Emotional Dependency
The Road Less Traveled

One of the few books I read more than once is The Road Less Traveled by Scott Peck. I liked the second part of the book in particular where the author discusses love: what it is and what it is not. One section discusses a subject that I think many people need to be aware of and that is the difference between love and emotional dependency. I did not want to edit the section so I am including it below in its entirety. Enjoy. Paul

The second most common misconception about love is the idea that dependency is love. This is a misconception with which psychotherapists must deal on a daily basis. Its effect is seen most dramatically in an individual who makes an attempt or gesture or threat to commit suicide or who becomes incapacitatingly depressed in response to a rejection or separation from spouse or lover. Such a person says, “I do not want to live, I cannot live without my husband [wife, girl friend, boyfriend], I love him [or her] so much.” And when I respond, as I frequently do, “You are mistaken; you do not love your husband [wife, girl friend, boyfriend].” “What do you mean?” is the angry question. “I just told you I can’t live without him [or her].” I try to explain. “What you describe is parasitism, not love. When you require another individual for your survival, you are a parasite on that individual. There is no choice, no freedom involved in your relationship. It is a matter of necessity rather than love. Love is the free exercise of choice. Two people love each other only when they are quite capable of living without each other but choose to live with each other.”

I define dependency as the inability to experience wholeness or to function adequately without the certainty that one is being actively cared for by another. Dependency in physical healthy adults is pathological—it is sick, always a manifestation of a mental illness or defect. It is to be distinguished from what are commonly referred to as dependency needs or feelings. We all—each and every one of us—even if we try to pretend to others and to ourselves that we don’t—have dependency needs and feelings. All of us have desires to be babied, to be nurtured without effort on our parts, to be cared for by persons stronger than us who have our interests truly at heart. No matter how strong we are, no matter how caring and responsible and adult, if we look clearly into ourselves we will find the wish to be taken care of for a change. Each one of us, no matter how old and mature, looks for and would like to have in his or her life a satisfying mother figure and father figure. But for most of us these desires or feelings do not rule our lives; they are not the predominant theme of our existence. When they do rule our lives and dictate the quality of our existence, then we have something more than just dependency needs or feelings; we are dependent. Specifically, one whose life is ruled and dictated by dependency needs suffers from a psychiatric disorder to which we ascribe the diagnostic name “passive dependent personality disorder.” It is perhaps the most common of all psychiatric disorders.

People with this disorder, passive dependent people, are so busy seeking to be loved that they have no energy left to love. They are like starving people, scrounging wherever they can for food, and with no food of their own to give to others. It is as if within them they have an inner emptiness, a bottomless pit crying out to be filled but which can never be completely filled. They never feel “full-filled” or have a sense of completeness. They always feel “a part of me is missing.” They tolerate loneliness very poorly. Because of their lack of wholeness they have no real sense of identity, and they define themselves solely by their relationships. A thirty-year-old punch press operator, extremely depressed, came to see me three days after his wife had left him, taking their two children. She had threatened to leave him three times before, complaining of his total lack of attention to her and the children. Each time he had pleaded with her to remain and had promised to change, but his change had never lasted more than a day, and this time she had carried out her threat. He had not slept for two nights, was trembling with anxiety, had tears streaming down his face and was seriously contemplating suicide. “I can’t live without my family,” he said, weeping, “I love them so.”

“I’m puzzled,” I said to him. “You’ve told me that your wife’s complaints were valid, that you never did anything for her, that you came home only when you pleased, that you weren’t interested in her sexually or emotionally, that you wouldn’t even talk to the children for months on end, that you never played with them or took them anywhere. You have no relationship with any of your family, so I don’t understand why you’re so depressed over the loss of a relation¬ship that never existed.”

“Don’t you see?” he replied. “I’m nothing now. Nothing. I have no wife. I have no children. I don’t know who I am. I may not care for them, but I must love them. I am nothing without them.”

Because he was so seriously depressed—having lost the identity that his family gave him—I made an appointment to see him again two days later. I expected little improvement. But when he returned he bounced into the office grinning cheerfully and announced, “Everything’s OK now.”

“Did you get back together with your family?” I asked.

“Oh, no,” he replied happily, “I haven’t heard from them since I saw you. But I did meet a girl last night down at my bar. She said she really likes me. She’s separated, just like me. We’ve got a date again tonight. I feel like I’m human once more. I guess I don’t have to see you again.”

This rapid changeability is characteristic of passive dependent individuals. It is as if it does not matter whom they are dependent upon as long as there is just someone. It does not matter what their identity is as long as there is someone to give it to them. Consequently their relationships, although seemingly dramatic in their intensity, are actually extremely shallow. Because of the strength of their sense of inner emptiness and the hunger to fill it, passive dependent people will brook no delay in gratifying their need for others. A beautiful, brilliant and in some ways very healthy young woman had, from the age of seventeen to twenty-one, an almost endless series of sexual relationships with men invariably beneath her in terms of intelligence and capability. She went from one loser to the next. The problem as it emerged was that she was unable to wait long enough to seek out a man suited to her or even to choose from among the many men almost immediately available to her. Within twenty-four hours after the ending of a relationship she would pick up the first man she met in a bar and would come into her next therapy session singing his praises. “I know he’s unemployed and drinks too much, but basically he’s very talented, and he really cares for me. I know this relationship will work.”

But it never did work, not only because she had not chosen well but also because she would then begin a pattern of clinging to the man, demanding more and more evidence of his affection, seeking to be with him constantly, refusing to be left alone. “It is because I love you so much that I cannot bear to be separated from you,” she would tell him, but sooner or later he would feel totally stifled and trapped, without room to move, by her “love.” A violent blow-up would occur, the relationship would be terminated and the cycle would begin all over again the next day. The woman was able to break the cycle only after three years of therapy, during which she came to appreciate her own intelligence and assets, to identify her emptiness and hunger and distinguish it from genuine love, to realize how her hunger was driving her to initiate and cling to relationships that were detrimental to her, and to accept the necessity for the strictest kind of discipline over her hunger if she was to capitalize on her assets.

In the diagnosis the word “passive” is used in conjunction with the word “dependent” because these individuals concern themselves with what others can do for them to the exclusion of what they themselves can do. Once, working with a group of five single patients, all passive dependent people, I asked them to speak of their goals in terms of what life situations they wanted to find themselves in five years hence. In one way or another each of them replied, “I want to be married to someone who really cares for me.” Not one mentioned holding down a challenging job, creating a work of art, making a contribution to the community, being in a position where he or she could love or even have children. The notion of effort was not involved in their daydreams; they envisioned only an effortless passive state of receiving care. I told them, as I tell many others: “If being loved is your goal, you will fail to achieve it. The only way to be assured of being loved is to be a person worthy of love, and you cannot be a person worthy of love when your primary goal in life is to passively be loved.” This is not to say that passive dependent people never do things for others, but their motive in doing things is to cement the attachment of the others to them so as to assure their own care. And when the possibility of care from another is not directly involved, they do have great difficulty in “doing things.” All the members of the aforementioned group found it agonizingly difficult to buy a house, separate from their parents, locate a job, leave a totally unsatisfactory old job or even invest themselves in a hobby.

In marriage there is normally a differentiation of the roles of the two spouses, a normally efficient division of labor between them. The woman usually does the cooking, house-cleaning and shopping and cares for the children; the man usually maintains employment, handles the finances, mows the lawn and makes repairs. Healthy couples instinctively will switch roles from time to time. The man may cook a meal now and then, spend one day a week with the children, clean the house to surprise his wife; the woman may get a part-time job, mow the lawn on her husband’s birthday, or take over the checking account and bill-paying for a year. The couple may often think of this role switching as a kind of play that adds spice and variety to their marriage. It is this, but perhaps more important (even if it is done unconsciously), it is a process that diminishes their mutual dependency. In a sense, each spouse is training himself or herself for survival in the event of the loss of the other. But for passive dependent people the loss of the other is such a frightening prospect that they cannot face preparing for it or tolerating a process that would diminish the dependency or increase the freedom of the other. Consequently it is one of the behavioral hallmarks of passive dependent people in marriage that their role differentiation is rigid, and they seek to increase rather than diminish mutual dependency so as to make marriage more rather than less of a trap. By so doing, in the name of what they call love but what is really dependency, they diminish their own and each other’s freedom and stature. Occasionally, as part of this process, passive dependent people when married will actually forsake skills that they had gained before marriage. An example of this is the not uncommon syndrome of the wife who “can’t” drive a car. Half the time in such situations she may never have learned, but in the remaining cases, some¬times allegedly because of a minor accident, she develops a “phobia” about driving at some point after marriage and stops. The effect of this “phobia” in rural and suburban areas, where most people live, is to render her almost totally dependent on her husband and chain her husband to her by her helplessness. Now he must do all the shopping for the family himself or he must chauffeur her on all shopping expeditions. Because this behavior usually gratifies the dependency needs of both spouses, it is almost never seen as sick or even as a problem to be solved by most couples. When I suggested to an otherwise extremely intelligent banker that his wife, who suddenly stopped driving at age forty-six because of a “phobia,” might have a problem deserving of psychiatric attention, he said “Oh, no, the doctor told her it was because of menopause, and you can’t do anything about that.” She was secure in the knowledge that he would not have an affair and leave her because he was so busy after work taking her shopping and driving the children around. He was secure in the knowledge that she would not have an affair and leave him because she did not have the mobility to meet people when he was away from her. Through such behavior, passive dependent marriages may be made lasting and secure, but they cannot be considered either healthy or genuinely loving, because the security is purchased at the price of freedom and the relationship serves to retard or destroy the growth of the individual partners. Again and again we tell our couples that “a good marriage can exist only between two strong and independent people.”

Passive dependency has its genesis in lack of Jove. The inner feeling of emptiness from which passive dependent people suffer is the direct result of their parents’ failure to fulfill their needs for affection, attention and care during their childhood. It was mentioned in the first section that children who are loved and cared for with relative consistency throughout childhood enter adulthood with a deep-seated feeling that they are lovable and valuable and therefore will be loved and cared for as long as they remain true to themselves.

Children growing up in an atmosphere in which love and care are lacking or given with gross inconsistency enter adulthood with no such sense of inner security. Rather, they have an inner sense of insecurity, a feeling of “I don’t have enough” and a sense that the world is unpredictable and ungiving, as well as a sense of themselves as being questionably lovable and valuable. It is no wonder, then, that they feel the need to scramble for love, care and attention wherever they can find it, and once having found it, cling to it with a desperation that leads them to unloving, manipulative, Machiavellian behavior that destroys the very relationships they seek to preserve.

As also indicated in the previous section, love and discipline go hand in hand, so that unloving, uncaring parents are people lacking in discipline, and when they fail to provide their children with a sense of being loved, they also fail to provide them with the capacity for self-discipline. Thus the excessive dependency of the passive dependent individuals is only the principal manifestation of their personality disorder. Passive dependent people lack self-discipline. They are unwilling or unable to delay gratification of their hunger for attention. In their desperation to form and preserve attachments they throw honesty to the winds. They cling to outworn relationships when they should give them up. Most important, they lack a sense of responsibility for themselves. They passively look to others, frequently even their own children, as the source of their happiness and fulfillment, and therefore when they are not happy or fulfilled they basically feel that others are responsible. Consequently they are endlessly angry, because they endlessly feel let down by others who can never in reality fulfill all their needs or “make” them happy.

I have a colleague who often tells people, “Look, allowing yourself to be dependent on another person is the worst possible thing you can do to yourself. You would be better off being dependent on her¬oin. As long as you have a supply of it, heroin will never let you down; if it’s there, it will always make you happy. But if you expect another person to make you happy, you’ll be endlessly disappointed.” As a matter of fact, it is no accident that the most common disturbance that passive dependent people manifest beyond their relationships to others is dependency on drugs and alcohol. Theirs is the “addictive personality.” They are addicted to people, sucking on them and gobbling them up, and when people are not available to be sucked and gobbled, they often turn to the bottle or the needle or the pill as a people-substitute.

In summary, dependency may appear to be love because it is a force that causes people to fiercely attach themselves to one another. But in actuality it is not love; it is a form of antilove. It has its genesis in a parental failure to love and it perpetuates the failure. It seeks to receive rather than to give. It nourishes infantilism rather than growth. It works to trap and constrict rather than to liberate. Ultimately it destroys rather than builds relationships, and it destroys rather than builds people.


Leave a Reply