Emotional dependency is at the heart of many unhealthy relationships. What exactly is emotional dependency? In short, it’s predicating your worth on someone else’s approval. Now, looking outward for validation is inherently problematic. In fact, it’s problematic on many levels and for many reasons. Perhaps the main reason is that looking outward for validation prevents you from knowing your true worth or where it really comes from.
Depending too much on another’s approval puts you at risk for coming unduly under their influence and control. You tend to want to please them too much. And you tend to feel badly about yourself when you experience their disapproval. Unfortunately, there are plenty of potential relationship partners out there who like that sort of arrangement. And they’re quite likely to take advantage of what they sense to be your need.
Emotional dependency is not the same thing as codependency. But it’s almost always involved in codependent relationships. What’s the difference? Codependency refers to a particular phenomenon common to families and relationships where genuine addiction is present. The substance the chemically dependent individual is addicted to virtually governs their life. But in many ways the substance similarly governs the lives of those around the addict left to pick up the pieces (inadvertently enabling the addict to remain dysfunctional) in many ways also have their lives governed by the substance. So, one could say that in a sense both the addict and his or her enablers are equally dependent on the substance, or “co-dependent.”
Abusive Relationships and Emotional Dependence
Some relationships are characterized by mutual dependence. That is, two people can get together because they both need another’s approval. And provided they each provide it, all may be good for awhile. But this is never really healthy. And it’s unhealthy primarily because, once again, it keeps a person from getting to know their true worth and where it really comes from. Many folks confuse mutual emotional dependence with codependency.
Disturbed characters have a sort of “radar” for emotional dependency. And they know well how to exploit a person’s need for approval. This dynamic lies at the heart of many abusive relationships. (See: pp. 88-93 in In Sheep’s Clothing and pp. 63-65 in Character Disturbance.)
A Case Example
I’m reminded of a case where a woman we’ll call “Emily” was swept off her feet by a man who showed her more attention and gave her more approving messages than she’d ever experienced in her life before. This man simply made her feel great. And she quickly fell into a pattern of doing anything to please him or gain his favor. But before long she began to recognize a disturbing pattern. So long as she was doing as expected, things seemed fine. But when she dared to assert her own needs, she only felt ridiculed, belittled, and chastised.
Gradually Emily lost any sense of personal identity and worth. Her only value seemed to be measuring up to the ideal image her partner expected her to project. What little warmth that ever existed in their relationship had long left. And there was no genuine emotional connection, only unfulfilled expectation. All the joy and exuberance she once felt had left. It seemed the life had simply been drained out of her.
Emily’s situation is sadly too familiar to a lot of folks. And that’s especially true for folks who struggle with emotional dependency. So, next week we’ll continue discussing emotional dependency and its roots. We’ll also revisit the issue of how to know one’s true worth and where it really comes from. Healthy relationships are based on mutual positive regard. But a person has to know their worth and from where it truly derives to forge such a relationship. (For more on the discovering one’s own worth see: Cultivating Healthy Self-Worth.)