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Relationships

How Dependent Personality Disorder Can Wreck Relationships

Interdependence is healthy, but total emotional dependence is not.

Key points

  • Dependent Personality Disorder (DPD) manifests as extreme neediness, clinginess, and fear of rejection.
  • Individuals with DPD may allow themselves to remain in unhealthy relationships to avoid abandonment or being alone.
  • Treatment of the symptoms is possible, but it is typically related disorders that bring someone into therapy.

Dependent personality disorder (DPD) can be a dealbreaker in relationships of all types. While estimates suggest that this disorder affects less than 1 percent of adults, it causes distress not only to the person diagnosed with the disorder but those in relationships with them as well (APA, 2013).

Women are more likely to exhibit the symptoms of this disorder and the symptoms tend to become a noticeable problem in early adulthood. While children and younger adolescents may look to others for support and direction, there should be increasing independence as they mature. Unfortunately, those with DPD grow increasingly needy, submissive, and clingy. There is also an unhealthy fear of separation that persists into adulthood for individuals diagnosed with the disorder.

DPD and Fearful-Avoidant Attachment Style

Unfortunately, the exact cause of this disorder is unknown, although it has been attributed to a variety of potential causes (Disney, 2013). These include childhood environment and adverse experiences including severe illness as a child or sexual abuse.

However, attachment style has been noted as a strong predictor of DPD. Children who develop a fearful attachment style are among the most likely to develop DPD in later life. Fearful attachment is marked by a desperate need to be cared for, receive affection, and have close relationships, but their anxious and avoidant tendencies drive them to avoid forming these relationships.

In addition, individuals with a fearful-avoidant attachment style also tend to engage in heightened sexual activity, struggle with regulating their emotions, and experience an increased risk of violence in interpersonal relationships.

Extremely overprotective parenting may also contribute to DPD. Narcissistic parents who use their children as “props” and demand that kids meet excessively demanding expectations could play a role in its development.

How It Feels to Live With DPD

Individuals who exhibit symptoms of DPD have a difficult time due to their intense need for the appreciation, care, and approval of others. They crave affection so desperately that they are willing to yield to the desires of significant others on everything from the mundane to the monumental. Clothing choices, activity engagement, meal choices, diet, residence, and daily routine may all be left to another to decide.

Individuals are agonizingly dependent on others and wracked with self-doubt and a paucity of self-confidence; they may frequently put themselves down and have little self-worth. Among their biggest fears is being alone due to their belief that they are unable to manage the routines of daily life—and their related choices and decisions—on their own.

Career Disruption

Similar to those with avoidant personality disorder, individuals with DPD struggle in their career choices. Positions that require them to take initiative or leadership roles are difficult to hold. Their need for others to direct them keeps them from upward mobility and positions that require decision-making are overwhelming and off-limits in their eyes.

Supervisors and co-workers of individuals with DPD may grow impatient with these employees as their indecision or constant need to be reassured that they are doing things the “right way” can drain others. Fear of making a mistake, doing the wrong thing, or not meeting demands may be so significant that the individual may leave a job that requires any level of independent thinking or action.

Relationship Risks

Individuals with DPD struggle to function independently. Desperation for connection may lead to relationships in which they’re taken advantage of or abused. While most of us fear abandonment at some level, individuals with DPD are so consumed with that fear that it drives their every move. Their clinginess and neediness may seem “normal” at the early stage of a relationship, when couples tend to be wrapped up in one another and project who they imagine their partners to be. Unfortunately, as relationships evolve, projections and illusions fall away, and some partners are unable to tolerate the desperate neediness of their partner.

Individuals with DPD may be willing to suffer denigration and maltreatment to avoid being alone. Relationship ruptures are their greatest fear; unfortunately, their excessive need for reassurance and their dependence on others can overwhelm partners and friends. Others may feel that this person’s needs are too oppressive and look for ways to exit a relationship. However, deciding to back away can generate guilt as they realize how needy their friend or partner has become. (For a guide to the symptoms of dependent personality disorder, click here.)

Getting Help

With many personality disorders, those who meet the criteria for diagnosis may not realize that they even have a problem. Individuals who exhibit a clinically significant number of DPD symptoms are little different. The reasons they might seek counseling usually are related to depression, anxiety, or addiction. Living in a state of constant insecurity and fear takes a toll and these individuals may turn to substances as means of self-medicating to help them cope with their anxiety.

Cognitive behavioral therapy can be helpful in providing more effective coping skills, revising expectations about relationships, and replacing negative beliefs. Pessimism is often associated with DPD, so attention to undoing self-defeating thoughts may be another focus of treatment. Assertiveness training may also be useful in building a stronger sense of self. Treatment for the symptoms of DPD can be helpful if the client is committed to making change.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Disney, K. L. (2013). Dependent personality disorder: A critical review. Clinical Psychology Review, 33, 1184-1196.

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