For those of us who have courageously sat on the therapist’s couch, terms such as “co-dependency,” “differentiation,” “individuation,” and “holding on to yourself” may be all too familiar. The important point is, did we understand these terms and that they’re all essentially ways to describe aspects of emotional dependence? Did we identify how they’re operating in our lives? And did we take away tools to incorporate positive change in our relationships? If your response is, “somewhat” or “I’m still confused,” read on.
Am I emotionally dependent?
Many factors from childhood and adolescence play a part in promoting emotional dependence or inhibiting it. Some examples that interfere with our ability to foster a strong sense of self may include: needy parents, helicopter parents, instability in the family, trauma/loss in the family, low personal resilience, and high personal sensitivity. These factors all play a role in our ability or inability to foster healthy relationships and our degree of emotional dependence.
What emotional dependency looks like:
1. Wanting to constantly please others.
2. Putting others’ needs before my own.
3. Difficulty asking for what I need or want.
4. A pattern of taking what another person says to me as personal criticism.
5. Not being able to tolerate anxiety in relationships (often resulting in “giving in,” trying to control the other, or running away–literally or metaphorically)
Sound familiar? The price we pay for these learned behaviors is that we’re caught in a “catch 22.” Maintaining these patterns leads to communication breakdown, resentment, and anger with those we wish to be close to—especially those people who mean the most to us, like our romantic partners and family members. On the other hand, we may not know how to change, and we may fear our changing will result in the loss of relationships that are incredibly important to us.
The gift of close relationships is that they force us to confront our degree of emotional dependence. The greater my emotional dependence on another, the more I’m going to take everything personally, become defensive, and “lose myself” when I connect with those most important to me. The lesser my emotional dependence, the more I can stay connected to people I care most about while holding my ground—and not “run away,” try to control the other person, or people please.
A critical key to lowering our emotional dependence requires that we become aware of our anxiety and learn skills to soothe that emotion when it arises. This is the only way we can stand on our own two feet and bring more of our real selves to our relationships. Learning to do this isn’t an event; it’s a process we have to learn and practice every day, just like if we wanted to learn a new hobby. Getting support from someone who can identify our particular unhealthy patterns and help us to learn new skills is important.
As a marriage and family therapist, struggles with aspects of emotional dependence and the way it sabotages relationships are the most common issues I see. So the next time you need space or your partner or friend needs time alone, try to view it as the need to take care of oneself. As Gestalt therapist Walter Kempler said, paradoxically, if we want to get more personal, we must stop taking things personally.
I invite you to take the first step on a new path to healthier relating and the freedom to be who you were meant to be while staying deeply connected to those you love.