Interdependence, One More Time

intertwined treesHarold Kelley, the late UCLA social psychologist, clarified what it means for two people to be interdependent in a relationship. Put simply, in every relationship, partners share a workload. Domestic partners’ workloads include everything from reading the kids to sleep to mowing the lawn. Office partners’ workloads include everything from creative design tasks to proofreading documents. Community partnerships’ workloads include everything from committee co-chairs’ need to plan a program to ball team coaches’ need to pack up and clean up after a practice.

The workload of any partnership—domestic, office, or community—comprises tasks which range from more pleasant to more unpleasant, from recreation to drudgery. At my home, emptying the trash is drudgery, while writing the kids is recreational. At my office, proofreading is drudgery, while writing a blogpost is recreational. In my community, sorting music in my choir’s library is drudgery, while planning a reception is recreational. Each task that partners must complete has a valence—an emotional value that ranges from ecstatic to onerous. In an interdependent relationship, each partner regards their ratio of pleasing tasks to onerous ones as comparable to their partner’s ratio. Or, put simply, you and I feel that we both have roughly the same amount of drudgery on our To Do list in comparison to the amount of fun stuff.

On the other hand, if I feel that you get to do more pleasing stuff than drudgery, and that I feel that I must do more drudgery than pleasing stuff, we are out of balance. We are not interdependent. The one with proportionately more fun stuff to do is independent in the relationship, while the one with proportionately more drudgery is dependent. To establish or restore balance, the two of us must have a conversation around how to redistribute our workload.

The problem with this model is that what pleases one person may not please the other. One may find cooking pleasurable, while the other finds it a chore. One may find proofreading a satisfying challenge, while the other finds it a bore. Ultimately, what matters is individual perception. If I perceive that you get to do relatively more fun stuff than I do, I will over time feel myself in a dependent position and am at risk for developing resentment towards you. And you are at risk for developing a superior, condescending attitude towards me that takes me for granted and marginalizes my worth as a person.

Here is a simple exercise to test for interdependence. Make a list of every task that you and your partner are both responsible for. This list defines your workload. Then each of you place a plus (+) or minus (-) by each item to indicate the valence you assign to that task—one of you can mark to the left of the item, the other to the right. Then, mark whether each task is done mostly by one of you or the other, or whether it is shared equally. Use the results to discuss how your workload might be redistributed so that neither of you is left with an excess of drudgery.

Whether at work, at home, or in the community, in relationships that matter no one should have all of the goodies!

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