Many people seek therapy to try to understand why they cannot form healthy, enduring intimate relationships. Often, their conflicts around dependency are undermining their efforts.
The word “dependency” is used, frequently with contempt, to describe infantile neediness. This contempt for neediness makes us ashamed of having needs. So, for fear of being seen as needy, we hide our needs from others, and from ourselves. But then we feel hurt when a significant other doesn’t recognize our needs without our having to tell them what we want. Or we wish someone would need us more - but when they do, we feel turned off. There are a lot of mixed signals about dependency flying around, and most of us are sending and receiving them all the time.
Dependency is not a dirty word. Whether we’re comfortable about it or not, the fact is, we are born dependent. Throughout the most important years of human development, from infancy through adolescence, what children need most for healthy development is to have the secure feeling that the adults in charge are dependably there for them - caring, interested, empathetic, loving.
This kind of caregiver really takes the time to see and hear the child, and this child is then supported to feel that she matters; having needs and desires doesn’t end up making her feel hopeless and powerless. These children develop faith in the possibility of getting their needs met. They also develop concern about the needs of others – not from being shamed into caring, or being told they are selfish, but from the model of care and concern their parents present.
Children do need to learn to become more independent over time. But the development of healthy dependency can be thwarted when impatient, self-absorbed parents resent the child’s dependency. This leaves the child little choice but to become overly dependent; or else to shut down her own sense of need, and pay attention only to the needs of the parents. Neither situation bodes well. For these people, developing healthy interdependence – relationships characterized by mutuality and reciprocity - can become a lifelong challenge. The classic film The Heiress is a great illustration of this unhealthy kind of parent/child situation – and Ingmar Bergman’s last film, Saraband, is an extraordinarily deep and brilliant exploration of this theme as well.
Some parents keep their children dependent, covertly or overtly, with the aim of maintaining control over the child so that the child will stay and take care of the parent, rather than go off to build their own separate life. These parents are dependent on their children for needs they should be looking to other adults to meet. Classic films like The Barretts of Wimpole Street and Now, Voyager dramatized this kind of parent child relationship to great effect (don’t you wish Rick’s Video store was still around?). And Alice Miller’s seminal book, The Drama of the Gifted Child, has been popular for decades for the way it illuminates these kind of relationships.
We depend on the kindness, the care, the recognition and the understanding of others, from the beginning to the end of life. Finding a partner and sustaining a healthy relationship, where each of you are supported to grow and mature over time, works best when both partners are committed to validating and meeting each other’s needs. If you have been discouraged about building and sustaining a healthy, intimate relationship, you may need help to better understand your needs - especially your fears and conflicts about dependency.
© Daniel Shaw 2009