What Secure-Functioning Relationships Are Like

Think of secure functioning as a culture—one that is cocreated and continuously shaped by both of you. Imagine you are with others who form the culture you’re co-creating, with a block of clay between you. Together, you are the creators, molding and shaping the clay to your liking. This living piece of art represents meaning, purpose, vision, culture, ethics, values, dreams, goals, aspirations, and behavioral restrictions that will protect you from harming the other, whether purposely or inadvertently. 

Alternatively, you might imagine yourselves as architects, designing the home that is your relationship. Are you predicting and planning for the long run? Are you considering what could go wrong? Are you thinking long and hard about its structure, organization, and sturdiness in case of earthquakes, bad weather, fires, and such? Freedom must be contained in the structure otherwise freedom could become confinement to chaos. 

As a couple, a two-person psychological system, you must acknowledge your separateness at the same time recognize your interdependence. As a team or alliance, everything you do affects the other—positively or negatively. Cause and effect are constant reminders that your fates are bound to each other. No good or bad act by one won’t be returned in some way and at some point. This is a team sport, not a solo one—unless the two of you agree to play it that way. If so, be very clear what that means and how it will work both now and in the future. 

Secure-functioning adult relationships, whether you are married, partnered, intimate sexually or not, must be fully informed and consensual, mutually designed, and based on terms and conditions that each person deems fair, just, and mutually sensitive. People are free to make any arrangements, agreements, or lifestyle choices so long as they agree and know precisely what they are agreeing to. Being able to do this depends on being interdependent, rather than codependent.

Clarifying Interdependence and Codependency

I have heard some confusion about what I mean by interdependence, and how it differs from codependency. The term codependency, which is more familiar, came out of the Alcoholics Anonymous nomenclature when identifying the coalcoholic partner and the behavior of individuals who were in relationships with people using alcohol or drugs. These folks were found to have a pattern of behavior that revolved around caretaking, enabling, and denying the addiction of their loved ones. Codependency has since been recognized as a broader issue, affecting individuals who have been in dysfunctional or emotionally abusive relationships.

I describe insecure attachment as the bonding that occurs within two main groups: distancing and clinging. Codependency most often describes insecurely attached individuals from the clinging group. The codependent person attempts to create safety and security for a partner who does not return the favor, thereby co-establishing a pattern of unfairness and resentment. In other words, they tend to form attachment relationships that lack full mutuality.

In stark contrast, interdependency is a fully mutual system whereby partners are expected to deliver according to previous agreements and permission to enforce. They are mutual stakeholders, having the same thing to gain and the same thing to lose. Both must hold the other’s feet to the fire—the fire (the principles and guardrails) they’ve already agreed to uphold. Therefore, in secure-functioning relational systems, formerly codependent individuals must now remain in charge of enforcing the relationship hierarchy; governing principles; and behavioral agreements; and share a vision and coherent purpose for their relationship. They must also develop governance, that is, how the union will govern its people and prevent them from harming each other or the union itself. All of these principles are required for the union to survive the long road ahead.

New Harbinger Publications, Inc. Copyright © 2024 Stan Tatkin


  • Dr. Tatkin and his wife, Tracey Boldemann-Tatkin, PhD, created the PACT Institute in 2010 to train mental health professionals to successfully integrate a psychobiological approach in their clinical practices. They appreciate his depth of understanding – of both the scientific research and the human condition – and how he integrates that wisdom to form the foundation of the comprehensive principles and methodologies he teaches. The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists CA honored Stan with the Educator of the Year award in 2014. Dr. Tatkin helps couples create healthy attachments and secure-functioning relationships based on fairness, justice, and sensitivity. In addition to his robust clinical practice in Calabasas, California, Dr. Tatkin and Tracey lead couples through Wired For Love Couple Retreats -- both online and in person across the United States and Europe. Dr. Tatkin is an assistant clinical professor at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, Department of Family Medicine. He is on the board of directors of Lifespan Learning Institute and serves as a founding member on Relationships First, a nonprofit organization founded by Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt.