Contrasting dependency levels can impair relationships…For many, the term “dependency” connotes weakness and an inability or unwillingness to rely on oneself. It is a term often used interchangeably with the word “needy,” which, most would agree, is not generally used in a positive or complimentary way. Others see their dependency needs as a healthy part of their attachment to cherished loved ones upon whom they rely and whose reliance upon them they welcome.
This issue can be a hot button between men and women who often have very different ideas about dependence and independence. These differences in their comfort with feelings of dependency are common and do not necessarily reflect how much one person cares about the other. When these differences are not clarified between the two people in a relationship, hurt feelings and misunderstandings may result, leading some couples into counseling. I have observed relationships becoming troubled or even ending because one partner finds the other “too needy.” Sometimes, “too needy” does not actually mean that the partner needs too much. I might really mean that the objecting partner is either unwilling or unable to meet the reasonable needs of the other.
Whenever Steve had an important decision to make, he tended to ponder in silence until he figured out what he wanted to do. He would then share the results with Emily, his wife, who frequently felt left out of the process and believed that Steve did not trust her enough to depend on her input. Emily had a very different style and a different need than Steve. For her, important decisions often involved surveying close friends and relatives, especially Steve, until she collected enough information to figure out what to do.
Similarly, when Steve became ill, he preferred to be left alone until he fully recovered. He did not seek, nor did he particularly appreciate, Emily’s frequent expressions of concern and offers to help. When she became ill, she wanted nothing more than for Steve to spend hours at her bedside offering tea and sympathy. Steve and Emily’s dependency needs, while different, seem to be “variations of the norm,” i.e., preferences and acceptable differences between people who understand and adjust to their partner’s needs without much difficulty.
Problems occur when differences in a couple’s dependency needs are extreme or when one or both partners suffer from a dependency disorder. People who have excessive dependency needs tend to have difficulty making everyday decisions without a great deal of advice and reassurance from others. They also avoid conflict because they fear losing the support and approval of important people in their lives. They may worry about being able to care for themselves and, therefore, desperately seek a new attachment as a replacement for a lost relationship. We all know people who are unable to disengage from a romantic partner if it means they will have to be alone for a while. They tend to leave someone only when they are newly involved in a replacement relationship so their dependency needs will be met continuously.
Life together will be easier for people with similar dependency needs and styles. However, differences between partners in these ways should not be mistaken for different levels of caring.