Affiliated With CounselingSeattle.com

Emotional Dependence

Emotional dependence is a reluctance or refusal to emotionally accept the adult role. It is like being a child, in that other people ('the real adults') are expected to 'make things right.' At the same time, adult freedom and autonomy is insisted upon. This mismatch leads to great complication in trying to form loving, or cooperative adult relationships. The most prominent behaviors are based in refusing to take responsibility for:

By contrast, emotional maturity is "the ability to take responsibility for your own needs and take accountability for your actions." (Definition thanks to Robert Glover, Ph.D)

Traits Indicating Emotional Dependence

Emotionally dependent people often acquire a great deal of knowledge or skill, but have trouble sustaining a career or position in which the knowledge and skill is reliably implemented. Often they have lofty pursuits that are never pursued realistically or tested. From the position of dependence, it is possible to appear brilliant, innovative, talented, because topics and subjects can be mentally and verbally pursued without the constraint of arranging and executing practical steps. Often courses of study or expertise are launched very eagerly, but abandoned before completion, or the educational part is completed but the vocational part is not sustained.

Emotionally dependent people may create a role in a family or group in which they seem to point the way forward, but others actually are often doing the day to day work and deciding daily practical matters. Such pseudo-leadership flounders eventually, however, often only after the period of enthusiasm is over.

Frequently, however, emotionally dependent people are in a position of 'collapse,' 'not doing very well,' or in a crisis. and are being helped, rescued, or tended to by others. From this position they do not get on their feet easily because typical human struggles and social friction are experienced as trauma or setbacks. One illusory way out of collapse is an addictive relationship, described in the latter part of this webpage.

The Advice Bind: A fundamental and frequent transaction for an emotionally dependent person is to ask another adult or teen for advice about what to do. Whatever advice is received is neither clearly rejected or accepted, but rather whatever downsides exist are exhaustively recited. All choices have some downside, that is the nature of a decision. An emotionally dependent person is very reluctant to accept a downside, and certainly unwilling to accept responsibility for a downside. This puts enormous burden on the advice giver to present options as if they had no downside (which contains a dishonesty that the emotionally dependent person will usually point out!) There can be a feeling that the emotionally dependent person just wants the situation fixed by someone else, but this fix requires retention of upsides and protection from downsides. Conversations about the issue can be very frequent, or very long, with no obvious way to fulfill or complete the advising role. A feeling of helplessness will pervade. This, if anything, is the gist of the phrase, "being clingy" or "being needy." Most people are glad to help someone, but are frustrated when asked for help but unable to either help or end the interaction.

Asymmetrical Relationships

Emotional dependence is most often 'self-treated' through relationships. Emotionally dependent people tend always to be in a relationship. They tend to hang on to relationships as long as possible, but will usually start another relationship quickly if the existing one does end. At the very early stages of a new relationship, an emotionally dependent person will put his or her least dependent behavior forward. This is not nefarious or even conscious--all people tend to behave in the way they sense is desirable in the early stages of a relationship.

But once some commitment occurs, emotionally dependent adults tend to decompensate functionally over time, and the non-dependent partner is drawn into becoming an enabler. This dynamic is never really stable unless there are children or external forces holding it together. In a relationship with two emotionally dependent partners, however, there will be great stability but also great strife and conflict. One format in which this occurs is the 'addictive relationship."