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The term dependency is most commonly used to describe a situation wherein one person relies upon another for help, guidance, reassurance, protection, or emotional support. However, it is also possible for an individual to be dependent upon a substance rather than a person, as in chemical dependency. Other uses of the dependency concept in social science include economic dependency (i.e., one person’s reliance on another for financial support), and functional dependency (i.e., one person’s reliance on another for physical help, or for assistance in carrying out activities of daily living).
Although different forms of dependency are of interest to economists, sociologists, gerontologists, and others, the dependency concept is most widely used in psychology. In addition to studying chemical dependency, psychologists have devoted considerable effort to understanding the causes and consequences of dependent personality traits. In this context, researchers distinguish interpersonal dependency from pathological dependency. Interpersonal dependency describes the normal help- and reassuranceseeking that most people exhibit in everyday life; individuals with high levels of interpersonal dependency show above-average rates of help- and reassurance-seeking. Pathological dependency—which when pronounced may warrant a diagnosis of dependent personality disorder— describes an extreme form of maladaptive, inflexible dependency characterized by fear of abandonment, feelings of powerlessness and ineffectiveness, and an inability to initiate tasks or make decisions without excessive advice and reassurance from others.
High levels of interpersonal dependency are associated with a predictable array of personality traits including conformity, compliance, suggestibility, introversion, insecurity, interpersonal yielding, and low self-esteem. Among the psychological disorders most commonly found in people with pathological dependency are depression, anxiety disorders (especially social phobia and agoraphobia), and eating disorders (i.e., anorexia and bulimia). Contrary to clinical lore, high levels of pathological dependency do not predispose people to chemical dependency. In fact, studies show that in most cases increases in dependent attitudes and behaviors follow, rather than precede, the onset of addiction.
Although about 30 percent of the variance in level of both interpersonal and pathological dependency is attributable to genetic factors (presumably inherited differences in infantile temperament), parenting plays a key role in the etiology of dependent personality traits. Two parenting styles are particularly important in this context. First, overprotective parenting is associated with high levels of dependency in offspring. In addition, authoritarian (i.e., rigid, inflexible) parenting leads to high levels of dependency later in life. Both parenting styles lead to increased dependency because overprotective and authoritarian parents inadvertently teach children to look to others for guidance, protection, and support, and accede to others’ demands without question.
Most psychologists conceptualize dependent personality traits as consisting of four major components: (1) cognitive (a perception of oneself as vulnerable and weak, coupled with the belief that other people are comparatively powerful and potent); (2) motivational (a strong desire to obtain and maintain nurturant, supportive relationships); (3) emotional (fear of abandonment and fear of negative evaluation by others); and (4) behavioral (use of various self-presentation strategies to strengthen interpersonal ties). Among the self-presentation strategies most commonly associated with dependency in adults are supplication (appearing weak to elicit caregiving responses from others), and ingratiation (performing favors to create a sense of indebtedness in others). However, when these more common interpersonal strategies prove ineffective, people with pathological dependency may resort to intimidation (e.g., breakdown threats, suicide gestures) in a desperate attempt to preclude abandonment.
Although the cognitive, motivational, emotional, and behavioral features of dependency are relatively stable over time and across situation, dependency is expressed in different ways at different ages. During childhood dependency needs are directed primarily toward parents and other authority figures (e.g., teachers, coaches), but in adolescence the target of dependency strivings often shifts to the peer group. During early and middle adulthood dependency strivings are expressed most commonly around romantic partners, friends, supervisors, and colleagues at work; later in life dependency needs tend to be directed toward caregivers as well as romantic partners and peers.
Despite the fact that dependency in adults is usually regarded as a sign of weakness, dysfunction, and immaturity, dependent personality traits are actually associated with both positive and negative consequences. On the negative side, dependent people tend to overuse health and mental health services, react strongly to even minor relationship conflict, and have difficulty assuming leadership positions. On the positive side, however, dependent people delay less long than nondependent people in seeking medical help following symptom onset, are skilled at deciphering subtle verbal and nonverbal cues, and perform well in collaborative tasks when provided with adequate structure.
On questionnaire and interview measures of interpersonal and pathological dependency women tend to obtain higher scores than men do. These gender differences in self-reported dependency begin by mid-childhood and persist through late adulthood. A very different pattern is obtained when projective measures (e.g., the Rorschach Inkblot Test) are used to assess dependency: When these more subtle measures are administered women and men obtain comparable dependency scores. It appears that women and men have similar levels of underlying dependency needs (as reflected in comparable scores on projective dependency tests). However, men are less willing than women to acknowledge these needs in interviews and on questionnaires.
Like gender, culture affects the expression of interpersonal dependency, with individuals raised in sociocentric cultures (i.e., cultures that emphasize interrelatedness over individual achievement) showing higher self-reported dependency than individuals raised in individualistic cultures (which typically emphasize individuation and achievement over interpersonal connectedness). Studies further suggest that when individuals immigrate and gradually become acculturated to a new society, dependency levels tend to increase or decrease in accordance with the norms and values of that society.
- Baltes, Margaret M. 1996. The Many Faces of Dependency in Old Age. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Bornstein, Robert F. 1993. The Dependent Personality. New York: Guilford Press.
- Bornstein, Robert F. 2005. The Dependent Patient: A Practitioner’s Guide. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Pincus, Aaron L., and Kelly R. Wilson. 2001. Interpersonal Variability in Dependent Personality. Journal of Personality 69 (2): 223–251.
- Rusbult, Caryl E., and Paul A. M. Van Lange. 2003. Interdependence, Interaction, and Relationships. Annual Review of Psychology 54: 351–375.
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