In recent years, psychology has experienced a significant boom, extending beyond traditional consultations to infiltrate social media and consumer culture. Its increasingly prominent presence has shaped our interpretation of life, becoming a common tool to label individual experiences and the dynamics in our relationships. However, amid this abundance of knowledge, “tips” and practical guides, there is also room for misinformation.

Emotional dependency is one of these concepts of modern psychology that is widely spread on the internet and has become largely integrated into our understanding of relationships. Mainly, it is used as a negative label to define relationships in which certain dynamics are present or the people involved in them. We have all heard things like «this person doesn’t know how to be alone» or «he/she is too dependent on others».

Despite the growing prevalence of individualistic values in our society, it’s undeniable that humans need others in various ways. So, what is emotional dependency really? Have we internalized a truly beneficial discourse about what constitutes emotional dependency?

1. Relationships in the current context: what do we see in psychology clinics?

In my professional experience, it is common to hear people who come to therapy explaining that they suffer from a problem of «emotional dependency» because they feel a strong need to form affective relationships with other people, or because they feel hurt when their relationships go through problems or break down. Sometimes, these people express a desire to achieve total independence, with a narrative along the lines of «I shouldn’t need anyone to be happy».

Entendiendo la dependencia emocional en el contexto actual 2

It is really positive that people are able to achieve emotional well-being without being in a relationship or at times when their meaningful relationships with others are more limited. That a person can be autonomous, organize their life plans around their own desires and decide when to share moments with others can greatly benefit their psychological health. However, it is necessary to be cautious not to fall into a simplified or extreme conception of the emotional dependence/independence dimension.

From sociology, authors such as Eva Illouz have pointed out how the modern era has encouraged us to focus on individual autonomy, placing value on each person’s ability to satisfy their individual needs. This new perspective, although positive in many ways, has also led us to consider the need to form deep and stable emotional bonds as secondary.

2. Can we differentiate between a healthy emotional connection and a harmful emotional dependency?

Dependency, in its most general understanding, implies the need of something in order to live. In Maslow’s famous pyramid of needs, the need for love and acceptance by others is in third place, following physiological and security needs. In this sense, we all need to form relationships with other people, so, understood in this way, «emotional dependency» can be conceived as inherent to human beings.

However, although meaningful and authentic relationships contribute greatly to people’s emotional well-being, we know that they are not always easy. Sometimes conflicts or negative emotions can arise in relationships. From the point of view of individual psychological well-being, we might wonder, should we never experience negative emotions in a healthy relationship? Are these emotions an indicator of emotional dependence?

The answer is not necessarily. Negative emotions and emotional pain are part of life, and although they sometimes indicate the need for change, they do not necessarily imply a break with our relationships with which we associate them. Emotional maturity involves recognizing negative emotions and trying to understand and manage them to the best of our ability.

Entendiendo la dependencia emocional en el contexto actual 3

So, when do we talk about a detrimental emotional dependency? Well, these relationships occur when we enter the relationship from the need for the other person to take care of things that we cannot take care of ourselves, rather than from the desire for mutual accompaniment and care. That is to say, when we look for the other person to fulfill a «role » that, in reality, would correspond to ourselves.

Some examples could be the following: entering into a relationship looking for the other person to repair deep self-esteem problems; looking for the other person to take care of things that it would be good, even necessary, to be able to do by oneself; looking to be always accompanied, asking the other for a total dedication to the relationship in terms of space and time; etc.

In other words, detrimental emotional dependence has to do with the place from which we seek and shape our relationships.

3. Is emotional dependence always linked to a lack of self-esteem?

“Emotional dependency» is often associated with a “lack of self-esteem”. But actually, it is valid to seek validation and appreciation in our connections with others. It is normal to crave belonging and love in our interactions, whether in relationships, family or friendships.

However, it is crucial to recognize that building a strong self-esteem goes beyond external validation. It is not possible to place our entire sense of self-worth or the repair of self-esteem issues on the reaffirmation of the love of others. While it is good to feel chosen and appreciated in a relationship, true self-esteem repair involves deeper internal processes at the individual level.

In any case, the underlying cause of forming emotionally dependent relationships does not always have to do with a lack of «self-love», but there are other reasons, such as strong fear of abandonment or of being alone, family patterns from which we have learned, the constant need for security or fear of uncertainty, or the idealization of the partner as the only source of support and satisfaction.

4. What are the risks of remaining in an emotionally dependent relationship?

The risks of remaining in an emotionally dependent relationship are diverse. These include: the difficulty to renounce the relationship in the face of behaviors that are harmful to the person, including abuse or mistreatment; forming the relationship without any real desire and maintaining it only for the function it fulfills for us; the tendency to adapt one’s own way of being to please the partner; the experience of the relationship from negative emotions, such as jealousy, which can lead to behaviors that are hurtful to the other, such as excessive control; and, ultimately, the risk of avoiding facing the internal problems that lead us to enter into this type of relationship.

Entendiendo la dependencia emocional en el contexto actual 4

5. How can we approach emotional dependency?

As we have seen throughout the article, the reasons why we develop dependent relationships are not generalizable. Faced with discomfort in relationships, the most appropriate thing to do is to turn to a professional psychologist who can guide us in understanding our personal situation, taking into account our inner functioning, personal history and context.

In any case, there are some generalizable processes that can help us to cope with a problem of harmful emotional dependence. On the one hand, the acceptance of one’s own emotional pain and the understanding of it as a human and natural response. On the other hand, self-compassion, moving away from self-blame to observe our pain with tenderness, as we would do with a good friend. Also, taking responsibility for this process of self-knowledge, in order to be able to make more conscious decisions about the relationships we wish to build. Finally, I think it is very important to look for bonds outside the relationship, such as friendships, communities or support groups, in which to reinforce the accompaniment and connection with other people.

About the author

Emma is a health psychologist at Sinews. She treats adults and adolescents who come for consultation for problems such as anxiety, depression, grief, self-esteem, emotional self-esteem, emotional dependency… In addition, she is a specialist in the treatment of trauma. She performs her interventions from an integrative approach, which includes an exploration of primary bonding relationships from the perspective of the attachment theory, as well as an approach to the problem from a cognitive-behavioral approach to the problem from a cognitive-behavioral perspective, using effective techniques according to each patient’s needs.

Emma Chancellor Díez
Division of Psychology, Psychotherapy and Coaching
Emma Chancellor Díez
Adults and adolescents
Languages: English and Spanish
See Resumé