Emotional Dependency

A Threat To Close Friendships

- - by Lori Thorkelson

"Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life."

- - Proverbs 4:23

Throughout the years, we've realized that one of the most intense struggles

people encounter is the problem of emotional dependency. Emotional

dependency can range from a powerful romantic attachment to another person

to a platonic friendship that has become too ingrown and possessive.

Several months ago, the San Rafael Love in Action staff conducted a special

meeting to research the subject of emotionally dependent relationships.

The results of that meeting, plus insight gained through our counseling

experience, are reflected in this three-part article. Part 1 defines the

problem and looks at some of the set-ups that lead to dependent


Part 1

Mary had spent long hours with Sarah, counseling her and helping her

through the struggles of being a new Christian. They seemed to have a

great friendship with lots of common interests and a mutual love for the

Lord. Sarah felt Mary understood her better than anyone ever had. Even

Sarah's husband, Bill, couldn't provide her with the closeness she

experienced with Mary. Mary and her husband, Tom, had a fulfilling

marriage, but Tom's sales career kept him away from home often. A loving

person, Mary willingly invested her time and caring in Sarah, who really

seemed to need her. It was rewarding for Mary to see Sarah growing the

Lord, and she enjoyed Sarah's obvious admiration.

The shock came when Mary and Sarah found themselves emotionally and

physically involved with each other. Neither woman had ever been aware of

homosexual feelings before. Both of them loved God and cared for their

husbands. Their friendship had appeared to be Christ-centred, as they

frequently prayed and read the Bible together. If what they were doing was

wrong, why hadn't God stopped them? Why hadn't they seen the danger

signals along the way? Now that they were so closely involved, they

couldn't imagine being apart. "What are we doing to do?", they wondered.

What Is Emotional Dependency?

Long before Mary and Sarah were involved homosexually, they'd entered into

an emotionally dependent relationship. Emotional dependency, as we've

defined it, is:

the condition resulting when the on-going presence and/or nurturing of

another is believed necessary for personal security.

This nurturing comes in many different forms of input from one person's

life into another:

% attention,

% listening,

% admiration,

% counsel,

% affirmation, and

% time spent together.

Emotionally dependent relationships may appear harmless or even healthy at

first, but they can lead to destruction and bondage greater than most

people can imagine. Whether or not physical involvement exists, sin enters

the picture when a friendship becomes a dependent relationship. To

differentiate between the normal interdependency that happens in wholesome

relationships and an unhealthy dependency, we'll look at the factors that

make up dependent relationships: how and why they get started and how they

are maintained.

Characteristics of a Dependent Relationship.

We all have a deep need, placed in us by God, for intimate friendships.

How do we know when we're meeting this need legitimately? Is there some

way to recognize when we've crossed the line into dependency? Here are

some signs that an emotional dependency has started:

When either party in a relationship:

% experiences frequent jealously, possessiveness and a desire for

exclusivism, viewing other people as a threat to the relationship.

% prefers to spend time alone with this friend and becomes frustrated when

this doesn't happen.

% becomes irrationally angry or depressed when this friend withdraws


% loses interest in friendships other than this one.

% experiences romantic or sexual feelings leading to fantasy about this


% becomes preoccupied with this person's appearance, personality, problems

and interests.

% is unwilling to make short or long range plans that don't include the

other person,

% is unable to see the other's faults realistically.

% becomes defensive about the relationship when asked about it.

% displays physical affection beyond that which is appropriate for a


% refers frequently to the other in conversation; feels free to "speak for"

the other.

% exhibits an intimacy and familiarity with this friend that causes others

to feel uncomfortable or embarrassed in their presence.

How Does a Dependent Relationship Differ from a Healthy Friendship?

A healthy relationship is free and generous. Both friends are eager to

include others in their activities. They experience joy when one friend

hits it off with another. In a good friendship, we desire to see our

friend reach his or her full potential, developing new interests and

skills. A dependent relationship is ingrown, creating mutual stagnation

and limiting personal growth. In normal relationships, we are affected by

things our friends say and do, but our reactions are balanced. When we're

emotionally dependent, a casual remark from our friend can send us into the

heights of ecstasy or the pits of grief. If a close friend moves away, it

is normal for us to feel sorrow and a sense of loss. If one of the

partners in a dependent relationship moves, the other is gripped with

anguish, panic and desperation. A healthy friendship is joyful, healing,

and upbuilding; an emotional dependency produces bondage.

Set-ups for Emotional Dependency.

Emotional dependency comes as a surprise to most people. Like Mary and

Sarah, they don't see the problem coming until it has hold of them.

However, dependencies don't happen in a vacuum. Definite elements in our

personalities and situations can set us up for binding relationships. Sins

and hurts from the past leave us vulnerable, too. Having an awareness of

these set-ups helps us to know when we need to exercise special caution in

our relationships.

Personality Set-ups: Who Is Susceptible?

Anyone can fall into a dependent relationship given the right pressures and

circumstances. However, there are a few common personality patterns that

consistently gravitate towards each other to form dependencies. The basic

combination seems to be the individual who appears to "have it all

together" teamed up with one who needs the attention, protection or

strength the other offers. Variations on this theme include:

% counsellor / person with problems

% "in control" person / one who needs direction

% parent / child

% teacher / student.

Although these pairs appear to include one strong person and one needy

person, they actually consist of two needy people. The "strong" one

usually has a deep need to be needed. As often as not, the one who appears

weaker actually controls the relationship. We've talked with people who

have been "weak" in one relationship and "strong" in another, and sometimes

these elements aren't apparent at all. A balanced friendship can turn into

a dependent relationship if other set-ups are present.

Situational Set-ups: When Are We Most Vulnerable?

Certain times in our lives find us feeling insecure, ready to grasp hold of

whatever security is available to us. Some of these times include:

% Life crises - relationship break-up, death of someone close, loss of job.

% Transition periods - adjusting to new job, moving to new home, getting

engaged or being newly married, starting university, becoming a Christian.

% Peak pressure periods - final examinations week, deadlines at work,

personal or family illness, holidays such as Christmas.

% When we're away from the familiar and secure - vacation, camp,

conferences, prison, military service.

We're also vulnerable during times of boredom or depression. The best way

to avoid trouble is to recognize our need for special support during these

times and plan ahead for these needs to be met in healthy ways. These

might include sharing our burdens with a small prayer group, scheduling a

series of appointments with a counsellor or pastor, increasing our contact

with family members and most important, cultivating our relationship with

Jesus through special quiet times. Also, there's nothing wrong with

letting our friends know we need their support! Problems only develop when

we lean too much on one particular friend to meet all our needs.

Roots: Why Are We Prone to Dependency?

In a dependent relationship, one or both people are looking to a person to

meet their basic needs for love and security, rather than to Jesus. Unless

underlying spiritual and emotional problems are resolved, this pattern will

continue unbroken. Typical root problems that promote dependency include:

% covetousness, which is desiring to possess something (or someone) God has

not given us

% idolatry, which results when a person or thing is at the centre of our

lives rather than Christ

% rebellion, which is refusing to surrender areas of our lives to God, and

% mistrust, failing to believe God will meet our needs if we do things His


Sometimes hurts from our past leave us with low self-esteem, feelings of

rejection and a deep unmet need for love. Bitterness or resentment toward

those who have hurt us also open us up for wrong relationships. These sins

and hurts need to be confessed and healed before real freedom can be

experienced. This can happen through confession and prayer, both in our

personal times with the Lord and with other members of the body of Christ.

Emotional dependency is a painful thing to discuss. Most of us have

experienced this problem. None of us are exempt from the temptation to

draw our life and security from another person, especially when that person

is handy and cooperative. Dependent relationships can form in opposite and

same sex friendships. They can happen between married couples and between

parents and children. But in the heart of the Gospel, there's a message of

truth that can free us from self-seeking relationships. For a lot of us,

that really is good news!


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