Dependency in Relationships: Is It Unhealthy?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Attached" by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Is dependency in a relationship unhealthy? Should we be focusing on being more independent rather than relying on a partner for support?

In a society where independence is celebrated, it can make dependency in a relationship feel like a taboo. However, studies show us that having somebody to depend on actually makes you more independent.

Keep reading to learn more about how dependency in a relationship makes you more independent.

Dependency Doesn’t Mean Weakness 

Is dependency in relationships a bad thing? Well, although research into attachment styles is still evolving, we know that the desire for attachment is wired into us. Further, the people we choose as our romantic partners have a huge impact on our ability to thrive in the world. They affect how we feel about ourselves and how much we believe in our own abilities. 

Partners who satisfy our basic attachment needs—our deep-seated desires for security, comfort, and love—unwittingly give us the courage to go out into the world and thrive. In contrast, partners who don’t satisfy these needs may stunt our ability to achieve our goals. They may even have a negative effect on our health. 

The Dependency Paradox

It may seem like a paradox, but dependency in relationships will actually make you more independent, bold, and brave. According to attachment theory, when our emotional needs are nourished, we have no reason to be needy or anxious. In fact, we become much more daring. 

This idea—that people become braver by depending on others—contradicts what most of us learn as we grow up. We’re taught that we should strive for self-reliance. Self-help books and psychology blogs are full of advice on how to be more emotionally independent—after all, needing another person is weak, even shameful. We’re told to focus on our own happiness, to set clear boundaries with our partners, and to look after ourselves first and foremost. 

That’s all well and good if you’re solo, but if you’re in a relationship, it’s counterproductive. 

Brain research reveals a different story. When we’re in a relationship, our brains are wired to crave our partner’s emotional support as well as their physical closeness. If our partner fails to deliver that support, our brains instruct us to pursue it at all costs—request it, demand it, even throw a temper tantrum if necessary. When we go to great lengths and still don’t get the emotional nourishment we need, arguments erupt. Feelings are hurt. Neither partner feels any satisfaction. The relationship sustains damage. 

An Attachment Conflict on Reality TV  

A popular reality TV show provides a good example of how our relationships can make us either stronger or weaker, depending on whether or not our emotional needs are met. In the show, couples dash around the globe and test the mettle of their relationships by participating in adventure challenges together, such as bungee-jumping off bridges and kayaking through rough seas. 

In one of the first episodes, one couple succeeded in several challenges and nearly won the big cash prize, but ultimately they were foiled by attachment issues. When tensions between the couple escalated during particularly high-risk challenges, the woman repeatedly asked her partner to hold her hand. She couldn’t explain why, but she believed that small gesture would give her the confidence she needed. 

Her partner refused to do it. When asked why, he said he was irritated by his girlfriend’s “neediness.”

After the pair lost the race, the woman blamed herself, telling TV viewers she felt ashamed of not being able to manage her fear in high-risk situations. 

The outcome of the race might have been different if this couple had understood the basic tenets of attachment theory. The man would have understood that one small adjustment—the simple act of holding his girlfriend’s hand—would have made a world of difference. Had he been willing to soothe her emotional needs, she would have been capable of bravery. Instead, her anxiety and fear was further elevated by her partner’s unwillingness to reassure her. 

Dependency in Relationships: Is It Unhealthy?

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  • Why your partner behaves the way they do
  • How your attachment style affects your relationship
  • How to distance yourself from unhealthy relationships

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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