Dependent personality disorder (DPD) is characterized by a long-standing need for the person to be taken care of by others in their life, especially specific people they’ve identified as being the most important to them. Some people characterize people with this disorder as seeming to be “clingy,” because they have trouble letting go of others.
This trouble appears to the be the result of a fear of abandonment or long separation from others. A person with dependent personality disorder believes they can’t live without certain other people in their life (like a romantic partner or specific friend or family member). This leads the person to engage in dependent and submissive behaviors that are designed to elicit care-giving behaviors in others.
People with dependent personality disorder often seem doubtful of their own abilities and skills, and generally see themselves as worthless or of little value to others. They often have poor self-esteem and little faith in themselves or their knowledge. Anytime constructive criticism or disapproval is offered, it is simply seen as proof of their worthlessness. They rarely want to take on much leadership roles or responsibilities.
Decisions may be difficult for a person with dependent personality disorder, and they may limit their social interactions with others to just those few they feel most dependent on. People with this disorder are anxious and insecure when they are not with a person who will support them, make decisions for them and generally take care of them.
Like all personality disorders, a diagnosis can only be made of dependent personality disorder by a trained mental health professional, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist.
Dimensions of Dependency
Dependency is a term widely used in psychiatric literature. In terms of DPD, it’s useful to think about dependency as having three related dimensions:
- Emotional reliance on others and separation anxiety when the person does not have access to those other people. This may be so strong in some people that they are willing to remain in a relationship even though they are mistreated in order to avoid the feeling of abandonment or aloneness. They also may behave ingratiatingly to make sure their partner won’t leave them.
- A lack of self-confidence in social situations. This involves submissive behavior and a tendency to agree with others even when they are incorrect. They typically have considerable hesitancy about speaking up or being assertive.
- Avoidance of autonomy, characterized by seeking guidance and direction from others even though they may secretly wish for more independence. Some people with DPD, however, may become assertive or even aggressive if they believe a relationship with a significant caretaker figure is threatened.
Two of the pervasive core beliefs in people with the disorder are “I am helpless” and “Others should take care of me.”
Causes of Dependent Personality Disorder
The causes of dependent personality disorder (DPD) essentially are unknown. However, mental health professionals have developed a number of hypotheses. People with DPD appear to have a biological, inborn temperament, sometimes referred to as harm avoidance, that is characterized by a tendency to worry about the outcome of a variety of situations that many others take for granted. A pessimistic outlook also plays a role in the disorder. Even when a relationship with a caretaking figure is well established, people with this temperament may feel it is tenuous and could fall apart at any moment.
Research has shown a high correlation between dependent behaviors in people as young as 6- or 7-years-old and their continuation into young adulthood. Researchers have noted a tendency within families of people with DPD to overcontrol their children and discourage their independence. Some people with DPD who have been in treatment expect criticism if they try to make independent decisions, suggesting that they are repeating an expectation they have with family members.
While the cause of DPD is unknown, the best theory is that people with the disorder have an inborn biological tendency toward anxiety and pessimistic expectations, and that this is impacted by an environment that may encourage reliance on others and caution against independent thinking and behavior.
The course of DPD throughout a person’s life is largely unknown because of a lack of research. Also, many people with the disorder never seek treatment because they find job situations and partners who will take care of them and prevent them from excessive distress.
Treatment of Dependent Personality Disorder
Treatment of dependent personality disorder typically involves long-term psychotherapy with a therapist that has experience in treating this kind of personality disorder. Medications may also be prescribed to help with specific troubling and debilitating symptoms.
For more information about treatment, please see dependent personality disorder treatment.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.