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Israel W Charny Ph.D.

Are You Balanced Between Being Dependent and Independent?

How dependent should a person be on others?

No one really has an exact formula, and nobody really understands how it is that some people literally seem to be born to be dependent and needy for direction, and others are more independent ‘cusses’ and need less to be ‘babied,’ directed, and protected.

The politically correct notion has grown that whatever a person is in respect of dependence/independence is essentially OK and for the most part shouldn’t be tampered with, so long as they are not at an extreme of either way of relating to others.

In everyday life, the balance or ratio between the two sides of dependency and independence has very tangible consequences:

  • She is a tough Ma Kettle woman who doesn’t waste much time on tenderness or love pleasantries. She expects her kids to grow up just as tough and independent as she is, but some of the kids have grown up too mean and aggressive.
  • He’s a sweetheart of a lover who is just full of gentle appreciation and love for his partner, but he proves to be less than able sexually.
  • She doesn’t need anybody. She tried marriage once and it was a mess, and now that she is back to her freedom, she may enjoy getting into the hay with a guy once in a while, but in no way will she surrender herself to a committed relationship. She is nobody’s slave.
  • He’s a darling compliant little boy, gets all A’s at school, is always pleasant and smiling, and adults rave about him as a super success. But as he enters adolescence and then adult life, he falters badly and has no idea why, but it’s because he doesn’t know how to fight for himself against the inevitable conflicts, shaming, failures and closed doors into which all of us have to walk in real life.

In the world of psychiatric disturbances, both extremes are seen fairly often. A person who is overly passive, dependent, or available to be manipulated and exploited is not exactly a walking textbook of mental health.

A toughy or bully who pushes his way around in life and makes a point of not needing any kind of caring or loving is often suffering a definable personality disorder.

Therapists who concentrate religiously only on hearing the feelings of the patient and reflecting back to them understanding and acceptance often may not touch those issues sufficiently. The overall conception is that people are what they are is and that therapists are there to sympathize, support, energize, but not to attempt to make changes in basic personality styles.

But there also are therapists who see it differently.

All Of Us Need Very Much to be Both Dependent and Able to Enjoy Being Loved and Helped by Others, but We also Need to be Courageously Independent

The issue of dependence/independence comes up throughout our lives, beginning even as infants and toddlers. Babies who are so cared for that they do not learn at a reasonable age how to sleep by themselves in their own beds, or whose toilet needs are taken care of long after they should be on their own obviously can have a hard time later competing with and standing up to the toughness of life.

On the other side of the coin, adults who can’t allow themselves to be taken care of even when they are ill and in need of help can condemn themselves to a vicious state of being alone both physically and emotionally.

  • I have seen people who even drive away from them the medical staff in the hospital when they are seriously ill because they can’t stand anyone taking care of them.

A good balance between wholesome dependency and admirable independence is beautiful. In making love, for example, the capacity of both mates to be caring and cared for, with both aspects of dependence and independence alternating between the two, ‘dancing’ back and forth between their dependent and independent sides in a symphony of lovemaking and ‘love receiving,’ makes for much more equality and fun. (The notion that it can be heavenly for a man or a woman to have a fully compliant mate who is ever accepting of their sexual needs is a prescription for boredom and alienation, let alone that it generates experiences of being shamed and enslaved for the personality ‘on the bottom.’)

When it comes to spotting in our children an overtly strong tendency to any one side of a trait, my view is that when we parents begin to see in our child major aspects of development and behaviors that are way too minimal or way too exaggerated, we need to think creatively how to steer the child in the other direction. When it comes to couples, we hope that in the case of too-dependent people, their mate insists on their being stronger and helps them to become so. In the case of overly independent people, we hope that their mate is strong enough to bring them down toward greater equality and reciprocity, and if necessary to fight back against them.

In work situations, how many of us know people who are utterly miserable but go about their jobs dutifully and slavishly despite the fact that they have major complaints toward their bosses and/or the system in which they are working? Making a living is serious business and the freedom to choose work can be limited or virtually non-existent for many people, but for those of us who do have degrees of freedom it is important to ask, just how much should one sacrifice in order to keep a job?

The same is true of people’s relationships to various service systems in their lives and even to their governments. Say you need medical help and you’ve been able to create an appointment with a well-known specialist, but he turns out to be gruff, insulting, imperious, or worse. Do you swallow it because you want his medical expertise, or do you speak up with dignity and power? Say the government comes after you with an unfair tax bill, and the demands for payment are accompanied by frightening threats of legal action and further penalties. How far do you go in fighting back versus how much do you surrender and comply in order to avoid any further pressure?

  • I once saw a Ph.D. scientist in therapy who had a U.S. government insurance policy that granted coverage if the patient was referred to psychotherapy with a clinical psychologist either by a psychiatrist or a neurosurgeon. This particular patient was referred to me ‘only’ by a neurologist – i.e., not a neurosurgeon – and the insurance company refused payment.

Common sense told both me and him that this kind of splitting hairs was intrinsically unfair. I proposed to the patient – who was a very passive personality – that he fight back, and that I would fight along with him and help him as much as possible backing him with my professional identity in letters and calls and appeals to the insurance commission of the state, legislators, and whatnot. The deal I offered him was that I would not charge him for any of my time for the fighting — I was myself outraged at the government insurance policy — but if he would win then I would be happy if he would pay me my fee for all the hours I put in fighting on his side.

He fought well and obviously got stronger in the process, and both of us had a lot of fun. He won, and received his insurance coverage, and I got paid a wad. For the icing on the cake, it was not only a victory for him alone but said insurance policy for government workers throughout the United States was thereafter changed to include neurologists.

What a wonderful goal: to be sweet and tough, loved and loving, accepting our needing help and being able to be respectfully dependent and at the same time being independent and a genuine helper to others in the areas of our competence and strength.

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About the Author

Israel W. Charny, Ph.D., is a psychologist and the author of two recent books, A Democratic Mind and Psychotherapy for a Democratic Mind. He is also co-founder of the International Association of Genocide Scholars.