What Is Emotional Dependency and How to Overcome It?

18 March, 2021
This article has been written and endorsed by la psicóloga Laura Ruiz Mitjana
Emotional dependency, according to experts, is a kind of addiction to relationships that cause us suffering. It's a way of connecting with the other person due to a need to be loved and not from a desire. Learn more about this concept and how you can overcome it!

We live in a society where it’s increasingly common to meet people who are suffering in love, immersed in relationships that don’t make them happy, but which they can’t seem to end. Behind many of these relationships, we find people with strong emotional dependency.

But what is emotional dependency really? It’s a way of bonding with others due to the fear of being abandoned, as if we depend on that relationship in order to be happy.

According to Valor et al. (2009), cited in a study by Rodríguez de Medina (2013), emotional dependence is described as an overdependence in an interpersonal relationship, which affects the vision of oneself (self ) and that of others. What else do we know about this concept? We’re going to consult some expert voices on the matter in order to answer these questions.

What is emotional dependency?

Emotional dependency is not easy to handle.
Bad times usually affect the day-to-day life of the person with emotional dependency.

Emotional dependency is an attachment that occurs in interpersonal relationships which can cause real suffering. It appears mainly in couples, but it can also appear in other types of relationships.

The person with emotional dependence feels a great need to help others and to give in to certain actions or opinions. In addition, these people may manifest other specific characteristics, such as:

  • A deficit in social skills and in conflict resolution.
  • A desire for exclusivity towards other significant people.
  • Difficulties in making group decisions and/or in setting limits.
  • Friendship and affection can become a source of anguish and suffering.

Emotional dependence according to an expert

According to Silvia Congost, a psychologist specializing in relationships between couples, emotional dependence, and self-esteem, and the author of 9 books that address this issue, affirms that emotional dependency is like an addiction. In the realm of couples, this involves hooking up with people we feel “trapped” by.

They’re usually couples that aren’t suited to us because deep down they aren’t looking for the same things as us. However, through emotional dependency, as the psychologist affirms, we turn to relationships that, deep down, cause us suffering, but that we’re unable to leave.

In fact, after many toxic relationships, there’s a strong emotional dependence on the part of one or both members of the couple.

“Dependence breeds fear. If I depend on you emotionally, psychologically, or spiritually, I will be your slave and therefore fear you. It’s not an opinion, but a fact.”

-Jiddu Krishnamurti-

What does a dependent person feel?

Silvia Congost sums it up as follows: According to her, an emotionally dependent person is in a relationship that doesn’t make them happy. The relationship isn’t what they want, but they can’t leave it. They feel unable to end the relationship.

This, logically, causes them suffering, but they feel hooked on the “drug” which is usually a relationship based on an emotional roller coaster, with very high-intensity peaks and drastic “drops”, until the next adrenaline cycle.

All this occurs in the emotional realm – they are relationships that cause intense feelings, but also intense suffering. Because of this, they are often stormy relationships.

How to overcome emotional dependency?

Walter Riso (2013), Doctor in Psychology specialized in Cognitive Therapy and also an expert in emotional dependency, has written several books that address this issue. Through a brief guide proposed by the psychologist, we can find a series of key ideas to overcome emotional dependency:

Be clear about attachment and affective detachment

The first thing Walter Riso proposes is that we analyze the definition of these concepts and check whether or not we are clear about what emotional dependence really is. According to Riso (2013), affective attachment is a mental and emotional bond (which is usually obsessive) to certain people.

This bonding stems from the irrational belief that bonding will uniquely and permanently provide three things: pleasure, security, and self-realization.

When dealing with emotional dependence, we will have to review our concepts and clarify whether or not we are aware of what emotional dependence means. Once this is done, we can begin to investigate whether or not we are in a relationship of this type.

Recognize dependence in yourself

The next step in overcoming this maladaptive attachment in relationships is to recognize our own emotional dependency. According to Riso, a dependency is a continuum, and you can experience attachment to your partner to a greater or lesser degree depending on whether you show more or less of some of the characteristics already described.

Some of them (although there are more) include:

  • The urgent need to be close to the loved one or to feel love most of the time.
  • Manifesting withdrawal symptoms if the manifestations of affection or the loved one are not available.
  • Inability to control the compulsion to be with the loved one.
  • Spending a lot of mental and physical time staying close to the partner or object of our love.

Review our own past

Emotional dependence may require therapy.
On many occasions, mental therapy is necessary in order to deal with the symptoms of emotional dependency.

Many times, the way in which we have learned to relate to our father figures is the one that largely determines (or influences) how we will relate to our partners.

We don’t want to be alarmist here, as everything can change for the best and be made to work well, but the truth is that the first attachments in our childhood greatly influence our way of bonding in adulthood.

So, have a look at your past. Try to spend a few minutes reviewing and journaling about how you were as a child. This isn’t about wallowing in suffering, but about grasping the essential things, looking at what kind of deficit you had and being able to work to make a “clean slate.” This can also be achieved through psychological therapy.

Learn to separate infatuation from love

When we fall in love, we all know that our emotional world becomes very intense. Everything seems new and fascinating, and we can easily be very drawn to people who may not be made for us. But, when we fall in love, this is what happens – we lose our mind to some extent and let ourselves be carried away by our emotions.

The neurochemistry of infatuation is fascinating, as it involves a whole series of neurotransmitters and endorphins, such as dopamine or serotonin.

On the other hand, love can be more stable and regular, made up of attraction, sex, friendship, communication, tenderness, and sweetness.

It is much more leisurely, and we could compare it more to building a healthy story –  a relationship that is triggered by falling in love. We recommend that to do this little exercise: try to separate the two concepts. This will help you relativize things and better understand whether or not you are in a process of emotional dependency.

Identify irrational beliefs

Behind emotional dependency, there are many irrational beliefs regarding the concept of love, attachment, bonds… Most of these beliefs keep us anchored in dependency and, in turn, take us away from affective realism. Affective realism involves seeing things as they are when it comes to love.

It involves eliminating the biases and self-deception that we often feel when we fall in love. On the other hand, irrational beliefs have to do with this self-deception, with the tendency not to see things as they are but as we would like them to be. Some examples of them are:

  • “He loves me but doesn’t realize it”
  • “He’ll soon leave”
  • “It’s not that bad”
  • “Deep down he loves me”
  • “I no longer remember the bad things”

These beliefs, in turn, are often based on cognitive distortions, which are mistakes we make when interpreting reality. Cognitive distortions generate suffering, because they “cloud” reality, distort it, and prevent us from acting objectively.

Take decisions

Another key idea that can help us when fighting emotional dependence is to take action, that is, to take decisions. If you’re suffering in your relationship, and if you feel that you’re not enjoying a healthy relationship, then ask yourself what you want to do with your life.

Do you really want to be with that person? Or is it dependency that keeps you “hooked” on it? What do you really want? Reflect on it and take action!

Realize that when you suffer emotional dependency, then you won’t see things as they really are, and you’ll be very influenced by a large number of limiting beliefs. Also, remember that this is an unhealthy way of bonding with people.

Psychological therapy: an option

Another decision you can make at this point is to ask for professional help, so that you can start working on other, healthier ways of bonding with others.

It is a path towards self-care and affective realism that implies building balanced relationships, based on freedom and love, and not on the fear of being “abandoned”.

Start working on you

So, do you suffer almost constantly because of a romantic relationship? In that case, it’s likely that you’re suffering from dependency, as love doesn’t generate suffering. However, an unhealthy attachment certainly does.

If you feel that your way of bonding with others is based on the fear of failing, being abandoned, or being deceived, instead of being based on being happy with the other person and not as something you “need” to be happy, then you may be emotionally dependent.

If this is your situation and you want to learn other, healthier ways of establishing emotional and friendship relationships, then we recommend that you begin to reflect on all of the above. On the other hand, starting a psychotherapeutic process can also help you build relationships based on love and not on need.

A path that is worth it

The road to losing this type of dependency isn’t an easy one, especially for people who have been relating to the other one in the same way for many years. It is something that becomes ingrained within many people, due to affective patterns over a period of many years.

However, when you start working on change and when you start living these relationships in a healthier way, you’ll see how the process will have been worth it. Because that is love. And love is good…and healthy.

“The person I love is an important part of my life, but not the only one.”

-Walter Riso-

  • Castello, J. (2000). Análisis del concepto “dependencia emocional”, Congreso Virtual de Psiquiatría.
  • Congost, S. (2017). Si duele, no es amor. Editorial Zenith.
  • Riso, W. (2003). Amar o depender?: cómo superar el apego afectivo y hacer del amor una experiencia plena y saludable. Editorial Norma.
  • Riso, W. (2004). Pensar bien, sentirse bien. Editorial Norma.
  • Rodríguez de Medina, I. (2013). La dependencia emocional en las relaciones interpersonales. ReiDoCrea: Revista electrónica de investigación y docencia creativa, 2: 143-148.
  • Valor-Segura, I., Expósito, F. y Moya, M. (2009). Desarrollo y validación de la versión española de la Spouse-Specific Dependency Scale (SSDS). International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology, 9: 479-500.