Even the strong and self-reliant usually depend on someone. Indeed, loving and depending on one another makes us human. For some, however, this dependence grows so extreme that a personality disorder develops.
The Personality Disorders
Experts disagree on the precise number of personality disorders. At present, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, identifies ten, such as the paranoid, schizoid, avoidant, and so on. These are grouped into three “clusters,” known as A, B, and C. The dependent personality disorder can be found in group C, along with the avoidant and obsessive-compulsive.
Those with group A personality disorders (paranoid, schizoid, and schizotypal) all display odd or eccentric traits. Those with group B disorders (borderline, histrionic, narcissistic, and anti-social) tend to be emotional and dramatic. The group C personalities, however, are fearful and anxious.
Before turning to the dependent personality disorder itself, we must clarify what a personality disorder is. Obviously, everyone has a personality – even the dullest – and no one’s personality is without its flaws. On the contrary, most of us share traits with the mentally ill (we all experience anxiety, for example, or suffer bouts of depression after the death of a loved one).
A personality disorder occurs when such traits grow out of control. For example, someone with a “histrionic personality disorder” is dramatic, self-centered, and forever in search of new experience. And yet lots of perfectly normal people have such traits. Only when they begin to dominate their personality, shape their thoughts, and affect their relationships, is the label “histrionic personality disorder” appropriate.
The Dependent Personality Disorder
The dependent personality disorder is one of the most common, affecting around 3% of the population. The actual figure may be higher, however, since many dismiss their clinging and neediness as just “what I’m like,” or refuse to accept anything is wrong. Indeed, this is true of personality disorders in general. While we can all recognize specific failings, like laziness or temper tantrums, it is impossible to step outside our personality and view it objectively.
Dependent personalities are grouped with avoidants and obsessive-compulsives in the cluster C category. If just one word were allowed to describe each group, “eccentric” would suit cluster A, “emotional” cluster B, and “frightened” cluster C. Like avoiders and obsessive-compulsives, those with dependent personalities find the world a hard and scary place. Some cope by avoiding, some by following rules and rituals, and some by clinging to others.
It is therefore unsurprising that nearly 60% of dependent personalities meet the criteria for an avoidant personality as well. Indeed, one in seven with a personality disorder are also dependent. The individual finds reality hard and believes himself too weak or incompetent to survive, so he avoids the real world and clings to other people.
According to the DSM, dependent personalities exhibit five or more of the following. First, even simple, mundane decisions overwhelm them unless a friend or loved one is there to guide or instruct. That does not mean they cannot decide between eggs and waffles for breakfast, or choose a radio station, without asking their partner, but that they constantly need their reassurance.
Second, they delegate responsibility for major decisions. For example, a woman reaches her late 30s and cannot decide whether to have children, so she asks for advice. Not only does she do what her mother, or best friend, suggest, she holds them responsible when motherhood stresses and exhausts her. The same thing occurs when choosing an apartment or college. Of course, we all seek advice, but that is different. The dependent want others to make the decision for them.
Third, they tend to be sycophantic. This is especially true around those on whom they depend. They overlook insults, laugh at every joke, and agree with friends and family even when unsure. The priority is to keep others on their side, not to argue their case. Again, this is because of fear and anxiety; they do not want to lose the comfort, support and shelter of a stronger personality.
Lack of initiative and drive is also common. The fourth sign is an inability to begin projects on their own. No one with a dependent personality would set up his or her own business. If they did, it would have to be with the guidance and advice of someone else. The dependent also lack self-confidence and self-belief, making it so much harder.
The dependent also tend to be vulnerable and to spend their life doing things they don’t want to do. Fifth, they have a need to please others and thus ensure they do not abandon them. So they will go to an Italian restaurant even though they hate Italian food, or agree to visit London or New York even though they hate big cities.
In some cases, this need to please endangers them. For example, many victims of domestic abuse have dependent personalities, while abusers and bullies routinely seek them out.
Sixth, they hate being alone. Obviously, many people hate this, but dependent individuals cannot bear it. Those who also have avoidant traits are caught in a tricky situation: fearing other people but dreading the prospect of being alone. And this is why the seventh criterion is a habit of jumping from one relationship straight into another, even when obviously doomed. In part, this is because the dependent not only fear being alone but worry they can’t cope.
Finally, there is the fear of abandonment. Again, many people have this fear. Those with dependent personalities, however, see it in life-and-death terms. Someone who has been married for many years believes that without their partner they will collapse, while a child who depends on her ageing father may even contemplate suicide after his death.
The psychoanalysts argue that such people were over-indulged at the oral stage of psychosexual development. To put it more simply, they were breast fed whenever they cried and thus became fixated. Somehow, this had a permanent effect on their personality and relationships, making them clingy and needy.
Studies have also been conducted into parenting techniques. Domineering parents, whether too strict or too over-protective, may be to blame. If the child also grew up in a quiet, rural area with no extended family, she would escape harsh reality. If the parents were loving but allowed the child to roam the neighborhood, scraping his knees, getting into fights, and so on, he would not develop such a personality.
As with most personality disorders, genes may also play a part. Everyone is the product of a complex mix of genes, parenting, and early experiences. Out of these, certain core beliefs develop. In the case of the dependent, the core beliefs will mostly be negative: that they are weak, incompetent, fragile, and unable to stand alone.
They may also form the idea that the world is a brutal and savage place. That may not be based on actual experience, by the way. For example, a parent does not want them to move too far away and so, without being conscious of it, fills them with fear in order to discourage such abandonment. Dependency is a response to these beliefs. In other words, it is a strategy for coping with the world.
Thankfully, like most personality disorders the symptoms ease as the years pass. For those who remain dependent, however, the first step is to uncover the core beliefs set down in childhood – to try and understand why they became so clingy and dependent in the first place. Once the core beliefs have been uncovered (that the world is hostile, that people want to hurt you, that you are weaker than others, etc), you can begin to challenge them.
It is also important to stress that the brain is malleable. This is known as neuroplasticity, which means that the brain’s “wiring” changes in response to new experiences. The problem with dependent individuals is that they constantly reinforce their beliefs with their behavior. By going against your instinct to avoid the world and cling to loved ones, you reinforce the opposite idea: that the world isn’t dreadful and that you can rely on yourself.
More generally, do all you can to increase self-reliance. For example, you could take up a martial art or learn to drive. If your partner always chooses and books the vacation, ask if you can. Such things will increase your sense of confidence and self-reliance. The key is taking lots of small steps rather than one huge jump.
A dependent personality disorder may sound bizarre, but it really isn’t. Over the course of a lifetime, most of us go through periods in which we cling to friends or loved ones, and most of us dread the prospect of losing a parent or partner. It is just that for some, the clinging dominates their whole life.