Dependent relationships are a rather common phenomenon. But psychological research has paid almost no attention to the problem of dependence in close interpersonal relationships, as compared to the amount of research on alcohol, nicotine, or drug addictions, say Svetlana Skvortsova and Vladimir Shumskiy in their article published in Existenzanalyse, a journal of GLE-International, an international society of logotherapy and existential analysis.
In this study, the authors developed a structural model of dependence in close interpersonal relationships between men and women. It includes both invariant components, which are present in all cases of dependence, such as the loss of freedom, narrowing of values, impersonal attitude to the partner, and variable components, which appear in different cases according to the type of deficiency experienced by the person in such relationships. These are lack of support, lack of feeling in life, and lack of self-respect and self-acceptance.
The results show that gender does not define the type of love addiction. Both men and women describe similar symptoms. The empirical basis for the study was a series of in-depth interviews that were analyzed using A. Giorgi’s phenomenological approach.
Close interpersonal relationships always imply a certain level of connection to the loved one, which means a certain level of dependence, the authors note. In a relationship the partners match up to each other’s emotional state and adjust to the partner’s lifestyle, habits and tastes. But this adjustment is natural as long as the person keeps his or her individuality, personal space and opportunities for self-realization. ‘In fact a person should learn very long how to become “we” without destroying himself. First you learn to love yourself, then – to love a person who is similar to you and after that courage appears to love someone who is dissimilar, a desire to be vulnerable, a drive to struggle to be oneself and at the same time with the other’, the authors say, quoting the renowned family counselor C. Whitaker.
The study includes a theoretical review of approaches to dependent relationships in various schools of psychology, such as psychoanalysis, Gestalt therapy, and transaction analysis. These schools suggest the following characteristics of dependence in close interpersonal relationships:
Skvortsova and Shumskiy also refer to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) of the American Psychiatric Association. It includes a diagnostic category of Dependent Personality Disorder, according to which the key characteristic of a dependent person is increased anxiety due to an inability to rely on themselves and face life’s challenges independently. But the need for support and care, the authors say, is not sufficient and not the only aspect that characterizes dependent relations, which is confirmed by an analysis of in-depth interviews.
The way the researchers selected respondents for interviews shows how dependent relationships can be distinguished from non-dependent ones in practice. Initially, the screening study involved 25 people. They were men and women aged 24 to 40, who consider themselves to be dependent. But for the final detailed interviews only ten respondents who actually are in dependent relationships were selected. They were six women and four men, single and in a relationship with someone of the opposite sex for 1.5 to 7 years.
The criterion differentiating a ‘healthy’ dependence from a ‘pathological’ one, the authors say, was quite simple: the presence of inner consent and decision to stay in the relationship.
Infatuation and love are accompanied by the feeling of inner consent. ‘Unrequited love’ in most cases is not accompanied by the feeling of inner consent; however, there is always a personal decision to stay in the relationship. In a dependent relationship there is neither inner consent nor decision.
The screening study showed that the criterion of absence of decision and inner consent to be in a relationship can be described as a specific ambivalence: ‘I feel that there is something wrong in this relationship, something that does not correspond with me, I am not satisfied, something is going wrong. I do not want to continue this relationship. But, despite all of this, I am unable to resist the impulse to stay in it, and I hope that nevertheless the relationship will give me what I lack’.
The authors comment that such words show a narrowing range of values, when a person’s whole life is focused on the relationship, and everything else is seen as something secondary. In addition, the analysis showed that dependent relationships are impersonal; they are mostly about the relationship itself, not about the dependent person’s partner. The partner loses value, and what is valuable is what he or she can give, what deficiencies they can compensate for.
Narrowing of values and an impersonal attitude to the partner are only two of the several dependence-defining factors that were selected by authors in the list of invariant components. The other components are the loss of freedom (people don’t define their behaviour but feels their insignificance as compared to their passion for the partner) and lack of meaning (when without the relationship they don’t see the meaning of life, but the relationship is also seen as meaningless in terms of prospects for the future).
Dependent relationships are also a kind of a vicious cycle. The dependent person suffers in the relationship, since usually he or she feels disrespect, injustice or even humiliation from the partner. But after the breakup the person suffers even more and has to revive the relationship again and again. And, to some extent, this is similar to vain attempts to get rid of alcohol addiction.
In addition, dependent relationships are characterized by ‘emotional swings’, which means rapid transitions from euphoria to despair, from feeling exceptional to feeling useless and disposed of. This is a kind of ‘burning in the fire of passion’, the authors say. After the final breakup with a partner, the dependent person usually needs several years to get over it, leave the vicious circle of suffering, and the emotional exhaustion.
One of the most interesting common components of dependence detected by the authors in the analysis is spiritual feelings with ‘peak experiences’, which are difficult to describe. These are the feelings experienced by the dependent person during the short periods of ‘good’ relations with the partner. The respondents in the interviews added a mystical note to their descriptions: ‘unearthly bliss of dissolving into something bigger than I am’, ‘it is as though we took off and are going towards something transcendental’, ‘like the doors to another dimension of existence are opened’, ‘it feels like I can die peacefully now’, ‘this experience makes my whole life meaningful’.
‘We suppose that it is precisely these peak experiences that compose the value that the dependent person seeks in the relationship. It is probably the hope of experiencing these feelings again that helps the dependent person to bear this exhausting vicious cycle of suffering in a dependent relationship’, the authors emphasize. In healthy interpersonal relationships such peak experiences occur mostly during the initial period of infatuation, and in stable relationships the feelings usually lose their sharpness, but become deeper.
In addition to the common components of dependence, the researchers detected variable components, which refer to a specific deficiency compensated for in the relationship. A deficiency is understood as ‘inner emptiness’ that cannot be compensated by the person themselves and should be filled up from the outside, by another person.
The results are based on Alfried Laengle’s theory of fundamental existential motivation (FM). The typology of dependence is associated with the kind of deficit on the level of existential motivation within the person for which one seeks fulfillment in the partner. This can be a deficit of support, feeling of life, or self-respect and self-fulfillment. The lack of meaning (4th FM) occurs in all cases of dependence.
The participants’ responses demonstrating the deficit conditions look like the following:
The researchers concluded that dependent relationships are destructive interpersonal relations that can be considered in a clinical context since dependence from a relationship is similar to drug or alcohol addiction described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V).
It is possible to exit a dependent relationship, but, according to Shumskiy, professional psychological or psychotherapeutic help is needed in this case; otherwise, a person can get into another dependent relationship.
The authors believe that the results of this study will improve the effectiveness and accuracy of psychological work with clients who are dependent on relationships and willing to get out of them.