Symbiotic Relationship: When partners merge

You recognize a symbiotic relationship through an excess of closeness, togetherness and intimacy. While that’s the beauty of relationships, it can become unhealthy at a certain point. In this article you will find out how you can recognize this and what you can do.

What is a symbiotic relationship?

In biology, a symbiosis occurs when two different species are in a relationship that benefits both – such as that of the cleaner fish on large whales. In psychology, however, symbiosis refers to two people who are dependent on each other. This is seldom positive, as both partners usually lose autonomy, independence and opportunities for personal development. The partners virtually merge into one being and thus lose their individuality. 

In the long run, this can cause problems. Symbiotic relationships are often characterized by the fact that not all of the partners’ needs are satisfied by the other, which is why conflicts arise. But because the dependency still exists, there is no separation. Also, the couple’s love life can be damaged by the excessive closeness. 

The root cause of this type of relationship is often self-esteem issues that exist in either one or both of the partners. Due to low self-esteem , the fear of losing your partner is very great. For this reason one longs for more and more closeness and proofs of security. Since the cause often lies in traumatic early childhood experiences and the symbiosis can be seriously harmful for both partners, as it restricts self-development and self-confidence, one speaks of a relationship disorder in psychology. 

Recognizing symbiotic relationships in the partnership

There are numerous signs that point to a symbiotic relationship. The merging can be recognized by the fact that the partners only speak in “we”, but not in “I”. While this is perfectly normal and even healthy in some situations, such as going on vacation together, in others it can be a serious sign of excessive closeness. So if you find yourself saying, “We don’t like red cabbage” or “We love this show!” a lot, it could be a sign that you’re in a symbiotic relationship: you only have one opinion. 

The way you spend your time can also be revealing. In symbiotic relationships, the partners rarely do anything alone anymore: They only meet up with friends, shop together and even their hobbies are the same. While closeness is nice, it’s not healthy to spend any time together. So if you notice that you hardly see your friends anymore or that you can only make arrangements if you have discussed them with your partner beforehand, this clearly indicates a symbiotic relationship.

A symbiosis often goes hand in hand with over-responsibility on the part of one of the partners. This partner clearly puts their needs ahead of those of the other and only cares about them, not themselves. It is clear that such a relationship is not healthy. 

And even if many people would say that they cannot imagine life without their partner: In symbiotic relationships this is a serious statement. The partners are so intertwined that the sense of self has been lost. So if you don’t know who you are when you’re not with your partner and you’re genuinely concerned about what might happen once the relationship is gone, it’s high time you made a change. 

Symbiotic relationship between mother and child

Symbiotic relationships can occur not only in romantic relationships . Often they also exist in the relationship of a parent to the child. For example, if a child is born into an already existing symbiotic relationship, a partner can seek symbiosis with the child instead of with the partner, as has been the case up to now. Not only can this sudden dissolution of the partnership symbiosis seriously jeopardize the relationship, it is also not good for the child. 

There is often a symbiosis with the mother, because it is she who carries the child to term and is initially very tied to the infant due to biological factors such as breastfeeding . So the baby and the mother are one for a time: always together and closely connected. This is a very healthy, formative early childhood experience. 

However, normal development dictates that the child will subsequently begin to move away. It seeks the mother’s distance in order to become independent and to experience itself as an independent person. 

For some parents, this is difficult to bear. In other cases, an anxious child will not initiate isolation even if the mother would approve. Both can lead to symbiosis. This often manifests itself in the fact that the parent relieves the child of all activities, especially unpleasant ones, spends a lot of time with the child and tries to protect it from painful experiences. All of this is normal and desired in parent-child relationships, but in the symbiosis it is practiced so intensively that the child neither learns new activities nor how to deal with pain, physically and psychologically unpleasant experiences. Both impede the healthy development of the child. 

Release symbiotic relationships

Therapeutic help is usually required to resolve a pronounced symbiotic relationship, whether in a partnership or in a parent-child relationship. This is because the patterns that form in the symbiosis are difficult to break alone and replace with healthier ones. 

Basically, it is important that you and your partner learn your autonomy again. A partnership should not only consist of a “we”, but also of two “Is”. You have to find the latter. Allow yourself to spend time without the other. Find your own hobbies and friends and allow yourself to have your own, even opposing, opinions. 

In this sense, it is also important not to bend yourself or the other person, otherwise the needs of a partner are always neglected.

A trained therapist can also help to heal the underlying self-esteem problems and thus regain trust in the other partner. This is the only way to actually lift the relationship out of the symbiosis.  

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