Interindependence: A New Concept in Relationships
From Lesbian Ethics, Vol 4 No 1, Spring 1990
I saw a woman sleeping. In her sleep, she dreamt life stood before her and held in each hand a gift in the one hand love, in the other freedom-and she said to the woman, "Choose." And the woman waited long: and she said, "Freedom." And life said, "Thou hast well chosen, if thou hadst said 'love' 1 would have given thee that thou didst ask for; and I would have gone from thee, and returned to thee no more. Now, the day will come when I shall return. On that day 1 shall bear both gifts in one hand." I heard the woman laugh in her sleep. Olive Schreiner, 1901
The dark kitchen smelled of hamburger and grease and stale beer. Spots of light gleamed off the shiny aluminum like wild animal eyes piercing through the dark. The man held me around my waist and was violently smashing my small body on his rigid penis. I screamed.
He growled, low like the beast he was, "Shut up or I'll kill you."
I knew then it was not my father. He never said those things when he raped me. I shut up.
When he finished, he stood me on the floor and then, gripping me tightly by the shoulders, forced me to my knees. He rammed his penis into my mouth until I gagged. Finally satiated, he zipped his pants and walked out.
I made my way slowly into the women's bathroom. Smelling the cheap perfume and strong disinfectant, I threw up. Then I washed my face, hands and between my legs. Complete confusion stunned me into silent shock. I didn't know how life was to be, but I knew it was not to be like this.
I was only 8 years old.
In my confusion, I looked up at the ceiling trying to find some reality. The entire ceiling shattered into a crazy kaleidoscope distorted through thick glass. Each time I moved my head, another fractured image shifted.
Lowering my head, I started to walk out of the bathroom. I didn't want to go back into the bar, back to the counter where my father sat drinking an Old Milwaukee beer. He had taken money from that man to let him take me into the empty kitchen and rape me. I didn't want to go back there but what else could I do? I was only 8 and I was somewhere in southeastern Wisconsin in a bar at the intersection of two country roads. It was dark and I didn't know where home was or how far.
Each step I took down the short hall to the bar was torture. I hated myself and felt complete loathing for myself for going back. Maybe I was a bad girl. Why else was this happening to me? Why else was I going back to the man who did this? But what choice did I have but to go back or walk out into the unknown blackness alone?
As I stepped out of the hall into the bar, every man turned and stared at me-leering, smirking. I turned and walked swiftly back through the darkened kitchen and out the back door into the dark, unknown night, alone.
I learned of this event when I was 42 years old. Suddenly, a lot of things made sense. I have always been driven by the power of independence to find freedom. For as long as I can remember, and others have verified what I cannot recall, nothing was more important to me than freedom and no trait so salient as independence.
As I have participated in and observed the lesbian community, especially in our intimate relationships, one constant problem for me, and one I have seen others struggle with or succumb to, has been maintaining independence in a relationship. Two concepts pervade any relationship discussion today: interdependence and codependence. I would posit a third concept which is more compatible with lesbian separatist theory and practice: Interindependence.
The concept of interdependence has become a familiar one in our society. Womyn's spirituality has long recognized the fact of interdependence, today politicians and even physicists admit its validity. Politicians talk about global economy, environment, politics and trade. An excess of carbon monoxide in New York is (imperialistically) addressed by planting trees in Guatemala. New branches of physics embodied by Chaos theorists discuss the interrelatedness of all things.
For centuries womyn have intuited that the universe is a web and all things are intricately woven together. Finally, physicists now argue that enfoldment is the structure of the universe rather than a big bang. Thus, womyn's view of the interconnectedness between all things is correct. At the same time, counterforces maintain a tension to keep things separate, else the universe would collapse into itself. This is where womyn falter. We lack our own voice and do not place ourselves in this web of relationships, i.e., the picture is out of balance. To continue our growth process, we need to acknowledge not only the web that ties us together, but the space between that keeps us apart-our interindependence.
Codependency is now the topic of the hour among psychology buffs and alcoholics anonymous offshoots. Usually one need look no further than her own family to see examples of mutual dependence and why the concept of interindependence is so necessary. Some time ago, I applied to teach at an American school in Nicaragua. I happened to mention this to my mother when I was visiting and she launched into a diatribe about why I could not go. I might get hurt or be in an earthquake, she might die when I was gone. (Neither of us foresaw the revolution.) I explained to her that if I didn't go for that reason, I would be angry, blame it on her, and then learn to hate her. I would have become dependent on her continued good opinion of me and she would have become dependent on my physical presence. Thus, if she wished to maintain a good relationship between us, she would understand that, if I got the job, I had to go. Only years later did she tell me that she understood. (I didn't get the job.) Many times, we do what our parents or friends or lovers want and then resent them for it. That weak link, that dependent person or relationship, causes the strong one to fall.
No matter how feminist we are, if one lesbian is dependent on the other, the relationship becomes skewed and the strong one is as tightly skewered to the weak as vice versa. We don't want to hurt her feelings, we don't know how she'll cope without us, we'll wait to break up until she has a better job or a better car or a better therapist. We are no longer independent but as controlled as she. We have betrayed our central commitment to strength and independence for every woman.
I am not denying that there is a dependence inherent in our lives. I am dependent on my paycheck to pay my mortgage. I am depending for my life on the other driver to stop at the red light. But if I cannot function when I lose my job or I can't drive because of my fear of the other driver, then the relationship has sunk into pathology. Likewise when I cannot live without a lover or "relationship," then love has sunk into pathology.
The concept of interindependence is simple. If I wish to stay independent, others with whom I closely relate must also be independent. Since we are interlinked in the world it becomes our interindependence-one womyn's independence maintained by the independence of another-that allows each to maintain our individuality and uniqueness.
The concept is implicitly recognized in modern physics by the principle that we are not observers of the physical world but participants therein. Even the action of observing influences the outcome of the world as observed.This independence that I speak of is not to be confused, though it often is, with selfishness, aggression or the inability to deal with others. It is none of these. The independence I speak of is a personal awareness of one's own power; one's own ability to navigate the rivers of life. It is the ability of an 8 year old to walk out into the dark night, alone, and have the strength to know that she will survive. It is the ability to avoid the quicksand of helplessness. We must have the ability to say, this is who I am without reference to anyone else and without reflection in someone else's eyes. While we are a composite of our experiences, we are more than that. We are the essence of ourselves and of how we use those experiences, prior relationships, family, to become ourselves. Yes, I exist in relation to other people, but I must know myself alone.
In our common understanding of the meaning of independence, we think of not becoming dependent on someone else. But we must also think of not letting someone else become dependent on us. An example is the facilitation of our daughters' growth. They are dependent on us as babies and the entire process of their growing up is to become independent. As good mothers we feel a constant tension between pushing them toward less dependence, yet holding them back out of fear.
Likewise mothers grow if their adult daughters do not allow them to become dependent either economically or emotionally. We are all familiar with the elder parents who now fear to venture from their houses without the helping/restricting hand of their grown daughter. Even flowers sheltered from the wind and rain do not grow. At the first storm they die.
The essence of all laws of nature is self-consistency, i.e., each thing obeys its own internal pattern (independence as I define it) and interdependence, i.e., each property determines all the rest. Thus, if each lesbian's behaviors define mine, each lesbian must remain independent for me to do so-interindependence is born.
Two examples come to mind from my own life. I first used the term interindependence when discussing the type of relationship I would have with my first lover 10 years ago. She and I are both fiercely independent womyn and pride ourselves on being so, perhaps to a fault. I was 11 years older and very enthusiastic about this, my first love. At 32, my career was well on its way. At 21, she was still fumbling around. Unwittingly, in my zeal to promote her career, I began to encroach upon her own personal decision making. I never realized it because my behaviors were coated in the guise of helpfulness.
She initiated the breakup by saying she had to because I might die. I assured her that I would in fact die some day, but I didn't see why that meant she had to break up with me now (pretty funny in retrospect). A more articulate explanation of the reason came some time later. She had allowed herself to slip into dependence on me. A standard joke between us was that I made all the decisions and she got all the credit. I felt resentful about that "joke" and the truth of it. We both had lost our independence. The healing took 5 years (for me) because of the helplessness, blaming and guilt that surfaces when a dependence is broken.
Three years later in my second relationship, I vowed not to repeat my mistakes. I very carefully and studiously did not make decisions for her nor let my strong personality and penchant for rapid decision making create an imbalance of power. I wouldn't even say what movie I wanted to go to until after she spoke her preference. I followed this approach flawlessly to the point where she accused me of refusing to be kind, read helpful. When we broke up and went to counseling, she admitted that had I "helped" her, she would have been resentful and blaming. The healing was much shorter this time because neither of us had lost our independence.
Somewhere there must be a middle ground. As lesbian feminists we struggle to create a vision of equality amidst the patriarchy. We struggle through our inner systems of oppression. We need not be perfect, only growing.
As feminists, maintaining our independence is important. As lesbians, maintaining our interindependence is vital. We can remain strong only by empowering our sisters to remain strong too. Failing that, the chains of dependence run both ways. They hamper both the strong and the weak until it is impossible to tell the difference. Travel together because you want to, each standing freely on her own, not because you have to hold each other up.