What Is a Symbiotic Relationship?
In high school, you probably wondered (or if you were rude enough, actually asked your teacher) if those calculus equations or obscure lab reports would ever actually relate to your life. But if you didn’t sleep through that biology lesson, you might remember a topic called symbiosis. If two animals have a symbiotic relationship, it means that they rely on each other for survival. In nature, this kind of codependence can be beneficial. But when this dynamic shows up in relationships between two people, it could be toxic.
“Symbiosis with humans is similar,” licensed clinical social worker Katie Hauser told The Active Times via email. “Two people are depending on each other on maybe not just for survival, but also all emotional support.” A symbiotic relationship can take many forms. It could be a mother fighting all of her son’s battles or a partner preventing their significant other from spending time with friends. Most of these scenarios are incredibly toxic and, according to Hauser, may not be mutually beneficial.
Even if the devotion between partners seems equal, the dynamic could still be dangerous. “Mutual symbiosis can also become toxic because it reduces the opportunity for internal validation and independence,” Hauser explained. “There is a loss of autonomy.”
Who is most at risk?
According to Hauser, this unhealthy dynamic is particularly common among teenage couples. Young people in relationships may be trying to figure out how to balance their own needs with the needs of their partners. “Over time, as we have more relationships, we can get to a place where we notice patterns or that particular needs are important to us,” she said.
Dr. Fran Walfish, a psychotherapist who works with children, couples and families, explains that children who have symbiotic relationships with their parents are more likely to end up in symbiotic, or “enmeshed,” romantic relationships later on. These individuals may have been coddled and taught to be overly-dependent children. A symbiotic parent “constantly steps in to help, fix, rescue or excuse their son in daughter,” Walfish explains, which often causes the child to develop separation anxiety and an inability to cope with frustration and disappointment.
“The enmeshed parent has given the child no opportunity for a true disconnect, which is required to move forward in healthy adult relationships,” Walfish explains in her book “The Self Aware Parent.”
What are the signs?
According to Hauser, although it is normal to have different expectations for a relationship at the beginning, there are certain signs that your partner may be relying on you too much for support.
“I would keep an eye out for a person to be expressing a desire to meet the needs of their partner in a way that seems like they are denying themselves,” she said. Because this person is walking on eggshells to keep their partner happy, their own needs are no longer prioritized. This lack of autonomy can be revealed through anxiety, depression, fatigue, substance abuse or a change in diet.
If your friend has cut off communication with their peers or suddenly given up something that was important to them, this may be a sign that they are in a symbiotic relationship. A shift in time management, such as spending exponentially increasing amounts of time with their new partner, may also be a warning sign.
What should you do if you notice signs of a symbiotic relationship?
The first and most crucial step is for both parties in the relationship to recognize that the symbiosis exists. “That is a huge first step,” said Hauser.
Although one partner may be creating the toxic dynamic by asking for too much out of a relationship, they may not be conscious of it. Self-reflection may help a person to catch the dynamic earlier on, before it reaches a breaking point.
“Notice before you get to that point that you are feeling an impulse to bypass your own needs for your partner,” Hauser said. “We must trust ourelves to notice when something doesn’t fit who we are.”
Once there is recognition of the problem, Hauser recommended that the couple begin therapy, where they can learn how to develop a more mutually beneficial support system.
A similar process will need to occur for a parent-child symbiosis, as well. In both scenarios, anxiety may arise during the relationship’s transition.
“Expect your anxiety to rise as you let your child go,” said Walfish. “Part of the reason you need your child close is to avoid feeling your own anxiety. Be brave and own it.”
Those who have lost their sense of self during a toxic relationship may find support by reaching out to their friends, Hauser said. This can provide stability and help them to remember what their priorities were before they entered the relationship. It may also help for them to reflect on what changes can be made to begin prioritizing themselves again.
Symbiotic relationships aren’t the only kinds that can be harmful. Your coworker, sibling or friend may seem to constantly talk about themselves, have little regard for others, or possess one of the many other common habits of toxic people.