Because when you look up “dependent” in a thesaurus, those are the very words you’ll find. Naturally, we don’t want to be any of those things, so we see being dependent in our romantic relationships as dysfunctional, as a bad thing, as something to avoid at all costs.
So we strive to be self-sufficient. We strive not to need or seek out comfort or support (because again, needing them would mean we’re pathetic and weak). We don’t get too close to our partners. We largely keep our thoughts and feelings to ourselves (at least the embarrassing or sad or painful ones). We remind ourselves that we’re the only ones who can really be trusted. We don’t let down our guard.
It is true that dependence requires vulnerability. It requires that we share our hearts and souls, because this is how we connect. This is how we cultivate intimate, profound bonds. And that’s scary, because it means putting ourselves in a place to potentially get hurt.
We fear that if we reveal our true feelings, our true selves, our partners will leave us. Clients regularly tell relationship therapist Kelly Hendricks, MA, MFT, they struggle with these fears. Her male clients worry: “If I let my wife see the softer side of me, will she no longer view me as a ‘man?’ Will she still see me as the man she married? Will she see me as ‘weak?’” Clients also fear being judged, criticized and shut out.
Plus, many of us aren’t taught to effectively process or even label our emotions—which naturally makes it difficult (i.e., impossible) to share them with our partners. Instead we’re taught to fear our own emotions, or not to trust others with them, Hendricks said. Which leads us not to lean on our partners for emotional support, running “the risk of not having close and connected romantic relationships.”
Hendricks defines dependence as: “an innate emotional attachment need for survival that directly benefits one to have a felt sense of emotional safety and security that lends toward confidence and trust to connect deeply with self and one’s world.” She noted that it’s a completely human need to desire, long for and seek out deep emotional connections, comfort and reassurance from our romantic partners.
In fact, loving human contact is vital. In her powerful, eye-opening book Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships, clinical psychologist Sue Johnson, Ph.D, cites research that found that adopted Romanian orphans who spent upwards of 20 hours in their cribs unattended had “brain abnormalities, impaired reasoning ability, and extreme difficulty in relating to others.” Prisoners in solitary confinement, she adds, have hallucinations and develop paranoia, depression, severe anxiety and memory loss.
“We need emotional connection to survive,” writes Johnson, founder of emotionally focused therapy. She shares these examples in her book: “Consistent emotional support lowers blood pressure and bolsters the immune system.” The quality of our social support also predicts general mortality and mortality from specific conditions, including heart disease. Close bonds decrease our susceptibility to anxiety and depression. Close bonds help us become more resilient to stress. Close bonds soothe our brains, and may even protect us from pain.
Healthy dependence is having a secure bond with your partner. It is being emotionally available, emotionally engaged and emotionally responsive, Hendricks said. This doesn’t mean that you never fight, and it doesn’t mean you’re always happy. It also doesn’t mean that you lose your sense of self, abandoning your desires and dreams to become “one” with your partner (a common misconception about dependence).
In fact, according to research and attachment theory, “the more securely emotionally connected we are with an attachment figure—our romantic partner— the more confidently we feel about ourselves and our world in which we then navigate with greater courage and trust,” Hendricks said.
Securely attached couples also fight less and have less intense arguments and miscommunication. That’s because they’re more sensitive to each other’s cues, and more responsive to each other’s needs.
Hendricks shared this example: You and your partner have a fight. The next day, your husband says: “How are you doing since our last fight? Do you need any support from me today? Do you need any reassurance of how much I love you today?” You reply: “Well, actually, now that you ask, I am still feeling a little worried and sad about our argument last night. I’ve been having racing thoughts that one day you grow tired of me, so frustrated that I will have worn your last nerve. You’re not still mad at me, are you? I don’t want to do anything that will affect our relationship. I love you. I apologize if I hurt you. I was really hurt and frustrated when you weren’t listening to me and when you walked away from me when I was talking. It almost seems like you don’t care at those times; is that true? I want to trust that you love me and care about me even though you may be walking away…”
If you have a hard time being vulnerable, thankfully you can change that. Hendricks shared these suggestions.
- “Widen your emotional radar.” Pay attention to your partner’s emotional cues, particularly when they’re being critical or judgmental, staying silent, walking away, crossing their arms, rolling their eyes or ignoring you. Because beneath those behaviors often resides pain.
- Be as vulnerable with your partner as you can—even and especially when you’re sad, angry, frustrated, afraid and less confident of their love for you. “[R]espectfully share these innermost feelings and any attached thoughts.” In other words, let them into your world.
- Validate how your partner feels. Listen to your partner’s feelings, pain and fears and the reasons for their seemingly inconsiderate behavior, without interrupting, judging, blaming or minimizing their feelings. Express compassion. Comfort them. “Reassure them that although you fight, and you may do things to hurt each other, you love them no matter what and you’re committed to the relationship because they matter to you.”
Being this bare, this honest, may be terrifying for you. If that’s the case, start small and slow. When you want to hide or gloss over your feelings, stop yourself. When you want to lash out, pause and take several deep breaths. Reconnect to your love for your partner. And remind yourself that being dependent is natural and human. It is how we bond. It is how we survive.