Emotional Dependency and Stealth Control

In my psychotherapy practice, I’ve had a number of clients who suffered from emotional dependency issues:  in their personal relationships, they often seemed helpless and extremely needy.  I’m sure you’ve known such people.  They may appear clingy and possessive; they often get involved with someone very strong and competent, a Rock of Gibralter type.  In extreme cases, the relationship consists almost entirely of one person taking care of the other.  Incapacitating depressions may be frequent or continuous, to such an extent that the emotionally dependent person may be unable to hold down a job or function as an independent adult, so completely reliant on the other person that at times he or she seems infantile.

As clients, such individuals quickly become dependent on treatment for support.  Even if they’re coming for more than one session per week, the gap between those sessions will feel too long; they may make frequent “emergency” calls on weekends or in the middle of the night.  If a therapist isn’t careful, such clients can become extremely taxing and emotionally draining.  We may feel intense pressure to provide emotional relief; if we’re not empathic or supportive enough, these clients may become intensely angry with us.  In some cases, it actually feels like a relief when they quit in a rage and seek treatment elsewhere.

In an earlier post, I discussed how some people who have trouble with neediness get involved with very dependent partners so they don’t have to feel their own needs — that is, they project their needs into the partner.  I’ve found that, while the other party may appear to carry all those needs and even seem quite childlike in his or her emotional dependency, once you scratch the surface, you find such people to be extremely controlling and manipulative.

I realize those words carry a negative charge in our culture, but I’m not sure which other words to use since these ones feel accurate.  I intend no disapproval, nor do I mean that any of this is conscious.  Individuals who appear helpless often have an unacknowledged fantasy of controlling their partners; they may unconsciously believe that, through their helpless behavior, they are forcing the other person to assume the role of caretaker and that they can manipulate the partner into giving what is wanted, be it emotional or financial support.

In other words, the person who demonstrates emotional dependency often has no more tolerance for his or her needs than the partner who seems needless; they’re both defending against those needs but in different ways, one by denying and projecting those needs, the other by assuming a kind of magical control over the object of need.  “Omnipotent babies” is a way such people may be described in my profession:  someone apparently helpless and almost infantile but who holds all the strings, controlling the people around him or her as if they were puppets.

I’ve been trying to avoid singular pronouns because the cultural stereotype here is of the strong man/helpless female; it doesn’t always work that way.  Early in my training, I had a client, a young gay man I’ll call Terry who suffered from severe depressions and had a history of relationships with older men who would financially care for him whenever he fell into a depression and lost his job.  I was working at a low-fee counseling center at the time; even with our sliding scale, Terry insisted he couldn’t continue to pay for his sessions and tried to manipulate me, using my fear and anxiety for his welfare when he became anorexic, into giving him treatment for free.

I was on the verge of saying ‘yes’ and agreeing to see him several times per week at no charge when my supervisor helped me understand the dynamic between my client and me.  When I didn’t agree and insisted Terry pay for treatment ($5 per session), he eventually became enraged that he couldn’t control me.  I learned a lot from working with this client, especially about the anger and intolerance for genuine dependency that lie behind such manipulative forms of helplessness.

I stood my ground.  Terry found another job and lost it; over time, he learned to hold one down and take care of himself.

Finding Your Own Way:

Here are some ways that many of us may enact this same drama on a smaller scale:

Do you “forget” to do things around the house, chores you may have promised to do, in the secret (probably unacknowledged) hope that somebody else will do them for you?  This same dynamic sometimes lies behind procrastination, the hope that you can get somebody else to do the job if you put it off long enough.  The helpless claim that we “forgot” hides the controlling nature of such behavior.

Do you ignore looming financial difficulties, for so long that by the time you’re paying attention, you have to ask your parents to bail you out?

The stereotypical male-as-slob sometimes has an unconscious fantasy that mommy will always be there to clean and pick up after him, if only he can coerce her into doing so by waiting her out.  (I’m not talking about the guy who really doesn’t care if he lives in a pigsty; I’ve also known women with exactly the same psychological process.)

Look behind the apparent roles of helplessness vs. tower-of-strength and you’ll usually find an intolerance of real need and stealth fantasies of coercive control.

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Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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49 Responses to Emotional Dependency and Stealth Control

  1. Pat says:

    Excellent. This describes my husband to a T. I always knew there was a reason why he avoided chores, household duties, money-related issues, etc. and procrastinated into next year, but just didn’t know why. His favorite word is control, by the way. If I had a nickel for every time he used it, I’d be rich. Now that I’m on to him, I charge him to take care of whatever he forgets or leaves behind…and when I get enough, I’m leaving.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      You made me laugh with that one, Pat. Just remember he’s not doing it on purpose, at least not consciously. It’s an unconscious or unacknowledged fantasy. Frustrating nonetheless, I understand.

  2. Betty says:

    My house mate personified….Of course, she reminds me she has ADD…”I forgot” is her mantra…I understand she had an extremely controlling Mother, who expected perfection…and a loving, however, rather passive Father..So I get it…but it can become extremely frustrating at times…In addition, she lost her husband suddenly almost 4 years ago, and I understand “he” had been the caretaker…she did work, he insisted upon that…she was a professional…but other than that I believe most everything else was left up to him…She’s very intelligent, so I do talk with her when something is obviously inappropriate and I feel she’s not respecting my boundaries. We seem to have come to an understanding…..

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Betty, I’m sure it can be very frustrating. In session with a client, I can make an interpretation about what’s going on; besides, the person is paying me to say difficult things. With a roommate who may have little awareness of what she’s doing, it can be difficult to address the dynamic. It sounds like you’re coping about as well as you could.

  3. zsanon says:

    thanks for your website. you seem so nice, thoughtful, and able to be what someone needs in a particular moment. How much of it is acting? How much is real? How can you feel people’s emotions so many hours of every day. It would kill me. Or it does almost kill me. I feel so alone right now, miss my therapist so much, although I saw yesterday and will again Monday. I wish you could just be with me for a little while. I’m one of those horrible patients who emails all the time, calls and listens to voicemail all the time, just want so much. I understand, intellectually at least, the theory of transference; I started therapy with the intent of “playing” with it, in fact, but it’s become so much more life and death. I’m not your target readership, I know; I can’t contemplate life after therapy at all, except the money issue is closing in on me. Even without that, though, how does one come to terms with a word I still can’t bear to hear my therapist use, “longing”?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      When most people use the word “transference”, they think of it as if it’s something illusory — like “you’re treating your therapist as if he or she were somebody else.” As if it’s not real. That’s not my experience of it, not at all. In my experience, both as a client and a therapist, it’s a very intense, real and often painful relationship in which you have the chance to go to all those difficult emotional places with someone who (hopefully) understands and can help you learn how to bear those feelings and grow other capacities. This issue of “longing” — I know what you’re talking about. When you become so attached to your therapist, when you feel so needy and dependent upon him or her to help you bear with your experience, it is excruciating to wait and long for your next session. For most people, feeling small and needy hasn’t been a great experience during their lifetimes — no wonder it’s hard to bear in therapy.

      You may not be my target audience but please keep reading.

  4. zsanon says:

    Ouch. You mean my therapist has feelings in all of this? What must I be doing to him/her? I don’t want to do that. It makes me even more of a terrible person. The “Toilet Function” discussion you posted a while back occurs to me, and I feel it so much. How friends have been with me, and how I must be to my therapist. I know the point is for therapists to “contain” that, deal with it, have their own resources for emotional strength. But I don’t want to be like, be the source of professional difficulty for my therapist. And on the flip side, I don’t want to be a professional encounter that is so routinely “dealt with.” How can I not be horrible to, demanding of my therapist, but still have a genuine encounter?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      The fact that you are thinking this way — considering that in all those instances, there’s another person on the receiving end, is exactly what you need to be doing. Yes, you need help, from your therapist and your friends; but you can ALSO take their feelings into account. Doesn’t mean you have to keep everything to yourself. It only means you need to consider them, as well. Not always easy, I understand, but that’s the job.

  5. Kheiron Quayle says:

    Your blog is excellent in so many ways – informative, instructive, analytical, etc. This particular entry is extremely relevant in my case; I’m divorcing my husband who went through a legitimate nervous breakdown a few years ago, but refused to “get back on the horse” afterward. And I saw the rage when I didn’t comply with his wishes…or as he put it, “needs”.

    Thank you. :)

  6. Silky says:

    i am an emotionally needy person and looked for strong anchors in my past two relations with men. The second person promised everything i looked for-security, comfort and intimacy-in that order. But after he received all that i could offer, he said i was abnormal and unstable and that i was possessive. I started clinging the moment he started moving towards others and ignored me. My shame is deep rooted, not just with respect to these two men. I continue to live with the feeling, that no matter what i do i will not be good enough to keep. i have come to believe i am ill. reading about illness makes me feel even worse about my patterns. How does one not be emotionally needy?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I think the problem may lie in wanting the other person to fix something inside of you, or to provide you with a feeling that only you can provide for yourself. I think that it might also help if intimacy were number one on your list, rather than last.

      • Silky says:

        Thank you for your insight.
        You have written in one of your entries that some people cant take responsibility for becoming better. I am one of those people. There is fear. Because you become lonely when you are ill. And to make right, so much of what is wrong in oneself becomes a burden. Sometimes the word shame doesn’t capture what one feels. To accept that one is replaceable and still love others, one secretly wishes for security first..that they wont leave once they come to know you.
        Is this a sort of rationalization? for inability to eliminate insecurity?

        • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

          I think the kind of “security” you want can’t be provided by others, though I understand why you turn to them for it. This feeling has to come from within.

  7. Deborah says:

    Dr. Burgo,
    thanks for the insight. Can you, or have you spoken about the hidden dynamic in the “tower of strength” person?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Deborah, I haven’t written about that yet but I’ll put it on my list. It’s an important topic. Thanks.

  8. Marsha Ewart says:

    I have a young friend who was brain injured in 1989 with a history of childhood ADD I suspect was childhood bipolar and was able to live on her own though rather dysfunctionaly. She became involved with the strong person you are describing and lost what little independence she had developed after the accident when the partner took over everything because she could do it better. My friend is the female equivalent of Terri. When the partner realized she had become nothing but a caregiver the offer was made to keep the family unit in tact but see other people. My young friend became so enraged she actually eventually experienced a psychotic break. It might have been a drug allergy another thing that frustrates clinicians with her is mania is actually a symptom of drug allergy for her often to sedatives or antipsychotics themselves. She is full of Somatic complaints. She is full of rage because the accident left her looking normal with a high verbal score but with morbid rigidity and as she tells me no executive functioning skills. She appears to all who know her and even wishful thinking to herself to be malingering but her neediness is real and most of her support is now virtual as she has burned out all family members. One of the symptoms is she does not realize the effects of her behaviors on others and her tone of voice is often whiny or rageful. She does get support from her board in care she lives in, ( I met her in Senior Living I was considering moving in). She constantly expresses frustration that Mental Health places that would have people her own age do not provide the assistance she needs. Anything that takes planning or steps. But put her on a computer and she is a genius. All the family (not all, the sibling that does the financial support at least to her face does not respond as those who she depended on for emotional care. But the main caregiver feels attacked all she hears is ingratitude and they wonder why someone who is as bright as she has not learned to adapt. She has been treated in the psychiatric modality with no improvement and it is astonishing but professionals (psychs and pcp’s) have immediate negative transference to her. Her newest record she told me was the eval for her new digs. The clinician known nice guy was calling her names within two minutes of meeting her. She stayed in the system for 3.5 years long after the psychosis was gone due to the frustration of the professionals to get her functional behavior to match her verbal skills. She did several more years of day treatment and reports clinicians again had severe negative response to her. This has been verified by one of our mutual friends who was in treatment with her. She is rageful about needing the help and perseverates on the fact that she was living on her own for 4 years after the accident. Before meeting partner who became caretaker. Also she has been in treatment for over 26 years so her knowledge of pharmacology frustrates clinicians. If she can be that smart about drugs why can’t she cook or brush her teeth. She reports executive function problems before the accident she chose a sober living environment that kept her there three years trying to teach things like cooking and grooming again anything that takes planning. Ironically she knows how to get apts with Dr’s and has learned to navigate though unsuccessfully. I keep asking her why they don’t try psychotherapy instead of medication. From your article I believe she is controlling and manipulating but I see it as a survival mechanism. Her neuropsych exam reports that she will always need assisted living and showed signs of frontal and temporal lobe damage (all scans clear )and at first her her response was he just wrote that because she was living in one and he was lazy and could not think outside the box. But three years post release she is still dependent. She is also very reactive and sensitive and personalizes clinicians and friends moods as a result of her behavior. Our mutual friend and her family refer to her as a narcissist who has become completely obsessed with finding a name for all the somatic and psych symptoms. I think they need to not have her under so much care so she can get her confidence back. She did report one year of independence post hospital but because of her memory issues she needs constant contact with loved ones to feel supported. Apparently called family everyday and they frustrated came up with the Senior Living as a way of relieving their stress as caregivers. She is in daily contact with a few of us and if we miss a day that is what she remembers. It is as if she lives in the moment. The more the family withdrew the more she pursued and it has ended where in order to feel genuine connection with the burnt out members she picks a fight so they can express the rage she senses and she at least feels she is having an honest exchange with them. I have never seen what seems to be a nice person constantly provoke such rage in other wise nice people.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Your friend’s issue is clearly rage. She seems able to evoke it in everyone around her, a sure sign that she is projecting it into them. She would surely benefit from psychotherapy where a skilled clinician would be able to tolerate her attacks and help her learn to tolerate her own rage, rather than putting it into other people, and uncover its roots. This is something you often see with borderline and psychotic-like patients: they continually project rage into other people, but almost nobody can tolerate that experience and give them the help they need.

      • Debbie says:

        The family needs to educate themselves on the frontal lobe brain injury. Senior Living is not equipped to deal with such a TBI patient. Their family member is suffering even more than they are. There are TBI rehab centers for such patients who can deal with agitation, memory issues as well as provide calming activities and access to a neuropsychologist who understands the different functions affected by their TBI. They can help the patient and the family. I’m sorry for all involved. I have TBI but not a severe frontal lobe injury, but the symptoms described by Marsha are classic for frontal lobe. It’s hard to understand because other functions may not be affected or not as obvious. I find that people think good verbal skills mean you must be more capable than you are. Unrealistic expectations = frustration, pressure, agitation. There are many resources to learn about TBI and find more appropriate care to relieve stress for everyone involved. Find your state’s brain injury association office here: http://www.biausa.org/ Find help from other caregivers at the message boards here: http://www.tbihome.org/

  9. Patty says:

    This needy, emotionally dependent type is my mom. Deny her what she demands, and LOOK OUT. Passive aggression follows: little snipes, poor-me comments in the oddest of moments, little withdrawals, little dings. And during this, she’ll glom onto another one of her children and talk about how “helpful” they’ve been and speak only glowingly of them…until they, too, can’t give as much as she’s willing to take. Then they, too, become persona non grata, and negative comments/snipes become the norm.
    A friend suggested I was enabling mom. I’ve lived through several of her angry times; she gets past them. More needs pop up, and with bygones being filed away in the past, she can start the cycle with me all over again!

    To resist her, I have to keep defining boundaries: what am I responsible for; what is she responsible for? Do I need to pull back and tell her to do something herself? Is what I’m about to do something she could/should be doing for herself? Am I acting out of pity? I remind myself it’s NOT helpful to her to keep her in the lie that she MUST have others over-do for her. Nope, empower her: you can DO this, mom!

    Controlling and manipulative? You betcha. It’s easy to check this out: refuse to be controlled or manipulated. If that wasn’t happening, no one will get mad. If, however, it WAS happening and now you’re thwarting it, you’ll confirm this by seeing how mad they get when you get out of the puppet suit (or marionette outfit).

    Thank you for these immensely helpful nuggets.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Great observations. I think your approach of setting boundaries is right — your own boundaries, as well. “This I’m willing to do, this I won’t do.” The rest of it is her responsibility and if she get’s angry, that’s her problem. From what you say, it sounds as if she then MAKES it your problem through her unpleasantness; but if you can resist the urge to engage, you don’t have to take it on.

  10. I am not sure if I am what you are describing or not. I have admitted I am a sex/love addict. One diagnosis was addictive personality disorder, with depression and anxiety. I am a self-admitted Facebook addict and blog als0. My therapist keeps insisting on talking about my husband. Which annoys me..I do leave house hold chores undone, hoping someone else will do them. I have no control over my finances, and haven’t worked in 3 years. I have 2 kids. My husband is almost never home…and drinks himself into a stupor when he is here. I do all the household chores barely..I don’t know.

    • Zoe says:

      Laura, I am like you in soooo many ways. I am addicted to sex but don’t actually want anyone to touch me, though…it’s complicated. But I think about it all the time, which is really annoying. It’s always forbidden sex I think about, so that it will never actually happen (with my female therapist, with my doctor, with my professors) …I guess I have intimacy issues. I can’t ever seem to get my chores done either, have stayed at home the last 10 years with the kids (am now back in school and hoping this pans out) and I cannot ever get my act together. My husband is very organized, does the shopping, finances, and earns all the money. Oh, and he is a great dad. He also drinks himself into a stupor several nights of the week. I am reading all of the above wondering if I may be “quietly controlling”, or just supremely ADD.

  11. Sam says:

    Wow, this describes my wife very well. Though, my wife is not quite that extreme, she does exhibit a lot of these “symptoms”. She’s very clingy. I almost don’t have any “personal ” time because she’ll demand that we spend our free time together. She procrastinates in many areas, such as her work and finances. The longest she has kept a job is 2 years. She doesn’t get fired, but tends to quit them if they get stressful or unfufilling. There is much more to explain, but you get the point. She’s very emotionally dependant.

  12. Jeanette says:

    Hi, i am in a relationship with one of these emotional independent persons. He has find his way to control me by convincing me to sell everything i posses, leave my job and leave my country to live with him in the UK where he has kids. Here in UK things just got worse, a few fights we had i ran away and spent all my saved money but always come back to him. I know i need to get out of this unhealthy relationship. He hacks my computer and reads all the emails i sent to my friends from my country. When i do start a full time job he would create suck a big fight with me that i end up leaving the job thinking of ways to leave him to. Currently i do some freelance work and it is going well but still not enough money for me to leave and find my own accommodation ect. He plays on it by making me financial dependent on him so i can not leave. He even gets aggressive and has abused me before. The last few months he started drinking to much and blames it on me. Everything is always my fault. I dont even feel like getting fisical with him because of all the hurt he puts me through. I am not a loud to talk to any males, when we go out i am not even aloud to look around because if i by accidently look at another man i dont hear the end of it. He doesnt trust me, he is soooo insecure. I have just been loyal to him. I do everything for him and he does not see it. I cook, i clean i help him every second weekend looking after his kids who are 1years and 3 years (not easy as they need 24/7 attention and i am not really one for kids). I even misst my dentist appointment on friday because i put his lunch preparation first. Then he complains i dont do anything for him. I cant even communicate with him without him getting angry and start turning everything on me. If i want to leave he threatens to take my laptop, or last time he even jumbed on my suitcase untill it broke. I now have to hide my laptop, passports and money in my care which is also not that safe but i feel its safer there then in his house. I want to leave him but i dont know how, i am scared of him but on the same time love him so so much. Other times when he realise he can lose me he become so so sweet and do so many romantic things for me, then i think by myself things aint really that bad with him, but that never last. Then he also has all these expectations from me when it comes to his kids. It feels so against my soul. I dont have kids of my own and he wants me to do just as much work with them as he does. Making it such a burden, i dont know what is right or wrong on that. But i dont want to be a mother to them. Why must i get punished for his mistakes?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      This man is not emotionally dependent, he’s controlling and abusive. There are public and private agencies geared toward helping battered women; they can help you, financially and emotionally, to break free and assert your autonomy. You may not have considered yourself a “battered woman” but given the behaviors you describe, I think you qualify.

  13. Matt says:

    This page explains emotional dependency well. I suffer from this severely. I usually wait for a really nice girl, i am very picky. But after a week of dating it always ends. The friendship/get-to-know-her part before dating goes really well, and i usually find girls are crazy about me at this point. After a week in the relationship it is always the same thing: i expect them to reciprocate the same feelings i have which are completely misplaced. Its the cumulative effect of being lonely and emotionally dependent. I just lost a great girl last week, and it really hurts. I feel completely worthless and im over it to the point that i am constantly thinking about suicide. As for the case of ”Terry’, the anger was not appropriate, but as a uni student, i am left with barely enough money for food after rent. I literally have NO money for any kind of help. And frankly if i cant pay for it, i don’t want it.

    What is the treatment for this? Is it an ongoing treatment or can i be cured? Just thinking about this exhausts me. It really has stopped my life and had me fired from jobs because a girl came along and i acted this way.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Matt, I’m unclear on what actually happens after that first week. What feelings of yours do you expect these women to reciprocate?

      • Matt says:

        The girls just seem to lose interest. I’m not really sure, these are my ex’s words not mine. But i did ask her out to an end of year ball. I wanted to take her to it and there were only a few tickets left. I really don’t want to tire you by going into detail but i feel like she had felt ‘tied down’. She mentioned something along the lines of how great it is to be single, because you can go wherever you want and not have to tell anyone. Except that i never expected her to report to me. However in general conversation i would ask her, just because i enjoyed talking to her, not because i needed to know where she was.

        My ex’s become distant and then say ‘we have a problem’ and end it. I feel like these girls are kinda do the same thing, cut and run. So from that i feel like i must be doing something wrong which i can not recognize. Also i know it was a week long relationship but we have been talking as good friends for a month, and she clearly doesn’t care to lose me even as a friend. I have always had to start the conversations with her. Now i am giving her distance and not starting a conversation with her, yet she hasn’t started anything with me. Really kind of the opposite of what i expected with her. I don’t want to take it personally but i think i will.

        I really feel like there is something wrong with me. I don’t want to exaggerate but i feel like this has been the worst two weeks of my life, also not getting a desperately needed job and then being in a car accident. As a uni student money doesnt grow on trees, and even though i was not in the wrong, the other driver is putting his effort into making me responsible, to claim from my insurance. I give up.

  14. George says:

    Hello Joe,
    I am a married man(21-1/2 years now) and I have a 19 year old daughter. I have survived a marriage that has not worked out very well. I need to be “in control” of the relationship and steer it in the way I want it to go. My wife, on the other hand, has constantly resisted this urge in me and it has always ended up in me raging or getting so angry that she just shuts down, and I am left frustrated and unfulfilled. Of course, resisting my urge to control does nothing more than strengthen it. I feel that if I was allowed to control it, I would naturally let it go over time, but this has not been the case. She resists, I get angry, relationship suffers. She is a nice person, and so am I. I just feel that I can’t progress in life with this ‘burden’ weighing me down. Any suggestions on how to approach this issue with my marriage? We have gone to marriage counseling and it was suggested we use a ‘model’ of communication aimed at really hearing what the other has said. I must admit that we don’t use it much and maybe we should use it more.
    Peace,
    George

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Hi George, I don’t know that I have any advice for you as a couple, but if you were my client, I’d be trying to help you understand how unbearable it feels to be out of control, and not just when you’re raging. I expect that the feelings of helplessness/vulnerability/dependency are nearly intolerable for you and this probably shows up in other areas of your life, in other relationships.

  15. Kate says:

    Hi I would like it if you could and don’t mind answering my following
    questions, kind regards

    it possible for a therapist to intentionally cause transference?
    If so why?
    Do client have rights to consent to this?
    Are therapists expected to help clients through transference, if so and they do not, why is this?
    Is it possible that therapists can use their power for their own needs?
    And finally what does it mean when a therapist brings Hos own stuff into the room?

  16. Beth says:

    Dr. Burgo,
    Thank you for this post. It has really helped me to see things clearly with a situation I am currently dealing with. I work with high school students as an academic counselor. For the past year, I’ve been trying to help a student (now a former student) through her depression and suicidal tendencies. She has trust issues and for some reason seemed to take to me and trust me, and began emailing me her thoughts and feelings (and within the last 6 months coming into my office 2-5 times a week – she attends school where I work). However, the more time that goes on the more and more I believe that her implied threats to take her life is largely just for attention, and that much of what she says to me are attempts to manipulate me into responding to her and giving her the attention she is seeking and make her feel better about herself. Your statement “tried to manipulate me, using my fear and anxiety for his welfare when he became anorexic, into giving him treatment for free” perfectly describes my feelings with my current situation. This past year has been an emotional roller coaster for me – worrying about her, trying to get her into treatment, trying to get her to stay in treatment, trying to keep her safe & talk her down from ledges, and get her to take and stay on her meds. To be honest, I’m emotionally worn out and even if I wanted to I don’t think I can do it anymore. It wasn’t until recently that I really started to open my eyes to how unhealthy this relationship is and that for both our sakes I need to pull back, create some distance and set some major boundaries. I should never have allowed the role of friend and counselor to become blurred, or tried to provide her with counseling that I’m not trained to give and I should have seen her emotional dependency and manipulation sooner. I’m just not quite sure how best to pull back and set those boundaries. Any advice?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I think you’re on the right track already. Set firm boundaries and articulate them kindly. Explain that you can’t really provide what she needs because you’re not a trained professional. And don’t feel guilty about doing it!

  17. Ayelet says:

    Hello,
    Your posts are great. The words you use are so easy to understand.
    I learned a lot from your posts on yhis subject.
    I believe we are all needy on this level or another and on different stages in our lives.
    Maybe there is a scale to measure it.
    I suggest, if it is possible, to post a self quiz that measures it.
    Thank you,

    Ayelet from Israel.

  18. Chris says:

    I like the last post about a scale to measure it….
    I am a 35 y/o male. My question is, I know and can see more and more that I fit into this type. Mine does not appear in a rage or raging though. Mine presents with generalized anxiety issues.
    What are some tools that I can use to help identify, soothe, and correct this thinking and behavior? I am currently in therapy and it is helping some, but I still feel overwhelmed and wanting more therapy appts. I am slowly getting closer to understanding this, but I want to find, figure out, identify, and start treatment of somehow.
    Thank you for any help you can provide.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Hi Chris,

      I’m not very good at offering concrete tools. Why not go to therapy more often? It sounds like you might need to do that for a while.

      • Chris. says:

        I have been working with therapy for over a year. I am still discovering aspects about myself that are new to me. Dependency issues resulting in anxieties. Many are small things to worry about but still become grand worries. Trying out different medications to treat the generalized anxiety, but I feel there is more to it. A causation factor to the anxiety. I am trying to figure out the problem and correct it. I will continue the therapy but try to avoid dependence on too much therapy.
        Thank you for a speedy reply .

  19. Jimi says:

    Loved the article Dr. Burgo,
    Im not looking for a free therapist session via this site, but I’ve been in a relationship with my girlfriend for 6 months now, we are doing amazing! However, my girlfriends best friend is extremely emotionally dependent. It interferes with our relationship on a daily basis, her best friend needs to talk to her frequently everyday, they work together and also lived together for a little while. Her best friend is coincidentally a mutual friend, which complicates things further. The best friend will become irate and excessively angry when things arent done her way or if she feels like my girlfriend hasn’t fulfilled her emotional security needs. She feels very threatened by me and the relationship my girlfriend and I have. Most recently my girlfriends best friend became so unbelievably angry at my girlfriend for “making” her wait to meet up with her because she was seeing a movie with other girlfriends. She belittled my girlfriend, questioning her friendship and devotion to her, threatening her that she’ll leave the friendship and overall committing emotional terrorism against my girlfriend, causing her to be an emotional wreck, feeling worthless and cry frequently. Things like this incident happen at least once a week. Why does my girlfriend feel the need to constantly be controlled and manipulated by her best friend? I see all the red flags and I constantly wonder where I will fit in with all of this. Ive never had to deal with a situation like this before so Im at a lose. My girlfriend makes me so incredibly happy and will stick around for as long as possible. I guess my real question is, am I setting myself up for failure being in a relationship with someone that is emotionally co-dependent on an emotionally controlling person?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Not necessarily. My guess is that it has something to do with your girlfriend’s relationship to her mother, who might have been narcissistic or overly involved. I think there’s reason to hope if you can help your girlfriend see that this relationship is bad for her; at the same time, you don’t want to appear as the antagonist. Maybe you could introduce her to my site and get her to read some of the posts, particularly the ones about narcissism and borderline personality disorder. The best friend sounds as if she has some features of both.

  20. Renan L Vicentini says:

    Dr. Burgo,

    Great article. I am 49 , a parent of 2 children and I have to admit (althought quite hard to do so) that this HAS been an issue for me my entire life. I had never faced it square, until a few events happened a couple of weeks ago – and, I now have to say that I find my self to be really dependent – to a degree that debilitates me. This is mostly true in the finances area – whereas although I have been quite successful for some years. the last 6 years have really been almost like I were looking for people to take care of me – like I were looking for parents. It is crazy, that to be honest, that is what it has been. It is not that I completely gave up on working, but I have to say that, internally, sometimes I feel like I am a 7 years-old boy. This has reached now such a degree that it is more than debilitating – and becoming self-reliant has turned out to be now, officially, my number 1 objective in life.
    I am a son of a 68 year mother, who is (and has always been) extremely dependent, first on her parents, then on my father, and now on us, her sons. It hurts me to acknowledge that, but I have to say that , in that regard, I am a copy of her…
    I have been taking paroxetin and a therapy (that frankly I do not think is taking me anywhere) and I reached a stage I do not know whatelse to do. I feel I have no legs, that I have no ‘base’. I cannot take care of myself on my own, and having reached now this conclusion at this age, is really disturbing.

    I do not know where to start – I will look for therapies that may focus on such a point, and would really greatly appreciate if there would be any bibliography that you could recommend ?

    Thank you so much, again, for reading it, and look forward to the possibility of getting your comments.

    Best,
    Renan L Vicentini – Brazil

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I don’t know of any books or therapists that focus on that particular issue, Renan, but issues of dependency and helplessness are a central part of object relations theory.

  21. J says:

    I never thought of myself this way but it’s scary how well it describes me. Unfortunately for me, your gender stereotype is fairly accurate; I’m not sure if you realize that using an example of a gay male hardly breaks the stereotype. As a straight male it’s tough to find women who want to play this role (in my case my relationships get all the more complicated by the fact that I push away any girlfriend who actually does want to because I find myself feeling even worse for needing such constant support).

  22. Maria says:

    Well I really need help, sorry my english is bad I am a Latin America citizen, anyway I met my therapist a year ago and first it was couple counselling then individually It meant I saw him twice in a week, at the beginning he won my heart, start saying things about me nobody else did, like I was special, and all the words they say to make your self steem grow, and it worked I started loosing weight dressing differently, but during individual sessions something I don´t know started to happen, maybe he tried to help but he made comments about my breasts saying, doesn´t your husband tell you that your breasts are so enormous? beautiful etc? so I felt strange . After that we started talking about sexual intercourse, he asked if my husband touches my clitoris during sex I said no and he said “I would”, and then looked away from me, I was confused, thought I misunderstood him, I thought, he´s saying I would to my wife, but in the very deep of me I thought he meant he would do it to me.
    Time passed and I kept on going to see him, he always said he was married, never accepted anything from me , hugs or kisses or messages or mails or even candies, well I felt a bit weird, he constantly made remarks that my breasts were huge and looked at them even if I dressed like a mummy, and I did dress like that,. I started changing from fear that I had for him, and started finding he was laughing in sessions, trying to make me laugh more a more and I started to relax and do it too, until another day he asked me if I had another sexual experience before my husband I said yes (but for me that experience was so disgusting that I have never and I will never talk about it with anyone) so I said yes we had sex, and he said,,,how many times? I said ,,,two times and he replied…two times??? or two dozenz times? and I felt awful, I felt he was calling me a slut, look I am Latina, so here it´s not so well seen that a woman has lots of sexual partners and it´s a bit embarrassing, anyway I never said anything, I swallowed it and felt like a slut, he´s good in so many aspects if I had to put him a qualification for being my therapist I will give him a 90,over a hundred,But I simply do not understand why sometimes he is so weird, once at the beginning of our story as patient- doctor he said I should masturbate, and told me think about anyone you like, with name and surname, well nobody has never talked to me like that so I thought he meant him and I have been doing it for a year, thinking about him, leaving my husband aside, I cant think about my husband I only think about my Therapist and he is married, so am I, so, I don´t know what´s going on.
    In my despair Last year I contacted a female psychologist and told her something that I thought I loved my therapist, she said it was transferene and told me to go back and talk to him, I did so, and my therapist said he didn´t know how to cope with it, even if himself talked to me about transference at the beginning of our first sessions, and then he said well I don´t know , I was so angry that I yelled at him for the first time and said, look, last session you said you were an experienced therapist and now you said nothing?? what happens to you? and he said, well, maybe you should see a female psychologist, look, I am a bit desperate, I don´t have much money to waste, and I reaally need therapy, at the moment I work at home I have some physical problems to with my stomach and uterus and my health is a bit fragile, so I really need advice from a therapist, I am in the middle of a break now, I told my therapist I need 15 days to rest because of the money on one part is true and on the other I really wanted to be far from him, rest and look for help elsewhere, again so sorry for my english,
    Additional data: he constantly teaches me how to have sex, tells me about sexual positions,ask me for details of the clothes I wear to turn on my husband, and if I explain a little he said things like oh my god!you on that!, he uses some kind of courses during our sessions, I don´t know if that´s normal and on the other hand I can rarely talk to him on the phone, he always says he´s busy so I just see him once a week and the real problems I have I tell them to my previous female therapist, You may ask me why do you keep on seen him? I ´d say because he made me feel special at the beginning, nobody has ever said anything nice to me all my life people said I was fat, and he made me feel special,with his words I could loose weight as I said I feel wanted , I changed but its all a fantasy, I dream about him, miss him and I can´t tell him anything, he told me once I have idealized him in many ways as a brother, as a father as a husband but I can accept it only I want to know if he did something wrong to and if that caused me this feelings I have for him , because I really want to have sex with him, perhaps he knew what I lacked and tried to fill it with his comments about my breasts, my legs, my butts, he said I am pretty and many things. Thanks,

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