on developing relationships. In R. M. Milardo’s (Ed.), Families and social networks (pp. 48–82). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
4Knobloch, L. K., Miller, L. E., & Carpenter, K. E. (2007). Using the relational turbulence model to understand negative emotion within courtship. Personal Relationships, 14, 91-112. DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2006.00143.x
5Agnew, C. R., Loving, T. L., & Drigotas, S. M. (2001). Substituting the forest for trees: Social networks and the prediction of romantic relationship state and fate. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 1042-1057. DOI:
6Hill, R. A., & Dunbar, R. I. (2003). Social network size in humans. Human Nature, 14, 53-72.
James’ primary area of research is the study of uncertainty and how it influences close relationships. So, what behaviors make us the most uncertain about our relationships? And, more importantly, how do those uncertainties affect our relationships? James also studies friends with benefits relationships in great detail, and how they differ from/overlap with more traditional close relationships.