What is emotional dependency?

What is emotional dependency?

When we read in an article that a patient presents an interpersonal pattern of emotional dependence, or that depends emotionally on your psychotherapist, we all know in broad strokes what kind of psychopathology they are talking about. Similarly, in media such as press, radio or television, in self-help books, and even in informal conversations, "emotional dependence" appears. However, this term is rarely used in scientific literature and does not have the status of other personological constructs such as "introversion", "narcissism" or "assertiveness", to name just a few acquaintances.


  • 1 Concepts related to emotional dependence
  • 2 Characteristics of emotional dependence
  • 3 Self-esteem and dependence
  • 4 Mood and comorbidity
  • 5 Choice of emotional bonding object

Concepts related to emotional dependence

Anxious attachment

In his work, J. Bowlby describes a special type of child attachment, in which the child has a constant fear of the separation of a linked figure (for example, the mother), protests greatly when she walks away and clings to her in an excessive way. As their own name indicates, the bond that these children maintain is not safe, and this produces in them a continuous state of alertness to the dreaded separation and lack of protection. According to the aforementioned author, the explanation is that these fears are justified because of the frequent history of separations such as hospitalizations in orphanages, hospitalizations, etc .; or recurring threats of abandonment, which Bowlby well describes, can take many forms: from taking the child to a castle full of monsters, to leaving him alone in an unknown place, for giving only two examples.

The anxious attachment or anxiety of separation has been related to adult psychopathologies such as depression and the agoraphobia, and indirectly with the violent or antisocial behavior.

The similarities of this concept with emotional dependence are evident; In fact, this presents the three fundamental subcomponents of anxious attachment: fear of the loss of the linked figure, search for proximity, and protest for separation.

The difference between anxious attachment and emotional dependence it is based on the excessively behavioral approach of the former, that is, in its conceptualization the phenomena of attachment and separation are affectively underestimated. In fact, explicit references to the emotions they occur when the reaction to a successful attachment (well-being, joy) or a frustrated one (anxiety, sadness or anger) is described, so that a greater relevance of the affective component of the bond is lacking. Bowlby gives excessive importance to a timely separation or to the remembrance of threats of abandonment, and they certainly have it, but only if they are one more aspect of disturbed or unsatisfactory family relationships.

In the present work it is held that the affective bond presents a second biological purpose apart from providing security, and it is to emotionally relate individuals to the purpose of achieving a cohesive social organization, and it is this purpose that is directly related to emotional dependence. Here the unmet need is not that of protection and care, the only one invoked in the theory of attachment, but that of affection, and this is explicitly demanded by people suffering from emotional deficiencies. The linked figures are not just "safe bases."

In short, we find that emotional dependents always have anxious attachment, but the opposite is not true, because separation anxiety can also occur for other reasons such as helplessness or lack of ability to function in daily life, as for example occurs in people diagnosed with personality disorder by dependency (see below).


It has long been observed that there are two major types of cognitive styles in depressed patients: one of them focused on interpersonal dependence, the imperative need for affection, or fear and overvaluation of rejection; the other more independent and perfectionist, with ruminations about failure or uselessness. The first of the cognitive styles was called "sociotropy" and the second "autonomy", later becoming considered personality traits predisposing to depression, which interacted with vital events that patients perceived as stressful according to their beliefs and that they had different symptomatic profiles. In sociotropy, the triggering events would be more linked to rejection, and in autonomy to personal achievements. We can affirm that sociotropy has had more acceptance and favorable empirical evidence than autonomy, finding in this construct contradictory findings about its validity.

The laments and the underlying beliefs in a case of sociotropic depression are faithful exponents of the suffering that can suffer a emotional dependent, to the point that we can talk about overlapping concepts. However, in order to fulfill our objective of placing emotional dependence where it belongs, we cannot only consider it as a personality trait that predisposes to depression. A concept that must have its own relevance should not be subordinated to another; It would be like conceiving avoidance only as a trait that predisposes to suffer certain anxiety disorders. Placing a personality trait in the perspective of depression results in neglecting its existence in asymptomatic patients, regardless of whether the term "emotional dependence" is much more appropriate than that of "sociotropy" to account for the fundamental components of need and underlying yearning.

Self-destructive personality

Currently this concept is considered as a personality disorder, characterized by: maintenance of interpersonal relations of subordination; refusal of help or praise; state dysphoric mood and / or anxious; undervaluation of achievements; tendency to pair with exploitative people; poor avoidance of pain; assumption of victim's role; etc. In addition, they have few social skills such as assertiveness tend to suffer from depressive disorders. self-esteem is very low, and hardly experience pleasure in their lives. According to the present work, self-destructive personality has been related to sociotropy and anxious attachments.

The most related component of this concept with emotional dependence is undoubtedly the interpersonal. The description of the submission relationships they carry out, the desire to preserve them at any cost, or the pairing with narcissistic and exploitative peopleThey are also the essence of emotional dependence, which is certainly self-destructive. Other traits are also common, such as dysphoric mood or poor self-esteem. However, there are other components such as poor avoidance of pain, rejection of help, or self-serving and "internal sabotage" behaviors, which are not characteristic of the concept object of the present study.

But the most fundamental difference, set out below, is from perspective. Numerous hypotheses have been postulated to explain this behavior, it has been claimed that the self-destructive behavior may have been reinforced with care and attention in the history of these subjects, but it has been found that it is quite the opposite: when these people were ill they received greater neglect, inconsistency and lack of love.

Many of the hypotheses start from the assumption that these subjects are masochistic (that is, they enjoy pain) or at least "self-destructive", a term that has pejorative connotations, such as blaming the victim. but emotional dependents do not have the goal of self-destruction, much less enjoy pain, but have poor self-esteem, a continuous feeling of loneliness and an insatiable need for affection that lead them to pair with exploitative people, who mistreat them and not they belong to them. This is the fundamental difference with the self-destructive personality.


This somewhat confusing concept was created to account for the various emotional disturbances that occurred in couples of people with substance-related disorders. Although you cannot clearly define a pattern of codependent personalityYes, there are certain identifying characteristics of these people: they become obsessed and worry more about the substance-related disorder - usually alcoholism and drug addiction- that the person who suffers it, with the consequent need to control their behavior; neglect or self-annul; they have low self-confidence and self-esteem; and continuously engage in harmful and abusive relationships.

Apparently, the parallels with the emotional dependence are unquestionable: low self-esteem, subordination, development of destructive interpersonal relationships, fear of abandonment, or lack of ego limits. However, further analyzing this concept, some discrepancies arise. The first is from perspective, and that is that codependency is conditioned by another person, usually a alcoholic or a drug addict, although this concept has also been extrapolated to other situations such as living with chronic patients. Emotional dependents are not necessarily linked to people suffering from chronic stressful diseases or conditions such as those mentioned, and may even be alone. The concept of codependency is placed in the perspective of substance-related disorders.

We cannot configure a homogeneous pattern of the codependent's personality, but self-annulment is frequent in them to surrender and care for the person with problems. Certainly, an emotional dependent can perform the same acts, but with a notable background difference: It will do so only to ensure the preservation of the relationship, and not by that continuous delivery and concern for the other that characterizes codependents. We could qualify the codependents as selfless, their altruistic motives being even with a pathological neglect towards their own needs; being the emotional dependent in the opposite case, focused solely on their gigantic emotional demands. Caring for and surrendering would be an end for the codependent, and only a means for the emotional dependent. In any case, since it is not a sufficiently manifest difference, many emotional dependents paired with alcoholics or drug addicts will have been described as "codependents", which is why this concept is included in the revision of related terms.

Love addiction

Conceptually, we can equate love addiction with emotional dependence. It is one of the new "addictions without substances", although it is possibly as old as the human being. Some studies have studied this phenomenon by comparing it with the traditional model of substance-related disorders by finding numerous coincidences that have justified its denomination of "addiction": irresistible need ("craving") to have a partner and to be with her; prioritization of the person subject to addiction with respect to any other activity; constant concern to access it in case of not being present ("dependence"); suffering that can be devastating in case of rupture ("abstinence"), with depressive or anxious episodes, even greater loss of self-esteem, hostility, feeling of failure, etc .; and use of addiction to compensate for psychological needs.

Characteristics of emotional dependence

As indicated, the emotional dependence as a chronic pattern of frustrated emotional demands, which desperately seek to be satisfied through close interpersonal relationships. However, as we will explain later, this search is destined to fail, or, at best, to achieve a precarious balance. Next we will detail the characteristics that this construct possesses, classified in different scopes. It is necessary to remember at this time that what we know about the characteristics and etiology of emotional dependence comes from the analysis of related concepts described above, especially those similar in their content, and of course the clinical experience with these patients.


In this section we will focus on the Couple relationships for being the most representative, although much of what has been said about them can be perfectly extrapolated to others, with the logical differences of significance that they have for the individual. For example, an emotional dependent may have similar patterns of interaction with a friend and with their partner, but the intensity of feelings, thoughts and behavior will be less.

These are the characteristics of interpersonal relationships, especially as a couple, of emotional dependents:

  • They need the approval of others excessively.Of course, as the link becomes more relevant the need is greater, but there is also some concern to "like" even strangers. The excess of this need sometimes generates rumination about its acceptance by a certain group, efforts to have a good appearance, or more or less explicit demands for attention and affection.
  • They like exclusive and "parasitic" relationships.This is one of the most annoying features in these people, a frequent reason for anger and ruptures. The need of the couple (or friend, child ...) is really a dependency as occurs in addictions, which causes the other subject to feel frequently invaded or absorbed. The emotional dependent wants to continually dispose of the presence of the other person as if he were "hooked" on her, behaviorally similar to anxious attachment. He will continually call his partner to work, ask him to give up his private life to spend more time together, demand exclusive attention from her and still find it insufficient, etc. We must not lose sight of the fact that the underlying motive is not possession or dominion, but the tremendous emotional need of these individuals. In any case, it is understandable the feeling of overwhelm that produces in their partners.
  • Their desire to have a partner is so great that they get excited and fantasize enormously at the beginning of a relationship or with the simple appearance of an interesting person.In his work on addiction to love, Schaeffer compares this phenomenon with the intoxication of alcoholics or drug addicts. Possibly, they are one of the few truly happy moments of his life: when they start a relationship or at least they have a chance of this happening. The excessive euphoria they manifest is reflected in unreal expectations of partnering with someone they do not know well, or in their unjustified rise.
  • They generally adopt subordinate positions in relationships, which can be described as "asymmetric."This characteristic has been studied in research on self-destructive personality. Their poor self-esteem, and the frequent choice of exploitative partners (see the section on "object choice" below) lead the emotional dependent to a continuous and progressive degradation. They have to endure scorn and humiliation, they do not receive true affection, sometimes they can suffer emotional and physical abuse, they continuously observe how their tastes and interests are relegated to the background, they renounce their pride or their ideals, etc. His role is based on pleasing the inexhaustible narcissism of his partners, but they assume it as long as it serves to preserve the relationship.
  • Such subordination is a means, and not an end.It is important to differentiate the altruistic subordination, which can occur in selfless or codependent personalities, from the selfish one, which is what appears here. Emotional dependents are given to receive for their terrible desire to maintain the relationship, just as the pathological player spends all his savings for the irresistible need to continue playing.
  • Their relationships do not fill the emotional emptiness they suffer, but they do mitigate it.We have commented that the few moments of happiness occur before the possibility of starting a relationship, and that is that the enormous expectations that it awakens are not fulfilled later. The couples that form are usually as unsatisfactory as pathological because there is no reciprocal exchange of affection, responsible for the increase in self-esteem and quality of life of its components. However, these people are so unaccustomed to love each other and to be loved that they do not expect love from their partner, they simply obsessively engage in it and persist in the relationship no matter how frustrating it may be. As we will see later, they need tremendously from another person, but in reality they do not know what they demand because they have never enjoyed it properly: affection.
  • The break is a real trauma, but their desire to have a relationship is so great that once they have begun to recover, they look for another with the same impetus. They usually have a long history of ruptures and new attempts. After all of the above, it is inevitable that sooner or later a breakout will accrue, although curiously it does not start from the emotional dependent, but from his narcissistic partner who, as we will see later, seeks a new person to pay him a prayer. To this can contribute the excessively attached behavior of the person with emotional needs, their anxious and dysphoric mood, the paradoxical contempt of the narcissist towards the person who submits, etc. Despite the pathological and unsatisfactory nature of this type of relationship, the trauma that involves the rupture It is truly devastating, and it is often the precipitating event of major depressive episodes - here we would place sociotropic depression - or other psychopathologies. However, "the period of abstinence" leads them to look for another couple again, and thus a true vicious circle is formed.
  • They have a certain social skills deficit.Their low self-esteem and constant need to please prevent them from developing adequate assertiveness. In addition, if your demand for attention towards another person reaches certain limits, they can manifest it without caring about the situation or circumstances, thus showing lack of empathy. For example, an individual with emotional dependence may get angry at a friend because he is not going to visit him, although he argues that the next day he has a very important opposition test.

Self-esteem and dependence

  • They have a very poor self-esteem, and a negative self-concept not adjusted to reality.If there is a common denominator in all related concepts outlined above, it is low self-esteem and self-confidence. These subjects do not want each other because during their life they have not been loved or valued by their significant people, without leaving for this reason to be linked to them. Consequently, the self-concept is also poor, and on numerous occasions it does not correspond to the objective reality of the individual because of his continuing undervaluation. They have, in general, a self-image of losers that minimizes or ignores the positive of themselves and their lives.

Mood and comorbidity

The reason for joining these two areas in the same heading is that they are greatly related, since the mood and its fluctuations largely determine the frequent comorbidities that occur.

  • Your average mood is dysphoric, with tendencies to suffer worries. his facial expression and his humor denotes deep and deep sadness, with logical fluctuations. When they suffer worries they usually revolve around a feared separation (separation anxiety) or feelings of emotional helplessness and emptiness, more frequent when they are not immersed in close relationships. These moods are generated by low self-esteem and chronically unsatisfied emotional needs, without counting on the effects of the adverse circumstances they face when pairing with narcissistic and exploitative subjects.
  • The most frequent comorbidities occur with depressive and anxiety disorders, and to a lesser extent with personality disorders, or substance-related. All related concepts reviewed have a similar pattern of comorbidities, but among them is the sociotropy, created from the perspective of depressive disorders. Emotional dependents frequently have depressive episodes when a relationship is broken, however pathological and unsatisfactory it may be, and thus the concept of sociotropic depression emerged.

In the periods in which your relationships are in serious danger of breaking up, they may suffer anxiety disorders, with the consequent risk of abuse and dependence on substances such as tranquilizers, alcohol, etc.

Later we will propose emotional dependence as a personality disorder, and as such the total or partial simultaneous presence of other syndromes is common. Among them we can highlight personality disorders by avoidance or histrionic.

Choice of emotional bonding object

This term, coming from psychoanalysis, denotes the traits that a person seeks in another to link with him, and is often used in the context of love relationships, as we will do in the present work. Couples or "objects" towards which emotional dependents tend are characterized by:

  • They meet conditions to be idealized.Emotional dependents are not very selective because of their pressing needs, but if we trace common factors in the apparent heterogeneity of their objects, we find one that stands out especially: everyone has a strong self-esteem, often higher than average. Frequently, this feature carries a series of implications such as narcissism and domination that will be detailed later in this section. What matters to us at this moment is that their "superior" position with respect to other people, and especially if they are of poor self-esteem, as is the case with emotional dependents, makes them especially susceptible to idealization. We have commented that people with serious emotional needs do not really expect or seek affection because they have never received it - not even from themselves - and we can add now that they are not trained to give it for the same reason, they simply obsessively attach themselves to an object to which they idealize. Why are you only interested in "idealizable" objects? Because their poor self-esteem provokes in them a state of fascination when they find a person tremendously self-confident, with some success or abilities (although many times they are more supposed than real), and who observes the rest of the world "from above" . People with greater emotional balance look for similar objects to establish symmetrical relationships, but the opposite happens in the dependent, they think they see their savior in the objects that have everything they lack: self-love.
  • They are narcissistic and exploiters. As we have mentioned, the objects generally chosen by emotional dependents are often egotists, narcissists and manipulators. They lack empathy and affection, believe that they have unusual privileges and abilities, and that others should be continually praising and granting them prerogatives. The submissive and tortured character of the emotional dependent does nothing but enhance and perpetuate these traits. It should not be forgotten that the real differences between both components of the couple are self-esteem, and the paradox may be that the emotional dependent possesses abilities and abilities superior to those of his object, although neither of them recognizes it that way. The overvaluation of one pole is perfectly complemented by the undervaluation of the other.
  • They look for a dominant position in the couple.With all the characteristics set out above, we realize that very often emotional dependents get involved in asymmetric relationships, assuming them the subordinate position and the dominant objects. Narcissistic characters are distinguished by their fatness, desire for praise and contempt for others. Emotional dependents are their perfect object: they submit in order to preserve the relationship; they do not "shade them" because of their low self-esteem; they are admired continuously, ignoring their defects and extolling their virtues; they bear and even accept as normal the contempt and systematic humiliation they suffer on their part; they serve to consolidate their position of superiority with respect to the world; etc. In this regard, authors such as Schaeffer affirm that love addicts have "weak borders of the ego", a statement that is subscribed only here for their descriptive and metaphorical value. The truth is that witnessing how a person can be underestimated and subordinate so much to another, sometimes losing their identity and personal criteria, fully justify this type of statement.

Jorge Castelló

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