Personal Dependency

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Personal dependency is the tendency to seek support, security, reassurance, and guidance from outside the self. The object of dependency may be another person, a social unit (e.g., family, a religious group), or a symbolic belief system from which people receive positive outcomes, such as assistance, love, and/or the attainment of personal goals. The support requested can be physical (dependency on a caregiver by infants and persons who are very old, sick, or disabled), cognitive (a student's reliance on his or her teacher), and/or emotional (reliance on another person for reassurance and love). A dependent relationship implies the existence of interpersonal bonding, commitment, involvement, obligation, and trust.

An analysis of social science literature clearly reveals that personal dependency has been conceptualized in either negative or positive terms. On the one hand, personal dependency has been equated with weakness, immaturity, and passivity, and it has been viewed as an obstacle to the development of an autonomous and mature person. On the another hand, personal dependency has been viewed as a basic human motivation, which accomplishes important adaptive functions. It seems to contribute to the process of coping with life adversities and to set the basis for the formation of close relationships and social ties as well as for social cooperation and hierarchical social structures. In this article, I first present negative and positive conceptualizations of personal dependency. I then attempt to provide a more integrative conceptualization of dependency, in which its positive and negative aspects can coexist.


During the last century, several social science professionals have viewed personal dependency in adulthood as a sign of weakness and immaturity. For example, Bornstein (1993) defines personal dependency in terms of negatively valued beliefs and emotions. Dependency-related beliefs refer to mental representations of the self and the social world that justify the tendency to seek support from other persons in times of need. Specifically, they include the perception of the self as weak, helpless, and ineffectual, as well as the beliefs that other persons are powerful and have the ability and skills to solve life problems and to control the course and outcomes of environmental events. Dependency-related emotions include the arousal of anxiety and worry upon external demands to deal with life tasks in an independent manner as well as fears of criticism, rejection, and separation. According to Bornstein (1993), these beliefs and emotions detract from independence, reinforce dependency over the life span, and facilitate its generalization across different interpersonal situations and social settings.

The emphasis on the negative aspects of personal dependency seems to reflect Western societies' values of independence, autonomy, and mastery. It also seems to reflect the view that mature, well-adjusted persons should attempt to cope with life tasks in an autonomous and self-directed way. As a result, the tendency to turn to others for support, assistance, and reassurance in times of need can be equated with immaturity, helplessness, and powerlessness, as well as with the failure to meet cultural expectations and standards. Moreover, it can be viewed as a risk factor for psychological problems, such as depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and eating disorders, as well as for negative social phenomena, such as loss of personal identity and blind obedience to totalitarian leaders. In extreme cases, when people suffer from persistent and severe interpersonal or occupational problems, personal dependency is considered to be a specific type of diagnosable psychological disorder.

The negative view of dependency can be traced to early writings of Freud, who argued that dependency in adulthood consists of immature and infantile forms of behaviors. In his view, a dependent orientation toward life is related to gratifying and frustrating breast-feeding experiences during the first year of life, when infants' survival completely depends on their mother's goodwill. Abrupt weaning, frustrations related to rigid and insensitive feeding schedules, and/or the failure to end the nursing period are hypothesized to result in a failure to adequately deal with conflicts regarding dependency and autonomy. This failure is reflected in the arousal of anxiety every time one is required to act in an independent manner; the experience of serious doubts about one's own ability to be an autonomous person; and the longing for the infantile, dependent relationship with the feeding mother. Problematic breast-feeding experiences are also hypothesized to lead people to believe that the solution for their problems is outside and that others can take care of them in the same way that their mothers fed them.

The problem with Freud's ideas is that they are not supported by empirical findings (see Bornstein 1993, for a review). First, studies have failed to find a coherent and meaningful pattern of association between feeding experiences in infancy and self-reports of personal dependency in adulthood. Second, there is no strong evidence that personal dependency in adulthood is associated with mouth- and food-related activities as well as with oral behaviors (e.g., thumbsucking). Third, mixed results have been found in studies assessing the association between personal dependency and psychological disorders that have an oral component, such as eating disorders, alcoholism, and tobacco addiction. However, although findings do not support Freud's premise that dependency equals immaturity and infantilism, it still continues to exert a major influence in psychological writings.

A related approach to personal dependency can be found in object relation theories, which emphasize the crucial role that the early child-parent relationship plays in social and emotional development (Greenberg and Mitchell 1983). Like Freudian theory, these theories view events occurring during the first one or two years of life as critical for the development of personal dependency. However, unlike Freud, the proponents of object relations theories do not emphasize feeding experiences. Rather, they focus on the child's relationship with his or her parents and the failure to resolve conflicts around nurture and closeness, on the one hand, and separation and autonomy, on the other. In these terms, personal dependency reflects an infantile desire to merge with other persons and to be cared for by them. Furthermore, it is related to the search for absolute love and enmeshed relationships, the use of psychotropic drugs, and the identification with strong leaders and highly cohesive groups.

One basic hypothesis derived from object relation theories is that parenting style during infancy and childhood may be critical for an understanding of the development of offspring's personal dependency. Bornstein (1993) follows this idea and contends that overprotective and/or authoritarian parenting may create a vicious circle that increases the likelihood of offspring's dependency. Specifically, overprotective and/or authoritarian parents may prevent their children from engaging in exploratory and trial-and-error activities that promote a sense of mastery and autonomy. As a result, these children may perceive themselves as weak and may tend to seek others' help when confronted with life tasks. This support-seeking tendency may elicit others' helping behaviors, which, in turn, may further reinforce personal dependency. Along this reasoning, personal dependency would be overtly expressed mainly when the other (e.g., a parent, a teacher) is perceived as a powerful authority, and may underlie the blind pursuit of strong and authoritarian leaders who can offer protection and help.

The contribution of parenting style to personal dependency has also been acknowledged in social learning theories, which focus on the type of behaviors that parents reinforce throughout childhood and adolescence (Rotter 1982). Specifically, children whose parents positively reinforce passive and dependent behaviors are hypothesized to become dependent adult persons. These children may learn that dependent behaviors are adequate instrumental means for obtaining positive outcomes (e.g., love, esteem) from parents and that active and autonomous behaviors should be inhibited if they want to maintain a good relationship with parents. Social learning theories also hypothesize that this learning would be generalized across situations, leading people to behave in a dependent manner in a wide variety of social contexts. Like object relation theories, social learning theories suggest that overprotective and/or authoritarian parenting would lead to offspring's dependency, because such parents may reinforce passive and dependent behaviors. However, social learning theories differ from object relation theories in that they view personal dependency as an active instrumental means for obtaining positive outcomes from authority figures.

In emphasizing parental reinforcement and learning processes, social learning theories also highlight the role that the learning of gender roles—the learning of cultural norms and expectations regarding feminine and masculine traits and behaviors—may play in the development of personal dependency (Mischell 1970). This is particularly noted in Western cultures, where the equation between dependency and femininity may lead parents to reinforce dependent behaviors among girls and to punish these behaviors in boys. In this way, parents may provide differential reinforcement for boys and girls, leading children to meet cultural expectations concerning the expression of dependency. However, one should recall that the "dependency = femininity" equation reflects Western societies' norms and that other cultural contexts can produce different gender-role expectations and different patterns of parental reinforcement.

The negative aspects of dependency have been also emphasized by interpersonal theories of personality (e.g., Leary 1957). In these theories, dependency has been equated with personal characteristics of weaknesses, passivity, and helplessness. Moreover, it has been associated with suggestibility, compliance, and the adherence to others' beliefs and interests as a means for obtaining love, approval, and support. Interpersonal theories also emphasize that dependency is associated with fear of negative evaluation and test anxiety, which, in turn, may further exacerbate dependency. These worries may divert cognitive resources away from active, self-directed behaviors and may lead people to escape or avoid any situation that demands autonomy and independence.

Like psychoanalytic theories, interpersonal theories also suggest that personal dependency in adulthood increases the risk for psychological problems. In this context, studies have examined the association between self-reports of dependency, on the one hand, and depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and eating disorders, on the other. However, results are mixed. Whereas some studies have indeed found a positive association between self-reports of dependency and psychological disorders, other studies have failed to find such an association. Moreover, there is evidence that dependency may be an outcome rather than a cause of psychological disorders (Bornstein 1993). For examples, there are studies showing that the onset of depression and the resulting increase in helplessness and powerlessness feelings promote passive and dependent behavior. Accordingly, longitudinal studies have shown that the onset of alcoholism is followed by an increase in dependent behavior.

The above findings put into question the view that dependency is a negative personal characteristic. Rather, they may imply that dependent behavior reflects a cry for help, reassurance, and support in dealing with emotional and social problems. As such, dependent behavior may be an adaptive means for overcoming life difficulties with the help of others. In these cases, avoiding support seeking and maintaining a facade of autonomy and self-reliance may have detrimental consequences for people who really need help and support to overcome their predicaments.


The positive sides of personal dependency have been emphasized by psychological and sociological theories that focus on the development and stability of social relations, contracts, and organizations. In terms of Kelley's interdependence theory (1979)—the most influential theory on interpersonal relationships—the reliance of person on a partner for the satisfaction of his or her own needs is a basic requirement for the development and stability of close and positive relationships. In fact, Kelley suggests that there can be no stable relationship when a person is unable or unwilling to rely on his or her partner. Dependency is the psychological glue that maintains a close relationship over time. Moreover, it seems to prevent people from moving toward alternative relationships.

Along the above reasoning, personal dependency is considered to be one core component of the experience of love and to be associated with other components of this phenomenon, such as commitment, intimacy, and trust. For example, theory and research have emphasized that a person's dependency on a romantic partner precedes commitment to the relationship—precedes the intention to maintain the relationship in the future. Accordingly, dependency seems to play a critical role in the development of closeness and intimacy within love relationships. People who can rely on their partners for need satisfaction have been found to develop a sense of trust and confidence in their partner's goodwill, which, in turn, may facilitate the taking of risks in the relationship and the sharing of intimate feelings and thoughts with the partner. As a result, people may strengthen their willingness to initiate and maintain intimate patterns of communication while developing a sense of togetherness with the partner.

Personal dependency has been also viewed to play a positive role in group dynamics as well as in the stability of hierarchical relationships within social organizations. In this context, personal dependency seems to precede a person's willingness to participate in group activities and to collaborate with others in teamwork, mainly when others are at a higher rank in the organizational hierarchy. People who are unable or unwilling to rely on others for goal achievement and task completion may be reluctant to participate in teamwork, may prefer to work alone, and may react negatively to authority figures who threaten their independence. Only when people feel that they need support and guidance from others may they be positively oriented toward teamwork and authority figures. In fact, there is evidence that the level of dependency members of a group feel toward each other is a sign of group cohesion and a positive predictor of group effectiveness. In a broader perspective, personal dependency seems to be a prerequisite for the phylogenetic development of social ties and structures. Theory and research have also highlighted the association between dependency and positive personal characteristics. First, research has shown that the equation between dependency and passivity is not always true. In fact, there are many situations in which dependency leads to active forms of behavior, such as attempts to outperform others in order to attract the attention of an authority figure. Second, positive associations have been found between dependency and sensitivity to interpersonal cues—the ability to decode and understand others' messages. Third, there is evidence that personal dependency is related to health-promotion behaviors, such as seeking of medical treatments and compliance with them, as well as to relationship-enhancing traits, such as sociability, self-disclosure, and cooperative orientation in social interactions.

Studies in the field of stress and coping have shown that people who seek support and guidance from others in times of need possess positive mental representations of the self and the social world. In these studies, the tendency to rely on support seeking as a coping strategy has been found to be related to the perception of the self as capable of coping with stressful events and environmental demands. This tendency has been also found to be associated with optimistic beliefs about distress management as well as about others' ability and willingness to provide support and guidance.

Personal dependency has also been found to result in adaptive behavior. The tendency to seek support from others has been conceptualized as a basic behavioral strategy that people use in coping with life adversities. In Lazarus and Folkman's model (1984), the most influential theory in the field of stress and coping, support seeking is considered to be one of the most frequently used coping strategies. More important, research has consistently found that reliance on this coping strategy leads to positive psychological and social outcomes. Specifically, people who cope with life problems by seeking support from others tend to feel better, to experience less distress, and to show fewer problems in social functioning than people who rely only on themselves. Moreover, the belief that one can depend on others in times of need has been found to facilitate social adjustment.

Studies in the field of stress and coping have also shown that a reluctance to seek support in times of need has negative health and adjustment outcomes. People who rely exclusively on themselves in dealing with intense and persistent stressful events have been found to experience, in the long run, high levels of distress and serious problems in physical health and social functioning. These findings may reflect the fragile nature of the "pseudo-safe" world of a person who believes that he or she can deal alone with all life problems and does not need the help of others. It seems that the lack of others to depend upon leaves this person vulnerable and helpless in face of stressful events.

The adaptive advantage of personal dependency has been particularly emphasized in Bowlby's attachment theory (1969). In his terms, human infants are born with a prewired repertoire of behaviors aimed at maintaining proximity to other persons and seeking their support in times of need. These behaviors seem to reflect a basic human motivation and to accomplish a crucial adaptive function—to guarantee the survival of the helpless infant by eliciting helping behaviors in parents. According to Bowlby, this motivation persists over the entire life span, even among mature and autonomous adults. In fact, Bowlby does not view dependency as a sign of immaturity and infantilism, but as a healthy motivation that facilitates the process of coping with life problems and the development of positive social ties.

According to Bowlby, the tendency to rely on others in times of need is an inborn affect regulation device, which is automatically activated upon the experience of distress. In these cases, other persons function as a "haven of safety" to which people can retreat for comfort and reassurance and as a "secure base" from which they can develop their unique personalities in a loving and approving atmosphere. As a result, the overt expression of dependency needs and behaviors may have beneficial effects on the process of distress management as well as on the individual's psychological well-being.

Bowlby also proposes that actual experiences related to the expression of dependency needs exert tremendous influence on social and emotional development. On the one hand, interactions with significant others who are responsive to one's dependency needs may lead to the experience of more and longer episodes of positive affect and the development of positive feelings toward the world and the self. On the other hand, interactions with rejecting others may elicit chronic distress, serious doubts about others' intentions, and problems around dependency-autonomy themes.

Along the above reasoning, actual experiences related to the expression of dependency needs may shape the way people cope with life adversities. Specifically, interactions with significant others who are responsive to one's dependency needs set the basis for the construction of effective distress management strategies. People may find out that acknowledgment and display of distress elicits positive responses from significant others. They may also learn that they are capable of eliciting helping responses from others and that support seeking is an effective way of coping. In this way, the satisfaction of dependency needs would lead people to regulate affect by overtly expressing distress and engaging in active seeking of support.

Interestingly, Bowlby does not conceptualize dependency and autonomy as antagonistic motivations. Rather, he suggests that the satisfaction of dependency needs might facilitate the development of an autonomous person. In his terms, autonomous activities in infancy are activated when a caregiver satisfies infants' dependency needs and when he or she is perceived as a "secure base" to which infants can retreat in case of danger. Thus, infants who can use the caregiver as a "secure base" can show a balance between dependency and autonomy. They can move away from the caregiver without being anxious about his or her availability, can return to him or her when danger arises, and can recommence autonomous activities (e.g., play, exploration) as the proximity to the caregiver is reestablished. Overall, the expression of dependency needs does not necessarily mean that the person cannot engage in autonomous behavior. Rather, the expression and satisfaction of these needs seems to set the basis for a confident and pleasurable development of autonomy.


The above-reviewed literature clearly indicates that personal dependency may have both negative and positive implications for the individual and the society. The main question here is whether and how the negative and positive aspects of personal dependency can coexist. In other words, one should attempt to present a more integrative view of personal dependency, which can explain how this phenomenon may be an adaptive device and at the same time may lead to maladjustment and social problems.

As noted earlier, Bowlby argues that personal dependency is a healthy human behavior and that the tendency to seek support from others has positive psychological and social effects. However, this healthy pattern of behavior can become dysfunctional upon the recurrent frustration of one's cry for help. According to Bowlby, when people perceive significant others as nonresponsive to their dependency needs, they may learn that support seeking fails to bring the expected relief and that other defensive strategies should be developed. One of these strategies is a "fight" response, by which people attempt to compulsively elicit others' love and support through controlling and clinging responses. That is, these persons seem to develop an overly dependent pattern of behavior. The problem with this strategy is that it may create an anxious focus around social relationships; doubts about one's autonomy; anxious demands for proximity; fears of separation, rejection, and criticism; and inability to leave frustrating social interactions. As can be seen, this defensive strategy seems to result in all the negative consequences that psychoanalytic and social learning theories have linked to personal dependency.

Along the above reasoning, personal dependency per se is not a pathological sign of weakness and immaturity. Only when healthy dependency needs are frustrated and a person adopts an overly dependent defensive strategy is he or she caught in a vicious circle of anxiety, helplessness, maladjustment, and increasing dependency. In this view, psychoanalytic and social learning theories have in fact dealt with overdependency rather than with the normal expression of dependency needs. Moreover, most of the findings relating dependency to emotional and social problems have been obtained from self-report questionnaires that tap overdependency rather than the tendency to seek support from others in times of need. These questionnaires include items about fears of rejection, separation, and criticism; need for approval; and doubts about autonomy.

The above reasoning receives strong support in studies that focus on the interpersonal and intrapersonal correlates of adult attachment styles. Shaver and Hazan (1993) define attachment styles as stable patterns of beliefs, emotions, and behaviors in social relationships, and divide them into three types: secure, avoidant, and preoccupied. The "secure" style is defined by feelings of comfort with dependent relationships as well as by the tendency to seek support from others. The "avoidant" style is defined by reluctance to depend on others, avoidance of close relationships, and an overemphasis on autonomy and self-reliance. The "preoccupied" style is defined by compulsive attempts to minimize distance from others via clinging behaviors and fears of rejection, separation, and criticism. Overall, these three styles can be organized along a dependency continuum, with the "avoidant" style reflecting underdependency, the "secure" style the normal expression of these needs, and the "preoccupied" style overdependency.

Studies in adult attachment styles have consistently documented the adaptive advantage of the normal expression of dependency needs, as manifested in the secure style. First, securely attached persons have been found to report on more positive interactions with parents than avoidant and preoccupied persons. Second, persons addressing the secure style have been found to show less distress in times of stress than persons who address either an avoidant or a preoccupied style. Third, secure persons have been found to have more positive and stable close relationships and to be more positively involved in social activities than avoidant and preoccupied persons. That is, the overt expression of dependency needs is related to positive personal and social outcomes. In contrast, either the inhibition of these needs or the adoption of an overly dependent pattern of behavior seems to have detrimental effects on psychological and social functioning.

In conclusion, the above line of thinking and findings emphasize the balance between dependency and autonomy needs. The overt expression of dependency needs in adulthood does not necessarily compete with or inhibit autonomy needs. Rather, as Bowlby suggests, the satisfaction of dependency needs may facilitate the expression of autonomy needs. In these cases, people can freely move back and forth between dependency and autonomy, can flexibly accommodate to social demands, and then can maintain an adequate level of social adjustment and functioning. Only when this balance is disrupted, either among persons who overemphasize autonomy or among those who behave in an overly dependent manner, is adjustment at risk. In these cases, people may be unable and/or unwilling to flexibly adjust to the social world, in which they should act autonomously at same times and rely on others at other times.

Of course, a person's balance between dependency and autonomy needs depends not only on psychological factors. Rather, it also results from cultural and societal norms, values, and expectations. In fact, this balance would be different in societies that emphasize collectivist values (e.g., acceptance of social roles, family maintenance, and security) and in societies that emphasize individualistic values (e.g., personal achievement, mastery, freedom, and autonomy). Theory and research should attempt to provide a better understanding of the interface between cultural norms and values, a person's history of social interactions, and his or her expression of personal dependency. Moreover, they should throw away anachronistic and simplistic views of personal dependency and adopt a more integrative view of this basic human motivation.


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Bowlby, J. 1969 Attachment and Loss: Attachment. New York: Basic Books.

Greenberg, J. R., and Mitchell, S. A. 1983 Object Relationsin Psychoanalytic Theory. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Kelley, H. H. 1979 Personal Relationships: Their Structureand Processes. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum.

Lazarus, R. S., and S. Folkman 1984 Stress, Appraisal, andCoping. New York: Springer.

Leary, T. 1957 Interpersonal Diagnosis of Personality. New York: Ronald Press.

Mischell, W. 1970 "Sex Typing and Socialization." In P. H. Mussen, ed., Carmichael's Manual of Child Psychology, 3rd ed. New York: Wiley.

Rotter, J. 1982 The Development and Application of SocialLearning Theory. New York: Praeger.

Shaver, P. R., and C. Hazan 1993 "Adult Romantic Attachment: Theory and Evidence." In D. Perlman and W. Jones, eds., Advances in Personal Relationships, vol. 4. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Mario Mikulincer

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Personal Dependency

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