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The Dark Side of Dependency

The pros and cons of being interpersonally dependent

Virgil Zeigler-Hill and I are co-editing a book entitled The Dark Side of Personality. The book will include chapters on a variety of personality traits that can have maladaptive or “dark” features, such as callousness, perfectionism, anxiousness, and narcissism, written by some of the leading experts in these areas. Reading and editing the chapters has been a lot of work, but it has also been a lot of fun getting learn about the cutting edge research on these intrinsically interesting topics. Dr. Robert Bornstein at Adelphi University contributed a fascinating chapter on interpersonal dependency, a personality trait that we don’t typically associate with dark or overly problematic behavior. Here’s a summary of some of the findings he reviewed:

One common misconception about dependent individuals is that they are passive, but as Bornstein and colleagues have shown, dependent individuals can be quite active if their activity helps solicit nurturance and approval from potential caregivers or those in authority. In an early study, Bornstein, Masling, and Poynton (1987) paired college students who were high and low dependency to debate a topic on which they disagreed. Contrary to the researchers’ expectations, by the end of the discussion, the low dependency participants were more likely to concede the argument than the high dependency students. Afterward, when they were asked about the discussion, many of the dependent students said that they didn’t give in because they assumed that the discussion was being viewed by the experimenter and they wanted to impress the professor. In a very clever follow-up, Bornstein and colleagues (1996) manipulated whether the participants thought they were being judged by a professor or by a lowly student research assistant. When the dependent students were led to believe it was a professor, they were much more competitive and critical of their study partner than when they thought that they were being judged by a student.

There are both pros and cons to being highly dependent. On the plus side, dependent college students are more willing seek help if they have difficulties in class, and as a result, end up with higher GPAs than less dependent classmates who are similarly intelligent. Dependent medical patients are more likely to stick with their treatments (for example, finishing the full round of antibiotics) than less dependent patients. They are also likely to make an appointment to see their doctors sooner than less dependent patients. On the other hand, highly dependent individuals also seem to get sick more frequently, including both communicable diseases like colds and the flu, but also heart disease and cancer. It may be that the stress of being highly dependent is unhealthy. Dependent patients may also overuse medical services, including more visits to the doctor and the ER, more medication prescriptions, and longer stays in the hospital. Most troubling, high levels of dependency in men is associated with partner abuse and both mothers and fathers who are highly dependent are at increased risk of physically abusing their children. Dependent women are also more likely to stay in an abusive relationship than nondependent women.

This entry just touches on some of the fascinating findings that Bornstein reports. If you have full text access to the Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, you may want to check out his 2012 review article “From dysfunction to adaptation: An interactionist model of dependency.” Otherwise, our book should be coming out some time next year (yup, that was a pretty shameless plug).