Dependency on others is the hallmark characteristic of dependent personality disorder (DPD). This can create problems within relationships, since nearly all adult relationships need a degree of interdependence to be considered healthy. Interdependence, simply put, means the people in the relationship maintain their sense of self while working together to meet each other’s needs as well as their own.
If you live with DPD, you may have an intense and overwhelming need for others to take care of you, so much so that you fear being abandoned or left alone. To avoid the possibility of abandonment, you might find yourself going out of your way to make certain you have the continued support of your romantic partner, family members, or friends. This might cause you to go to great lengths to please them, often by doing things you’d prefer not to do.
This behavior may seem to help you get your needs met, but it often leads to unhealthy or imbalanced relationships. You might end up staying with a partner who isn’t right for you, or even one who’s toxic or takes advantage of you, simply because you don’t want to be alone.
But it is possible to build healthy relationships when you have DPD. Awareness of the condition, and how it affects your interactions with others, is a good first step.
If you live with DPD, you may have an intense and overwhelming need for others to take care of you, so much so that you fear being abandoned or left alone.
WHAT IS DEPENDENT PERSONALITY?
In basic terms, dependent personality means you rely on other people to take care of you. You might experience serious distress at the thought of having to do things on your own, because you don’t think you can care for yourself. You might feel helpless or unable to make decisions for yourself—both significant decisions, like the career you choose, and minor decisions, like what you’ll make for dinner.
You might lack well-developed self-esteem and have little confidence in your own abilities. This can contribute to beliefs like, “I can’t do anything myself,” “Someone else can do a better job,” or “If I upset them, they’ll leave me.” Because you need continued support from loved ones, you may withhold normal, healthy responses, like anger, frustration, or disagreement, even if they do something problematic or upsetting.
This condition is diagnosed in adulthood, and only in people who do have the ability to make decisions on their own without excessively depending on others. People sometimes experience dependency as a result of a health condition or other mental health condition, and this isn’t quite the same as DPD. It’s also important to note that people in abusive relationships may display traits that seem similar to those associated with DPD, such as extreme submissiveness or fear of disagreeing with the abuser. If these behaviors only happen in the abusive situation, DPD wouldn’t be diagnosed.
It’s important to understand these characteristics aren’t your fault. Personality disorders are complicated issues that develop from a multitude of factors, and it’s not always easy to recognize there’s something problematic about your behavior. These traits are ingrained—a part of your personality—and they can be difficult to change. But change is possible.
ROMANTIC RELATIONSHIPS AND DPD
There’s nothing wrong with consulting your romantic partner about decisions you make, especially those affecting you both. In fact, this is pretty normal (and beneficial) in a healthy relationship. What sets this type of dependency apart from DPD? In a healthy relationship, you don’t wholly depend on your partner. You ask their advice, consider it, then make a decision that works for both of you.
If you have DPD, it may seem natural to turn to your partner for help with decisions, since you may feel incapable of doing anything alone. You might ask them to choose what stores you shop at, what kind of clothing you buy, what you do with your free time, and whether you should go for a promotion. You might harbor your own opinions about these choices, your partner’s behavior, or other issues that pop up in daily life. But because you worry expressing your true feelings will lead to disapproval and withdrawn support from the people who take care of you, you don’t say what you truly feel. This can eventually diminish your sense of self.
If these behaviors resonate with you, it can help to practice making your own decisions in your relationship. A caring partner can support you by:
- Stepping back to let you make your own decisions
- Encouraging you to take responsibility for household matters
- Encouraging you to express your true opinions
Many people with DPD end up in relationships with people who take advantage of them. A few signs of abuse include:
- Threatening to withdraw emotional or financial support
- Belittling or attempting to control you
- Insisting on sexual acts you aren’t comfortable with as a condition of support
A therapist can offer guidance and support if your relationship is abusive.
PARENTING AND DPD
Having dependent personality means you may not trust yourself to make your own decisions. You believe you can’t function without the help of others. This can contribute to the distorted view that your child is more capable of making decisions for you.
Accordingly, parents living with DPD may overly rely on children to handle tasks or decisions children aren’t emotionally capable of making. This may be more common in situations where you’re a single parent living with DPD and don’t have another person to rely on.
It’s normal for children to have opinions on things like meal planning, where to purchase their clothing, or how to spend free evenings. And children, especially older children, should also contribute around the house and help manage their own schedules and responsibilities. But it’s not healthy for parents to ask children to take care of all household tasks and responsibilities or make decisions about adult responsibilities or social situations.
As a parent, you may have interest in what your child thinks of your romantic partner. But there’s a difference between asking, “What do you think about (Partner’s name)?” and “Should I keep dating (Name) or should we break up?”
WORKPLACE RELATIONSHIPS AND DPD
DPD can make workplace interactions challenging, if you struggle to get necessary tasks done on your own. Your coworkers may notice your difficulty with self-starting, and some might consider your continued need for prompting and encouragement troublesome.
Presenting yourself as incapable or needing regular support and assistance to do your work can create challenges, even conflict, in the workplace. If you’re left to work alone, you might believe you can’t complete the task or project successfully and end up not doing it at all. However, you might do fairly well when you have supervision or support from someone else.
FRIENDSHIPS AND DPD
If you have DPD, you may notice your friendships follow a pattern similar to your romantic relationships. Your fear of being left alone can play out in ways that make you seem clingy and needy. You may worry disagreeing with friends will result in them no longer caring for you and avoid expressing personal opinions and desires to ensure their continued support.
You might also readily volunteer to help friends out, even when you’d rather not do something (like help them move or clean their house). Because you want them to continue to be there for you, you sacrifice your time, but less-than-ethical friends may take advantage of this trait.
Good friends should be there for each other and support each other in times of need, but true friends should also encourage you and support you in doing things for yourself.
TREATMENT FOR DEPENDENT PERSONALITY: DOES IT GET BETTER?
It’s very difficult to address personality disorders without help from a therapist trained to recognize symptoms and help you work through them effectively. But therapy can always have benefit. Personality disorders can’t be cured, but therapy can help you address behaviors causing problems in your life and learn new ways of relating to others.
Dependent personality treatment can be incredibly beneficial, since it can lead to more fulfilling, healthy relationships. A trained therapist can support you as you work to realize your own capabilities, both when it comes to making decisions and taking care of yourself. Since people with DPD can sometimes transfer feelings of dependency to their therapist, it’s important to work with a therapist experienced in helping people with DPD.
In therapy, you might:
- Practice self-sufficiency and assertiveness skills
- Learn to cope with fears of being alone
- Practice decision-making
- Become comfortable spending time on your own
- Learn to express disagreement in productive ways
DPD can often occur with other conditions. Childhood illness, attachment issues, or separation anxiety sometimes play a part in its development. But DPD can also factor into the development of concerns like social anxiety or depression. Therapy can help you address symptoms of these conditions, as well.
Healthy relationships should be fairly balanced. Some of the time, you might need more support from your partner than usual, and at other times, they may need more from you. But typically, it’s unhealthy for one person to rely solely on another.
If DPD makes it difficult to develop and maintain healthy relationships with others, the best option is to seek help from a compassionate, supportive therapist. Begin your search today.
Originally published on GoodTherapy.
Stay up to date or catch-up on all our podcasts with Arianna Huffington here.