Symbiosis in Relationships – Why Things Change Psychologically


In this article I want to share the idea of relationship symbiosis and its effects on the future of marriage and breakdowns in couples. Symbiosis is the connection two people find between them at the beginning of relationships that cause initial attraction and the decision making process to marry or cohabitate. Culture plays a significant role in symbiosis along with development issues from the type of parental style experienced in early childhood.


In order to understand symbiosis we have to know what that actually means! It is a term which describes the needs and desires being met by one party to another. For example, if a girl grows up where her parents who are over nurturing, they do her thinking for her and make all the decisions, she may as an adult seek out men who are controlling and demanding – as this supplies the need for her to continue to not think for herself and have her decisions made for her. The man may have had highly critical parents where he learned that control of others is the purpose of relationships and so looks for the girl who is needy, easy to control and allows him to do her thinking for her. This couple will have symbiosis in that structure and will be happy with the role they are playing psychologically. This form of symbiosis is a dominant subdominant arrangement. However to have complete symbiosis there must be many factors of complimentary needs and wants matching in order for a new couple to decide to marry.

In relationship research it has been found that couples with similar backgrounds, social status and proximity tend to be attracted to each other and form long term relationships (1. Festinger 1950). However today much of that research may have to be revisited as diversification in relationships is now becoming more likely, particularly with inter-racial marriages, as people travel more and have more opportunities to meet men and women from different cultures. Here symbiosis maybe the determining factor in the relationships continuance. The most quoted research is now also over 30 years ago and subjects were often unmarried American college students not exactly representative of the population as a whole and today statistically dubious. For example the work of Zajonc 1971, Dion 1972, Griffit & Veitch 1974, Bossard, 1931 and Hedier 1958, while much of this research into relationship factors are still relevant today for many they lack the insight into cultural changes of a global society. The single most obvious criticism is that past research focused often on a couple in isolation from other players in the relationship such as mother in laws, friends and ex partners, especially with a divorce rate globally of nearly 37%.

According to enrichment journal on the divorce rate in America:

• The divorce rate in America for first marriage is 41%

• The divorce rate in America for second marriage is 60%

• The divorce rate in America for third marriage is 73%


If then we accept that in the beginning of the relationship symbiosis is evident and both parties are happy with the arrangement, how does it go wrong? From counselling couples and individuals some common patterns emerge. First that people change over time, particularly women, who may have needed a dependent situation in their early years, but as education and maturity play their role, the woman becomes more self confident than in the past, starts demanding to be heard, that her opinion counts now. The husband often sees this rebellion against the symbiosis as damaging the marriage as he is still very happy to be the dominant decision maker. Once the husband loses control of the once sub dominant wife he turns to seek the satisfaction for his dominance to a third party, looking for a young girl he can dominate again. Leaving the marriage in an unbalanced symbiosis as now both parties needs is not being met. For example, the wife needing more independence of thought while he is seeking to re-establish the symbiosis that existed before and suited his need for control. The inevitable outcome of such an unbalance is often divorce, however many woman claim that they stay in unhappy marriages for the sake of the children or their own personal security. Having found the need for independence of thought does not mean independence economically! Here a woman may try to find new outlets for their feelings through the children or outside interests. Although we are using only one example it is the most common one seen amongst married couples. A second area of symbiosis is the person’s life view. Your life view is how you see the world, for example, as dangerous, wondrous or futile. This life position again can me symbiotic in the beginning with a shared vision of the world. Experience over time may change this for example like becoming vegetarian for animal welfare reasons and the partner continuing to want to eat meat. This shift of a general view of life and the world can have profound effects particularly with mixed cultural marriages. A Muslim married to a Christian could become a fiery relationship after the passion of the initial attraction wears off! Diversity is now a much more common arrangement in marriages than in the past and a challenge to modern counsellors trying to settle the couple’s fundamental differences in life views, especially as the counsellor will have their life view too.

Change to Symbiosis:

What are the positive aspects of the change in symbiosis to a couple? Here couples need to make a readjustment to their long term arrangements. First to accept that people can change and that new needs can be found, even a sense of purpose in living. If the partners can adapt to the change and be more accepting many marriages could be revitalised into a new symbiosis for both. For example, if the dominant husband accepts his wife can think for herself now, he can be proud of her maturation and encourage her to take more risks in what she decides for herself. He could become more democratic in the marriage by agreeing to talk more before decisions are reached that both feel is good and not just one. Of course in many marriages these roles are reversed. Secondly, a lack of symbiosis is one of the main causes of many trivial arguments that then catastrophes into major arguments about the relationship itself.

Many clients say that once the symbiosis has changed so has the intimacy of the relationship and sex is usually the first casualty of the new positions. There are many reasons that the symbiosis can change, loss of work, economic slowdowns, caring of elderly relatives all can put a strain on the dynamics of a relationship. In our example if our dominant man lost his job and was unemployable for some reason, then the wife may start to worry that the dependable man she relied on is now depressed and in doing so becomes less certain, less dominate and less sure of the future. Here the symbiosis is affected not by the internal arrangement but by external elements that are out of their control.

Symbiosis can be affected by third parties, such as the mother in law, who may influence her daughter or son to take certain stands in the marriage and sway the carefully managed symbiosis into a crisis point. In some cultures such as China, the men are heavily influenced by their mothers after marriage, particularly in the man wanted a mother replacement in his wife (very common). This can lead to the three way symbiosis where accommodation is being allowed for in three peoples needs. The Chinese husband often defers to his mothers power and leaves the wife feeling powerless.

Traditional, Custom, Culture in Symbiosis:

People often misunderstand the words, traditional, custom and culture in terms of right and wrong behaviour and standards of conduct. Tradition is something we have always done but have often forgotten its original purpose and continue the practices with a – we have always done it this way – attitude. Custom is the preferred way of carrying out daily life that is acceptable to the majority of a class of people. For example greetings and offering to pay for a meal with the intention of knowing the offer will be refused. Culture however is very different as it constantly changes according to the pressures of modern living, economics and now technology. An iPhone is as much part of a modern culture as high speed trains. The change in culture puts a strain on tradition and custom as they are not always compatible. In symbiosis the generation gap between traditions followed and customs played out can be in direct competition with the changing culture. Here arguments between parents, young married couples and single adults can differ greatly in their symbiotic needs. Symbiosis may be sought traditionally in marriage according to the parent’s idea of the correct way and needs of the future care for themselves even to the point of practically selling their daughter for money disguised as a traditional custom. Young couples struggling to find a place in a harsh economic climate may decide to cohabitate as a way to avoid tradition and fall into line with a more modern cultural approach to economic realities. Therefore the symbiosis between the generations is not maintained and even governments try to enact legislation to enforce traditional values with tax incentives and penalties. (2. Myler 2011)


You can see from our overview of symbiosis that many factors can interfere with and damage the original symbiosis of a marriage that starts out as a balanced happy arrangement only to fall into discord later in life according to the changes to that symbiosis. Symbiosis is then the cornerstone of a successful marriage or a future divorce. Symbiosis can only be maintained through constant vigilance to changing times and the growth of the individual’s personality, skills and change in their life views. If you are going to have a long term relationship then both parties need to understand change happens and embrace that change positively. While most couples in psychotherapy can when given insight make positive changes to their outlook and life view many of course cannot and look for a third party to bring back the symbiosis to their psychological well-being either through affairs or divorce with remarriage to a partner that offers that symbiosis they wanted from the old partner.


1. Festinger 1950, Advanced Psychology through Diagrams – G. Hill

2. Myler 2011, The China Papers

Words: 1780

Source by Stephen F. Myler

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