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Man (sic) must learn to think of himself as a limited and dependent being; And only suffering teaches him this.   —Simone Weil

Dependency gets a bad name in our culture, particularly among men. We tend to admire independence and look down on dependency as a weakness, a dangerous vulnerability. It is said that men are so reluctant to ask for help that they would rather stay lost than let anyone know that they can’t figure it out for themselves. When men need help they often try to manage it on their own so as not to “be a burden” on others, even though they would eagerly step in to provide the same help for someone else.  

The cost of men’s aversion to dependency in relationships is readily visible. In his 2011 book Lonely at the Top, Thomas Joiner writes about how men have made a Dorian Gray-like trade of a deep sense of loneliness, emptiness, and disconnection for success in the external world. In addition, because men often insist on solving their problems on their own, they are more likely to be less effective or even overwhelmed by life struggles that might have been more easily resolved with support.  

One of the reasons we are so critical of dependency is because in our patriarchal culture we see dependency as a feminine characteristic, and associate independence with masculinity. We are, after all, the nation of great frontiers. Our myths are about those hearty souls who settled the west—homesteaders who claimed a piece of land, built a cabin and made their own way. From this perspective, dependency is perceived as a dangerous over-extension from the safe base of self-reliance.  

Research has linked excessive dependency with depression, alcoholism, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, and psychosomatic disorders. It is true that some people struggle with being excessively dependent in their relationships, and it is no surprise that those people would have a number of psychological problems as a result. However, we tend to consider only the problems created by excessive dependency, and not those perhaps more common difficulties created by excessive self-reliance, or the impaired capacity to be appropriately dependent. We lack an understanding of the value of mature dependency, or interdependence.

Psychologists suggest that the capacity for truly mature independence rests on the capacity for a mature dependency (Guntrip, 1969). Independence that does not rest on mature dependency is only a pseudo-independence, more of a pathological self-reliance. When children are young, their parents try to be as available as possible. When children cry, their parents hold them, and when they’re hungry, their parents feed them. Most parents are not overly concerned about their infants being “too dependent.” As their children grow older, the parents begin to differentiate between what their children are capable of doing for themselves and what they still need help with, offering help when it is needed, and encouraging more independent functioning as children are more capable.  

A remarkably similar process occurs happens in most adult relationships. When couples first come together, there is often a period of mutual, intense interdependency. Each person’s life is changed, and being with their new love consumes their waking thoughts to the point that they want to be together all the time. Separations seem threatening, whether physical separations or the kind of separations that come when you realize that your new partner has his or her own thoughts, sees the world differently, and sometimes enjoys being separate from you as well as together.  

For most couples, that intense mutual dependency becomes overly restrictive over time and so it can’t be sustained. Gradually, most couples grow out of this stage and find their way to a more mature independence that retains some of the intensity of their initial dependency while integrating more room to be independent people with independent lives. Some couples struggle with this transition and remain stuck in an enmeshed relationship that feels suffocating to both partners. 

For a number of reasons, some of them psychological but most of them sociopolitical, it is more often the women in heterosexual relationships who have a more difficult time relinquishing the safety of dependency and risking more independence in relationships. Men, on the other hand, more often struggle with allowing themselves to surrender to the deep levels of interdependence that make intimacy possible. The problem is that mutual dependency is one of the requirements for intimacy. When men pretend to be self-reliant, not needing anything from anyone, it gives their partners no place to feel connected to them. Being vulnerable with another person is what makes intimacy possible. The more that men struggle to allow the kind of vulnerability that would enable them to connect, the more insecure and dependent their wives/partners become. Men’s struggles with dependency are what make women look excessively dependent. 

Some men can only allow themselves to be dependent when they are sick, which gives them an excuse to let someone else take care of them, even if they could do it themselves. But hey are missing out on one of life’s great experiences, which is surrendering to the delicious regression of dependency–using pet names, cuddling, sleeping in each other’s arms, or just talking about what’s troubling you because it feels good to have someone to talk with. Many men are reluctant to acknowledge that while they might be able to do it on their own, their lives are inestimably better because of their wife/partner, and that they need her to be most fully themselves—to be their best selves.  

Facebook image: Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock

This post was originally published on The Good Men Project

References

Guntrip, H. (1969) Schizoid Phenomenon, Object Relations and the Self.  International Universities Press

Joiner, T. (2011). Lonely at the Top: The High Cost of Men's Success. St Martin's Press.