Emotional Dependence: what is it and how to overcome it
What is emotional dependence?
Dr. Robin Norwood in her book “Women who love too much” answers this question quite vividly:
If you ever happened to be obsessed by a man, perhaps has come to your suspect that at the root of your obsession it was fear rather than love; us obsessively lovers, we are full of fear: fear to stay alone, fear not to be worthy of love and of consideration, fear to be ignored, or abandoned, or annihilate. We offer our love with the absurd hope that the man of our obsession would protects us from our fears; but fears and obsessions deepen, until offering our love hoping to be loved back becomes the constant of our life . And, since our strategy doesn’t work, we retry, we love even more. We love too much.
Affective dependency is not exactly considered an illness or a mental disorder, but in many of cases it’s the reason a person asks the intervention of a clinical psychologist.
Because of the serious repercussions on the emotional balance of the person, and on his/her self-determination, emotional dependence has to be considered a serious problem with severe consequences. These entail both the affective relationship itself, regarding the two implicated partners, but even the mental and physical health status of possiblly involved children.
Recognizing emotional dependence: three distinctive signs
1) Excessive dependency
Depending on somebody else is not a problematic signal invariably. The key is in the equilibrium, in the quantity and in the quality of the dependence:
As human beings, the need to connect us to the others knowing that we can trust them in moments of vulnerability is a basic need, therefore healthy. When however the degree of this dependence is excessive, up to the point that our self-determination is compromised, and we feel that without the presence and the help of the partner we are not able to function, this is a sign of emotional dependence.
The dependent person generally tends to lean on the other ( particularly the partner) for all those functions that he/she should be able to permorm alone, such as emotional regulation, self-esteem, self-efficacy perception.
2) The partner is considered fundamental
A second main characteristic of emotional dependence is the perception of the partner as an essential figure, at the point that one cannot live without him/her. The individual relys on the partner for the greatest part of the matters, without taking a decision independendently, therefore adopting a dependent behavior, to the expenses of his/her own individuality.
In the most serious cases, one person need to rely on the other also to maintain the sense of personal cohesion and integrity, leading to a feeling of being shattered in front of separation or the threat of abandonment, even if it’s temporary.
This happens even if the relationship has highly disfunctional characteristics .
Insofar, even in the cases in which one suffers physical violence or maltreatment, still feels unable to escape the abuses and find better and safer alternatives.
Having troubles living the distances and the separations baits a series of vicious mechanisms that feed the very dependence.
To avoid separation the emotional dependent tends to give up important aspects of life, such as hobbies, a job and all that could strengthen his/her selfesteem and autonomy. Doing that, things end up weakening his/her own identity and the net of support, getting more and more isolated.
The isolation increases the sense of impotence and the perception that the partner is the only one being able to give a sense to one’s existence.
Emotional dependent people unconsciously have the tendency to recreate relationships similar to those they’ve experienced during infancy, the ones that have mined their selfesteem and created a deep sense of inadequacy.
Frequently therefore they choose refusing or frankly misusing partners.
The prophecy stays in the fact that looking for love, protection and support, they end up often in unhappy and harmful relationships instead, from which they have troubles separating.
The root of emotional dependence
Emotional dependence comes from a sort of “imprinting” that each of us receives in our infancy, that is in the attachment relationship, the one with our caregivers.
The concept of attachment was first introduced by John Bowlby, and represents the very base of each model of personality and its development.
To guarantee with the maximum probability the development of a healthy personality and a good relational competence , it is necessary that all the emotional needs had been satisfied during infancy.
They are: caring, protection, warmth, nourishment, empathy, listening, sharing, autonomy, self-esteem, recognition, but also limits and discipline.
Starting from the type of attachement received during infancy, all of us build a rather stable tendency toward a model of being in a relationship, that only could be modified through a psychotherapeutic intervention.
We love as we had been loved
From the first moments of our life, we can live negative experiences difficult to process, for the reducted cognitive and verbal abilities, and for the fact that because of our condition of dependence, we develop moreor less functional ways to adapt to the family in which we grow up.
Every day, the development of the personality is fed by good and bad experiences, that we are not always capable of metabolizing.
All the experiences of non optimal attachementaffect the development of the concept of self, of our own value and worth lovingness, on the representation that we have of the other and on the form we relate with the world.
If we live particularly negative experiences, or our basic needs come dissatisfied or frustrated, these will remain encapsulated, together with the memory and the feelings of the moment,within isolated memory networks.
From these time capsule , the memories will continue to “bother “us, as a foreign body, every time a situation remembers us the ones lived in past.
The result is that also today, from a distance of decades, the actions and the words of our parents continue to influence our sense of identity and our way to live an affective relationship!
Even if must be clarified that emotional dependence can originate from different environments, and that vice versa the families here described canhave an influence on the development of many psychological problems, the individuals with a problem of emotional dependence typically report of:
- Families in which the emotional needs were not recognized. The need of affection and love was neglected, or invalidated, that is the perceptions and the feelings of the child are ignored, leading the child to suit for what is told him/her by parental figures .
- Overprotective families, in which the needs of autonomy and self-efficacy of the children are not allowed to express.
- Families characterized by violence among the parents (assisted domestic violence) or between parents and children (physical abuse). Constant presence of quarrels and tensions. Repeated episodes of sexual abuse by a parent or by an individual external to the family.
- Drug or alchool addicted parents.
What could happen if the parents are overprotective?
It’s logical to think that an overprotected child may develop a distorted and disfunctional idea of him/herself and that he/she also would look for support and protection from the partner, even for matters that the greatest part of the people face autonomously.
If we had overprotective parents , we most possibly build an insecure style of attachment:
“I am incapable”, “I can’t do this”, or “I won’tmake it being alone.”
What if the parents are dismissing or emotionally detached?
The future adult will acquire a self-devaluing attitude. He/she will always feel inadequate, wrong, not deserving. He/she won’t express his/her needs and desires because he/she would expect devaluation and refusal.
He/she won’t know how to recognize his/her own needs, since who would have done that, didn’t. Or he/she can develop an overcompensating attitude : becoming demanding as a retaliation over the past: it is the case of the narcissist personality.
What if the parents are critical and devaluing?
An example of the environment in which these children have been raised could be:
“You’ re so stupid” or! “You aren’t good at anything!”
Raised in similar familiar environment, a child can possibly internalize a devaluing attitude about his/herself or becoming a devaluing adult (and in many cases a parent) in turn.