Hope for Hangers-On

When dependency is healthy--and when it's not.

By PT Staff, published on September 1, 1998 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

In a country where the Marlboro Man rides alone across thousands of billboards, the "dependent personality" is never going to win the day. But at least one psychologist thinks that dependency isn't as bad as we think—and may even offer advantages that a lonely cowboy could envy.

Robert Bornstein, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Fordham University, doesn't deny that dependency has its downside—in high levels it's associated with depression, anxiety, and eating disorders—but he thinks we ought to develop a more balanced view of the condition. Because they're not shy about seeking help, says Bornstein, dependent people are quicker to go to a doctor when they detect a physical symptom. Students with dependent personalities tend to have higher GPAs, since they're comfortable asking professors for assistance. Also, dependent people may be less likely to develop drug or alcohol problems, probably because their need for authority's approval leads them to steer clear of illicit activity.

In a broader sense, advises Bornstein, we should recognize that we're all dependent to a degree—on friends, neighbors, mentors, spouses. And men have just as many dependency needs as women. The healthiest approach is not to hide feelings of dependency, but to express them in productive ways. "They don't go away if you don't acknowledge them—they just come out indirectly," he declares. "People get their needs met better when they're aware of them."