How to Distinguish Dependency Disorder From Love

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Road Less Traveled" by M. Scott Peck. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is dependency disorder? Why is it sometimes confused with love?

A common myth about love is that it is the same as dependency. However, dependency is a disorder in which the need for nurture takes over your life. Dependency disorder is parasitic, not leaving room for freedom. True love is interdependence, a healthy dynamic that thrives on freedom.

Keep reading to learn more about dependency disorder and how it is different from love.

Dependency Disorder Is Not Love

A common myth about love is that love and dependency are the same. Dependency disorder is being unable to feel a sense of wholeness without the certainty that someone else is going to care for you. Freedom and choice are not present in dependency disorder, because it is based on need. When you need another person in order to survive, that is a parasitic dynamic, and in an otherwise healthy adult, a type of mental illness. That being said, we can differentiate dependency disorder from “dependency needs” or feelings. We all want to be nurtured. The problem occurs when those needs run your life. 

A passive dependent personality disorder is characterized by dependency on others to the point that you spend all your energy seeking to be loved or nurtured, leaving you empty of the energy necessary to give genuine love (to yourself or others). Commonalities amongst sufferers of passive dependent personality disorder:

  • They become bottomless pits, always empty, needing, and never satisfied.
  • They can’t be alone and are defined by relationships.
  • They have intense but shallow relationships because they are based on need rather than genuine intimacy.
  • They don’t care who they are dependent on, as long as they have someone filling the emptiness.
  • They are focused on what other people can give to them, and not what they can give to themselves.
  • They have no real sense of identity.

Increased dependency means decreased freedom. Consider the wife who “cannot drive,” and her husband who drives her around everywhere in his spare time. There is a sense of security for both of them because of mutual dependence. He is secure because she needs him, and she is secure because she is being taken care of. But this is not a healthy relationship, nor is it one rooted in real love. Unlike people who suffer from passive dependent personality disorder, people in healthy relationships have habits that encourage mutual independence (like trading off with chores, or routine tasks like picking up the kids from school). 

Dependency disorder impedes spiritual growth because the priority of the dependent person is always meeting their own needs. Growth is neither the motivation nor the goal. Any relationship dynamic based on need is not genuine love. For example, we tend to think we love our pets, but they can’t communicate their thoughts or feelings to us, and they are dependent on us for survival. We have simply cathected them. Not only can we project anything we want onto them, but we can also control them. We sometimes even get rid of pets who have a will that we cannot control (or at least send them to obedience school).

Similarly, you are experiencing cathexis when you are only willing to be loving towards people if they behave the way you want. For example, you should be wary of a partner who treats you like a child or a pet. It’s possible their loving behavior will become dependent on you playing the role they want (no will of your own, no strength, no independent needs, and so on). 

The Truth: Love Is Interdependence

Freedom and choice are not present in dependency disorder, because it is based on need. Genuine love is rooted in freedom of choice. It means knowing you are capable of living without someone, but choosing them anyway. Additionally, genuine love is not just about being giving. Genuine love asks that you use your best judgment to determine when it is healthy to give, and when it might be healthier to withhold. 

To foster interdependence in your relationships means to set strong boundaries (which at first will feel aggressive if you are used to suppressing your needs to meet the needs of others). For example, you’re nurturing interdependence when you tell a family member that they are not entitled to your space and need to knock before entering your bedroom.

How to Distinguish Dependency Disorder From Love

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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