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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