Relational building is a core part of caring for our mental health. We are wired for connection and community care is fundamental to managing our well-being. Living disconnected from others and having poor quality relationships severely impacts our wellness in debilitating ways, but signs that we are disconnected can be difficult to assess since our society tends to honor independence over interdependence and applauds people for their strength in getting things done alone rather than seeking and asking for help.
In my work as a former therapist, this culture of hyper-independence usually impacts a particular group, and that seems to be Black women. The “Strong Black Woman'' trope has plagued Black women for years. There was a time when this trope was seen as a badge of honor to highlight Black women’s emotional resilience in the face of adversity and conflict, but as mental health in the Black community rises, more Black women have come to realize that this badge of honor was actually a coping mechanism in response to having their emotional needs go unmet, whether it be at work, from their romantic partners, in their friendships or even on a societal level from having to deal with both interpersonal and structural racism.
In the clinical world, the “Strong Black Woman” trope is what we would call counter-dependence. In life, there are three main different types of dependency that some people experience, and only one that we should be striving for, here’s a breakdown:
Codependency is a term that is more mainstream and is often used to define people who have poor relational boundaries and become enmeshed in their relationships. There are some codependents who will place their autonomy in the hands of others and become attached to certain people to meet their needs for them because they have poor self-efficacy and autonomy. On the other end, there are codependents who may enable this attachment by abandoning their needs to meet the needs of someone else which results in chronic people-pleasing out of fear that they will be rejected, abandoned, or deemed useless in their relationships.
People with codependent traits struggle with their self-esteem and most importantly confidence, which is why they continuously seek validation from others because they struggle with validating themselves and feeling secure in who they are.
People who are counter-dependent are often polar opposites of those with codependent traits. This form of dependence actually isn’t dependent at all, people who are counter-dependent fear closeness, connection, and vulnerability and because of that, they remain hyper-independent with an avoidance mindset. On the surface, they appear strong, self-sufficient, and are usually the person everyone relies on. They don’t tell people 'no,' they go above and beyond for others, but when it is time for those behaviors to be reciprocated, they may freeze, shut down and immediately withdraw and disconnect from their relationships due to their fear of intimacy, closeness and ultimately being seen.
At the root of this behavior, is a person who has been wounded by consistently being let down by others and not having their emotional needs met. Many adults with counter-dependent traits were often emotionally neglected in childhood from being parentified, which is when children are expected to take on adult-like tasks to make up for a missing caregiver, or, they are expected to tend to their parents' feelings due to the adults in their lives being emotionally immature. When you are raised in an environment where there is a lot of unpredictability, you may struggle with trusting people and knowing who you can depend on, so it creates a dynamic of keeping people at a distance to avoid being hurt.
This is the form of dependency we all must strive for because it is the healthiest form of dependency and promotes our mental health. We cannot do life alone, hence why we all seek connections in some capacity whether it be through dating or building friendships. Since birth, we have been wired to depend on others to help us meet our needs, but as we grow older, we learn to build agency and autonomy so that we have a healthy dose of self-sufficiency with a healthy dose of reliance on others. All relationships require compromise, so as we build and lean on others, we are able to determine what is ours to carry, and what belongs to others, and we also learn to assess who in our lives has earned our respect and trust enough to help us carry those burdens when it becomes too heavy.
Being a “Strong Black Woman” is the quickest way to burn out, and it can be one of the reasons why you may feel exhausted if you struggle with counter-dependency.
Pay attention to these habits to assess if you are counter-dependent:
- You tend to struggle with forming romantic relationships because you often pull away when things get too serious or when it’s time to become vulnerable
- You have a lot of surface-level relationships and no one to talk to about personal matters that truly impact you
- You feel lonely often, despite having what you might call a circle of friends
- Asking for help and letting your guard down feels emotionally debilitating
- You struggle with being vulnerable and letting people know the real you
- You are everyone's place of refuge in times of need, but you don’t know where to go when you yourself are seeking refuge
- You struggle with letting go of control in your romantic relationships and it causes conflict
- You tend to do a lot of things alone and don’t invite people into your life
There is help for counter-dependence. We no longer need to tie Strong and Black Woman in a sentence anymore. Black women have permission to just be, to just exist, to take up space and be soft, delicate, and even fragile if that is where you are in life.
Getting help for counter-dependence is something that requires deep work, you won’t be able to breathwork yourself out of this habit. Since counter-dependence is rooted in avoidant attachment styles and poor emotional regulation, the guidance of a professional will always be your best method of care if you want things to change.
When seeking help from a therapist, consider searching through these popular therapy directories:
Consider these things when thinking of starting therapy to help you with making a decision as well as learning to be vulnerable:
- What do I need from a therapist in order to feel safe being vulnerable and disclosing my business to them?
- Am I ready and willing to commit to at least weekly or bi-weekly therapy services?
- Am I ready and willing to let my guard down and not appear strong to a stranger?
- What habits have I formed that I am realizing are hurting me? (Start there and express this to your therapist).
Remember this, you have permission to just be. You don’t have to be strong in order to be worthy, you are worthy as you are. Learn to be okay with existing as you are and allow people to care for you just as much as you invest in caring for others.
Let’s make things inbox official! Sign up for the xoNecole newsletter for daily love, wellness, career, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
Featured image by Getty Images
Take Our 2-Minute Wellness Quiz To Up Your Self-Care Game!
Black women are not a monolith. We all are deserving of healing and wholeness despite what we've been through, how much money we have in the bank, or what we look like. Most importantly, we are enough—even when we are not working, earning, or serving.
Welcome to Black Girl Whole, your space to find the wellness routine that aligns with you! This brand-new marketplace by xoNecole is a safe space for Black women to activate their healing, find the inspiration to rest, and receive reassurance that we are one small act away from finding our happiness.
Want to discover where you are on your wellness journey? You don't have to look far. In partnership with European Wax Center, we're bringing you a customized wellness quiz to help you up your wellness game. Answer our short series of questions to figure out which type of wellness lover you are, what you need to bring more balance into your life, and then go deeper by shopping products geared towards clearing your mind, healing your body, and soothing your spirit.
Ready to get whole? Take our quiz now!
From Monogamy To Polyamory: 'I'm In An Asexual Poly Marriage With My Husband Of 7 Years'
Have you ever wondered what it's like to be asexual and in an open marriage? Relationship Coach Mikki Bey shared her first-hand experience with us as well as answered some of our burning questions.
Like a lot of people, Mikki met her now husband, Raheem Ali, online. As soon as they met, they instantly fell in love and got engaged on their first date. Just 90 days after they met, the couple tied the knot and have now been married for seven years. Raheem and Mikki aren’t your typical married couple, and despite being married for almost a decade, their marriage is anything but traditional. Mikki and Raheem have what she calls an "asexual polyamorous marriage."
Defining Her Sexuality
It wasn't until last summer that Mikki found the language to define her sexuality. "I didn't have the language for it until last summer," she explained to xoNecole. "Looking back, I just thought sex wasn't my thing. It was never enjoyable for me, and I'd go years without even noticing.”
Mikki always thought she was broken because she had no interest in sex. Mikki noticed after her friends came to visit and started discussing their sexual fantasies that she realized something was different about her. “At that point, I knew something was definitely different about me since I do not have sexual fantasies at all. It was truly news to me that people are at work thinking about sex! That was not my experience.” This led to Mikki researching asexuality, which she soon realized fit her to a T. “It felt like breathing new air when I was able to call it by name," said Mikki.
"Looking back, I just thought sex wasn't my thing. It was never enjoyable for me, and I'd go years without even noticing it."
Asexuality refers to people who experience little or no sexual attraction, experience attraction without acting on it sexually, or experience sexual attraction differently based on other factors. Like most things, asexuality falls on a spectrum and encompasses many other identities. It's important to remember, however, that attraction and action are not always synonymous: some asexuals may reject the idea of sexual contact, but others may be sex-neutral and engage in sexual activity.
It's possible that some asexuals will have sex with someone else despite not having a libido or masturbating, but others will have sex with a partner because it brings a sense of connection.
From a Traditional Marriage to Kitchen Table Polyamory
Although Mikki never really had a high sex drive, it wasn’t until after the birth of her son, that she noticed her sex drive took a real nosedive. “I never had a high sex drive, but about a year after my son was born, I realized I had zero desire. My husband has a high sex drive, and I knew that it would not be sustainable to not have sex in our marriage at that time.”
She was determined to find an alternative to divorce and stumbled upon a polyamory conversation on Clubhouse. Upon doing her own research, she brought up the idea to their husband, who was receptive. “It’s so interesting to me that people weigh sex so heavily in relationships when even if you are having a ton of sex, it’s still a very small percentage of the relationship activity," Mikki shared.
They chose polyamory because Mikki still wanted to be married, but she also wanted to make sure that Raheem was getting his individual needs and desires met, even if that meant meeting them with someone else. “I think that we have been programmed to think that our spouses need to be our 'everything.' We do not operate like that. There is no one way that fits all when it comes to relationships, despite what society may try to tell you. Their path to doing this thing called life together may be different from yours, but they found what works for them. We have chosen to design a marriage that works for us,” Mikki explained.
"We have chosen to design a marriage that works for us. We both consent to each of us having everything from casual sex partners to lifetime partners if it should go there. We believe love is abundant and do not limit ourselves or each other on how we express it."
She continued, “We both consent to each of us having everything from casual sexual partners to lifetime partners if it should get there. We believe love is abundant and do not limit ourselves or each other on how we express it. Our dynamic is parallel with kitchen table poly aspirations.”
Kitchen table polyamory (KTP) is a polyamorous relationship in which all participants are on friendly terms enough to share a meal at the kitchen table. Basically, it means you have some form of relationship with your partner’s other partner, whether as a group or individually. A lot of times, KTP relationships are highly personal and rooted in mutual respect, communication, and friendship.
Intimacy in an Asexual Polyamorous Marriage
Mikki says she and her husband, Raheem, still share intimate moments despite being in a polyamorous marriage. “Our intimacy is emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and physical, although non-sexual. We are intentional about date nights weekly, surprising and delighting each other daily, and most of all, we communicate our needs regularly. In my opinion, our intimacy is top-tier! I give my husband full-body massages, mani-pedis and make sure I am giving him small physical touches/kisses throughout the day. He is also very intentional about showing me his love and affection.”
Raheem and Mikki now use their lives as examples for others. On their website, thepolycouplenextdoor.com, they coach people interested in learning how to be consensually non-monogamous. “We are both relationship coaches. I specialized in emotional regulation, and Raheem specializes in communication and conflict resolution. The same tools we use in our marriage help our clients succeed in polyamory."
Mikki advises people who may be asexual or seeking non-monogamy to communicate their needs openly and to consider seeking sex therapy or intimacy coaching. Building a strong relationship with a non-sexual partner requires both empathy and compassion.
For more of Mikki, follow her on Instagram @getmikkibey. Follow the couple's platform on Instagram @thepolycouplenextdoor.
Featured image by skynesher/Getty Images