Are You Too Emotionally Dependent on Your Partner?
Insecure in your relationship? Learn how to self-validate and self-soothe.
Posted April 10, 2019 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
Having a certain amount of emotional dependency on your partner is normal. That is, by its nature, hardly dysfunctional. However, when it’s excessive, it ceases to be healthy—not for you, your partner, nor the relationship generally.
The literature on relational dependency in adults emphasizes that it’s vital your partner be able to offer you emotional support when it’s needed. That, after all, is closely connected to feeling content, safe, and happy in any relationship—particularly a committed one. It’s always reassuring to know that your significant other has your back, that they’ll be there for you even in situations where the two of you don’t see eye to eye. Moreover, their readiness to validate your views and behavior, to regard them as authentic and personally meaningful—and despite their perspective not always agreeing with yours—can boost your confidence and self-esteem.
But once we substitute the word dependency for support, we’re looking at something quite different. Why? Simply because, as that term is typically used in therapy, it implies that we can’t adequately validate or soothe ourselves, that we need to rely on our significant other to provide us with the reassurance that we’re good enough, and important enough, to deserve their unconditional love.
In such a case, uncertain of our partner’s approval of or commitment to us, we end up focusing as much on our doubts—and self-doubts—as we do our caring for them. When we can’t feel sufficiently secure in a relationship, our love for them is (unawares) supplanted by fear: Might they leave us? Reject us? Replace us? Abandon us? And the longer we must rely on their reassurance to feel valued, the more we’ll remain dependent on them. And eventually this can lead to the relationship’s degradation.
The problem here is that it’s difficult to love someone—and let them be free to be who they are—when, unconsciously, we need them to help us cover up past insecurities. These insecurities originate much less from our present-day partner as from our earlier history, most often because, while growing up, our parents weren't able to make us feel securely attached to them.
In addition, as much reassurance as our partner may be willing to offer us, we’ll constantly be seeking more. That’s because if we were rarely able to experience our parents’ unconditional acceptance when we were children, we’ll have great difficulty internalizing whatever reassurance our partner can now offer us. Sure, in the moment we may be relieved, take it in, and be comforted. Yet unless we can somehow hold onto their reassurance, secure it from within, and make it an inherent part of a now-revamped self-image, their efforts on our behalf won’t last. Their comforting words will soon fade from consciousness. And then we’ll want—and may even demand—more, and more, of the same. Like a coffee cup with a hole in the bottom, however much is poured into it, it will soon be empty again.
As a caveat, I should mention that I never blame the insecure partner’s original caretakers for whatever shortcomings they may have had in providing their child with the validation and comforting they required. For I truly believe that every parent does the best they can in their child-rearing, given (1) their child’s limited ability to communicate to them their emotional needs, (2) their own possibly ill-conceived ideas as to what is in the child’s best interests, and (3) their not being capable of offering the child what they themselves never received in their upbringing.
So it’s unreasonable to accuse parents of what they couldn’t recognize—at least not back when, for us to cultivate a confident, favorable, and secure self-image, we pretty much had to depend on them. It’s hard, if not impossible, for us to think well of ourselves if we concluded that our parents didn’t see us this way. That’s why I wrote in an earlier post that as children, almost all of us could have used a fairy godmother. For if we couldn’t depend on our caretakers to provide us with the succor and support we couldn’t give ourselves, our self-regard would have been compromised. In consequence, if we’re to fully make up for what we felt was denied us earlier, we need to undertake some sort of inner repair work.
I’ve worked with many couples in which the emotionally needy partner literally wore down the other through repeated requests for reassurance that they were loved, cared about, and that their partner really wanted to spend their spare time—sometimes all their spare time—with them. On their own, they couldn’t erase their chronic self-doubts, so they truly felt compelled to lean on their partner for reassurance. Not only did this behavior eventually lead their partner to become increasingly impatient and annoyed with them, it also made their partner feel inadequate in their efforts to provide them with the succor they continually asked for. So they ended up feeling frustrated not only with their needy partner, but also with themselves. Inside they were feeling, “Enough, already!”; at the same time, they felt drained and helpless in giving any more encouragement—or ego-boosting—than they already had.
If we’re being exclusively called upon to provide emotionally for our significant other that which they cannot provide for themselves, at some point our “burning out” in the relationship is probably inevitable. And because what we’re being tasked with begins to feel like an exercise in futility, sooner or later the desire to help our too-dependent partner shifts to a desire to simply be left alone—which, in turn, is likely to leave them feeling empty and abandoned. Additionally, once our caring or charitable behaviors deteriorate into angry reactions or resentful objections, the relationship itself will be seriously threatened. We may still love them, but that may not be enough to keep us with them.
Additionally, the partner who continues to “impose” on us, to inadvertently pressure us to compensate for what they felt deprived of during their upbringing, ends up feeling ever more distressed. In their inability to get from us “definitive” reassurance about their worth or desirability, they experience themselves as being re-wounded in the relationship. However unconsciously, they hoped that we’d help them, once and for all, surmount their ancient self-doubts. And they haven’t so much wanted our reassurance as desperately needed it to reduce the uneasiness and uncertainty they’ve so long harbored deep inside themselves.
So, what’s the “cure” for this?
Early psychological wounds, as serious as they may be, can be healed, although it might take working with a professional to facilitate this healing. Ultimately, however, it’s we ourselves who must repair, from within, whatever has been broken or failed to develop properly. For if we were wounded as a child, it’s up to us, as the adult we are today, to heal that child—who still lives and breathes (and silently trembles or cries) within us. And our partner, however well-meaning, has nowhere near as much access to this “inner child” as (at least potentially) we do.
It’s therefore up to us to learn how, independently, to comfort and reassure that emotionally unstable, nervous, or self-doubting child. It’s not really your partner, but your grown-up self that this much younger you yearns for, and for whom you hold the key. And it’s now time to share with them—with the authority you now have as an adult—that they were always worth the time, attention, caring, love, and acceptance that their parents weren’t able to give them.
So whenever old self-doubts resurface, you need to identify from which child part of yourself these doubts emanate. Can you think of a time (or times) when you were made to feel inadequate by someone to whom you gave greater authority than you could possibly give yourself? What did that person (or persons) say or do to you? And—most importantly— how did you interpret it? For now could be the time that your adult self can teach your still emotionally unsettled child self how to reinterpret what happened to them. To perceive it now in a much more positive light than they had the maturity or sophistication to earlier.
And this is what I call therapeutically re-writing your history—understanding your own and others’ motives from a far more benign, self-nurturing, and accurate viewpoint.
For example, might your parents have had unrealistic or overly lofty expectations of you? Ones that you swallowed whole for, after all, your first dependent relationship was with them, so you naturally took for granted that whatever was expected of you must be justifiable—and that it was you yourself who were at fault, who just couldn’t “make the grade.” Accepting yourself for who you are—both your inborn strengths and limitations—is what you must learn if you’re to be happy in life. This is the healthy, non-narcissistic self-love that, as a therapist, I regularly strive to inculcate in all the individuals and couples I work with.
It’s also the “corrective parenting” that virtually all therapists seek to accomplish in working with people who, sadly, were never able to learn how to trust and assure themselves during the arduous process of growing up. This capacity has mostly to do with parents being sensitive enough to understand how their messages may be taken, or mistaken, by their child—as well as being able to alter their communication when signs indicate they’ve been negatively misunderstood.
That way, kids learn how to feel good about themselves, whether they’re in a relationship or not. And it can hardly be over-emphasized that when a person talks to themselves in situations where they’re troubled with self-doubts, it’s crucial that in their mind’s eye they visualize that child inside them who needs the succor and soothing that wasn’t available to them originally.
There are many books and articles that talk about remedial “self-parenting,” and that’s what’s required if you’re to bring your self-image up to date and no longer feel the need to oblige your partner to give you what you haven’t been able to give yourself.
There’s not the space here to go into this, but I’ve written many posts that relate to what I’m discussing here. Below are just a very few of them. But if my writings, and the writings of so many others focusing on this pivotal subject, aren’t sufficient in helping you overcome your inner stalemate, I’d strongly recommend your finding a qualified therapist to guide you in this crucial journey toward unequivocal self-acceptance.
That way you’ll no longer have to depend on your partner to do something that, finally, only you can do for yourself. And one of the many dividends of your inner child “rescue and repair” work is that it will remove the stress that, however unwittingly, you couldn’t help but put on your relationship.
© 2019 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All rights reserved.