Emotional Dependency in Therapeutic Relationships

I want to start this by saying this is something I’ve been thinking about the past four days – and that this is my take on dependency in therapeutic relationships. 

I do have my undergraduate science degree in psychology but I am not a practitioner and this remains my opinion based on my ten years in therapy with practitioners of different modalities. 

There, disclaimers out of the way. 

The other day a comment on here (well intentioned and out of concern) made me quite defensive – about the possibility of me being dependent on A. Now, the commenter is a frequent reader and I love their blog in return and I want to start by saying I appreciate the comment because it gave me pause for thought and that they are right – I AM dependent on A, in some ways. The comment was made out of concern and has led to a great deal of thought and development for me, so thank you. 

I wondered why I had such a visceral reaction – usually that means I’ve been offended by a nugget of truth – and I think I’ve sorted through it enough to come to the conclusion that being dependent on anybody is something that never felt safe to me. Yet, to do the work I need to do in terms of learning healthy boundaries in relationships and how to express myself – I need to need A. I need to be slightly dependent on her

And this is terrifying. 

So, I thank the commenter for letting me think about this and dive into some deep thoughts and old textbooks about the role dependency plays in trauma work and therapy, and to really answer the question is the amount I depend on A healthy? 

The idea of needing or being dependent – they come with such negative connotation in our society. And really, if you look at some relationships (like my dysfunctional familial one) there is an unhealthy level of co-dependency and neediness there. 

However I think for psychotherapy to be effective, there needs to be a certain level of emotional dependency that is carefully managed by the practitioner. I have a high degree of emotional and relational confusion in my life, with a history of highly unstable, chaotic, and occasionally abusive relationships. I never developed the capacity to deal with my emotions and I don’t have the skills to navigate my own emotional landscape. I spend more time reading others than myself – figuring out the best ways to not make anybody else upset.

In a healthy childhood, we develop these relational skills by having an adult who we are dependent on attune to us and teach us emotional management. I never had that – because my parents are lacking those skills. So now I have to depend on someone else, in a controlled setting, to get it. And that is where A comes in.

She holds space for me, has managed to start to penetrate that emotional barrier I put up with everyone and is teaching me what healthy boundaries and a healthy relationship looks like. 

I am not happy to be dependent in any way. In fact, this realization has made me want to run so fast in the opposite direction. But I think that’s natural. I hate feeling needy because everything about my life taught me that being vulnerable, open, and needy only equals pain. It makes me feel small, helpless, and childlike, and I constantly wonder why anybody would want to care for me. Why I deserve it, if I deserve it, and what she is eventually going to ask for in return.

So am I dependent on A? Yes, I think so. Not in a way that leads to healing yet, as I am incredibly resistant to it. I also believe that this dependency, if managed properly by her, is the only way through this experience. Navigating the emotional minefield – learning from her what is and is not appropriate, establishing my own boundaries, getting in touch with my emotions and being able to name them.

Do I think it is unhealthy? No. I think in trauma work dependency is necessary to rebuild (or build for the first time) faith that I am allowed to have needs and have those needs met in a controlled way.

Do I think that sometimes it can be unhealthy? Yes. I think sometimes if therapists don’t hold their boundaries they can cross a very thin line – and it can result in more hurt for the client. 

A primary example of this was my relationship with Em. We did a lot of important work together – mostly skills based – but instead of the emotional attunement going one way, it went two. I was extremely dependent on her when she left abruptly and there was no constructive discussion around the need or the fact that it went both ways. I never learned how to manage my emotions or deal with them because the environment wasn’t structured. 

And it’s not easy. I think the most difficult job a therapist has is balancing the level of emotional dependency a client has with what is appropriate while simultaneously balancing their own needs and boundaries.

I need someone who is consistent, reliable, sets limits, and sticks to them – someone who holds space for me to explore long seated beliefs and experiences, and someone who understands the role emotional dependency can play in healing but who is aware of the dangers of overdepency in therapy and who has experience managing it. And I’ll continue to look at this over time – and I trust A will as well. 

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18 thoughts on “Emotional Dependency in Therapeutic Relationships

  1. I find this a kind of fascinating conundrum, because we all HATE the idea of being dependent on anyone, and ESPECIALLY our therapists because of all the baggage that comes with that relationship….but if we didn’t depend on our therapists at all, how would that even work? We’d show up for an hour or two a week and talk about whatever’s happening in our lives and our pasts but feel no sense of reliance on them…how could that ever change anything for us?

    You did an amazing job of rising above the defensiveness here, because this is such a sensitive, shame-laden topic. Nikki commented that I’d been dependent on Anna and my brain literally blew a gasket. I think the hard part is to identify when healthy dependence crosses into unhealthy, especially when that probably changes depending on the person and varies depending on their emotional state and capacities at the time. I mean, fuck. Our therapists are expensive but they really do earn their money.

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  2. Isn’t it sort of fascinating that we have to give ourselves permission to need someone? Fascinating and so sad to me, that as kids we learned it wasn’t okay to need. How does a little kid even get that message, when they obviously need to be taken care of? Sad. I’m sorry that you didn’t get the message that being dependent is actually healthy and what humans are supposed to do with each other. Depend on each other. Need each other. Be connected and care for each other.

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  3. AMEN! I love your response. Yes, a degree of dependence on the therapist for a period of time is necessary in trauma/attachment work. Sometimes years. And it is, without question, the therapist’s responsibility to walk the very fine line required to set healthy boundaries while understanding what clients need in order to create a safe, nurturing atmosphere within which healing happens. If therapy goes the way it should, the dependence lessens as clients heal and begin to manage their own emotions better and create healthy relationships to replace the therapeutic one. Unfortunately, too many therapists have their own issues which cause them to be unable to walk this fine line. From what I can tell, A is doing great. Trust your gut about whether you are getting what you need from her. It sounds to me like you are…

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  4. Emotional dependency. This topic makes me soooo uncomfortable. I agree with everything you’ve written here, although like you, I don’t like feeling dependent on Bea, and I typically refuse to acknowledge that. It’s hard to feel that emotional dependency when growing up you didn’t learn to trust that people would be there and support/help/hold space for you and your feelings. (Or at least it is for me). I do think it is important to learn, and that emotional dependency in therapy– to a point, with good boundaries– is needed for trauma and attachment work. It’s okay to need A.

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    • Thank you so much for your last sentence. It doesn’t feel okay to need her, and I just want to run for the hills! Which is so funny because I need to need her and I know that. It is really hard for me too, for the reasons you mentioned.

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    • meant to add: a lesson I’ve learned the hard way from reading blogs and in online support groups is that I sometimes get intense reactions to other people’s posts and it’s important not to jump in with something invalidating, judgemental or hurtful in reply when it’s not my life that’s being discussed. I have to sit back and think about why I reacted that way and what it is saying to me.

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    • I’m sorry for the multiple comments. I feel like I’m digging myself into a hole here. When I said it was important not to jump in, I meant it was important *for me* not to jump in i.e. not comment on BAPS’s comment even though it made me feel protective of you.

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      • Do not worry about all your comments DV! It did make me so very defensive but I managed to separate and knew all along the intent was not to harm in any way. You are not digging yourself into a hole! I figured what you meant but its good to clarify.

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  5. Paperdoll,
    My first reaction is “good for you!!” Being able to stick with our discomfort and defensiveness and dig in to see where it is coming from takes a lot of courage and is a skill that leads to a lot of healing. I also very much agree with your conclusions. I think this is addressed incredibly well in the book “The General Theory of Love.” It was a very important lesson I learned from my therapist and one I also fought tooth and nail for a long time. My first blog post was on this topic. https://boundaryninjatales.com/2011/10/05/boundaries-dependence-and-interdependence/ I just re-read it and it very much echoes what you said here.

    AG

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello AG – It’s so nice to see you around. I remember that post, that you linked to, and just went back and read it again. Your blog was instrumental for me to believe that the journey I was on was the right one.

      I will have to read the book “The General Theory of Love”. Thank you for your comment.

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  6. I was expecting a defensive post but I’m glad that you have taken a step back and thought about it. The defensiveness was a natural response. I think the original comment was out of concern and not a criticism but it’s hard to have what you know is right questioned.
    It sounds like we have had similar upbringings.
    Your posts have made me think about my relationship with my therapist too, so thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I agree with everything you said. It is necessary to a degree, with over-dependency being harmful as you said. But we do have to learn things, especially emotional things, and we need to be dependent on the one who is teaching us. With A, it sounds like a very healthy and healing relationship. And the resistance, I get that, I do that too, because it is scary.

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