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False Forms of Love: Relational Dependencies

Synopsis: This mini-love lesson looks at relational dependencies as unneeded crutches; explores how dependency does not mean love; lists seven major relational dependency characteristics; looks at co-dependency and its five main symptoms; then goes into disguised relational dependencies, dual dependency and the cure of this false form of love.

Unneeded Crutches

To understand relational dependencies think of a person with two perfectly good legs walking around using crutches and thinking they can’t walk without them.  Sometimes the person uses the crutch so much that a leg atrophies with lack of use, and then that person really can’t walk without the crutch, unless of course that person gets rehabilitation therapy.  Thus, it’s the same with relational dependencies which can operate like a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Now, think of a person who keeps using a crutch until it breaks, and a painful fall occurs, and then they go get another crutch and do it all over again.

Dependency Doesn’t Mean Love

Some people just don’t feel OK unless they are in a dependency-based, romantic type relationship.  For some of those people any kind of romantic relationship is better than no relationship, no matter how bad the relationship is or how destructive it gets.  They often misidentify their dependency relationship as true love.  Frequently they say things like “I’ll commit suicide if I lose him (or her) because I can’t live without them”, “He’s (or she’s) all I’ve got”, “I don’t have anywhere else to go” and “It’s bad but being alone would be worse”.

Sometimes a relational dependency isn’t that awful, and for some it rocks along fairly well but the full potential of love is not realized.  Sometimes there is relational dependency and a real love grows in the relationship slowly replacing the dependency, but not often.  Relational dependencies come in a great many varieties and some are more psychologically ‘heavy-duty’ than others.

Let’s look at a few mini-examples.  Martha seems addicted to getting married so she’s on her eighth trip to the altar.  Jason is so afraid of being without a woman he always is cheating on his current, main squeeze just in case she leaves him.  Clara can’t leave Mike even though the authorities have taken her children away because he violently abuses them, as well as her.  Kristen is desperate to get married because she firmly believes marriage is the only thing that makes a woman OK.  Thomas cannot feel he is really a man without a ‘trophy wife’ on his arm who is always instantly available.

Sally panics if she doesn’t have a date for the weekend, and gets very depressed if they don’t have sex at least once by the end of the date.  Clancy needs his wife to treat him just like his mother did or he completely malfunctions; he can’t go to work or do much of anything else.  Georgia has to have a lover to take care of, pamper and baby and she has anxiety attacks whenever her lover does anything the least bit independent of her.

As you can see, relational dependencies take on many forms.  There are, however, certain basic similarities they all share. Here are seven characteristics of this false form of love known as relational dependency.


1. Dysfunctionally Dependent

    Being emotionally over dependent on a relationship and not being able to function without it; also not being able to emotionally feel sufficient, adequate, safe or generally OK about one’s self and one’s ability to handle life without being subordinately, personally connected to another person, or being in a particular type of relationship situation i.e. marriage, romance, having an ongoing sexual connection, being continuously wanted, sought after, etc.

2. Fear-based

    The dependency relationship is more fear-based then love-based, i.e. the fear of not having the relationship, being rejected, abandoned, unwanted, or the fear of being without the desired relationship situation governing, motivating and directing actions, thoughts and feelings more than healthy, real love does.

3. Destructive

    The dependency relationship becomes more destructive than constructive in a variety of important ways for one or all parties involved, and there is a blocking or hampering of healthful, personal growth and improvement for at least one of the participants.

4. Low self-love

     There is an insufficiency of healthy self-love which includes low self-esteem, low self approval, low self dependency and low self-confidence in at least one participant, and the relationship does not work to produce sufficient, solid, healthy self-love, thus, the destructiveness in the dependency is continued and worsens.

5. Unhealthy Self Sacrifice

    The well-being of at least one participant is frequently unhealthily sacrificed for the sake of peacekeeping, being the prime important source of care-taking, pleasing and pleasuring of another participant, or to obtain and maintain a desired relationship condition or situation i.e. stay together, stay married, keep an acceptable status or appearance to outsiders, etc.

6. Outer Locus of Control

    The locus of one’s own life control is not ‘within the self’ in at least one of the relationship participants but rather is in another participant, or in obtaining and maintaining an outer-oriented relationship condition or situation to the detriment of the inner well-being of at least one relationship participant.

7. Childhood Dependency Repeated

    The dependency relationship subconsciously repeats childhood-dependency and is related to fixated-immaturity and often to unresolved, insufficient, imbalanced and/or traumatized love relationship dynamics in childhood resulting in emotional neediness and an underdeveloped ability to love healthfully and maturely.


Many people have thought that co-dependency may be the most common and one of the most destructive forms of relational dependencies.  For a time co-dependency received a lot of attention, and for a while it seemed to be the popular, fad ‘psychological problem of the day’.  It still is a much dealt with issue in the 12 Step Community and in certain other therapeutic circles. As such it does deserve special consideration in understanding false forms of love.

Originally co-dependency referred to a problematic, relationship dynamic in which a person was dependent on a lover, who in turn was addictively dependent on an addictive substance or an addictive behavior.  The most common substance was alcohol and, thus, co-dependency was seen as a big part of many alcoholic’s ‘package of problems’.  Narcotics and prescription drug addictions, gambling addiction, sex addiction and a host of others also became part of the co-dependency, psychopathology picture.  Consequently the co-dependent person depends on an alcoholic (or another addict), therefore, in a way, also is dependent on alcoholism which influenced and governed both their lives.  Hence, the term co-dependence.

The term has since been applied to all sorts of other dependency dynamics and factors in love-like relationships.  Many diagnostic and therapeutic approaches, techniques and programs have been invented to deal with it.  There are those who think the term co-dependency has been applied far too broadly and capriciously and, thus, it has lost both its meaningfulness and its usefulness.  Others disagree and are working with many patients and clients in the context of co-dependency.

Today co-dependency usually is seen as having  five basic symptoms.  Briefly stated, they can be described as follows:

1. Difficulty in having sufficient, healthy self-love

2. Difficulty in setting and keeping sufficient, self-protective boundaries leading to being vulnerable to personal invasion, abuse, misuse, and being destructively influenced by others

3. Difficulty in knowing oneself, what one wants, what’s good for oneself, what one really needs, what’s going wrong or right, and what is one’s purpose in life.  Consequently, there is a danger of being taken over and misused by more manipulative, deceptive, sometimes seemingly needy persons or by a more dominant, authoritarian who offers a sense of safety and ‘right answers’

4. Difficulty in self-care and being self-directed, therefore, the co-dependent often is manipulated or directed by others into needless self-sacrifice which benefits others at the dangerous expense of self

5. Difficulty in self-control, especially in healthful self-moderation and, thus, excessive and extreme emotionality, irrational cognition and unsuccessful behavior occur which have a destructive effect on individuals and relationships

To understand co-dependency more fully I egotistically  recommend my book, Recovering Love, Part One which has to do with going from co-dependency to co-recovery and which is now available hardback, softback and in e-book form.

Disguised Relational Dependencies

Sometimes relational dependency gets quite well disguised and is hard to identify.  Here’s an example.  Ellen finally developed enough self-love to confess that she was faking being a sickly invalid in order to keep her husband in their marriage.  Repeated hospitalizations, many doctor’s visits, treatments of all sorts, health crises and thousands of dollars were spent, usually in response to Ellen feeling she was again in danger of losing her man.  Ellen felt completely inadequate compared to her husband who was outgoing, charming, extroverted and popular.

She decided being sick and helpless was the only way to keep him around since he was so highly ethical he never would abandon her, so long as she remained weak and infirm.  With self-love development Ellen saw that she no longer needed to live in a dependency role, that she was not well suited to her husband or he to her, and by her choice and his agreement they divorced and she went on to a much healthier life.

Sometimes sex plays a big role in the false form of love known as a Relational Dependency. Here’s an example. Vince knew he had to keep up with his highly sexed and very attractive wife or he would lose her to someone far more masculine than he saw himself to be.  Therefore, he went along with her demands for getting into swinging, bondage, S&M, orgies and other bizarre, dangerous sex practices.

He lived in fear that one day she would find a better sex partner than he was, so he put up with anything and everything until one day he was surprised to hear her say she was burned out on sex and wanted to try celibacy.  She was puzzled by how easily he agreed and by how relieved he seemed to be.  That led to honest self-disclosure of real feelings and exploring all sorts of new ways to relate to each other. When last seen in counseling, they were excited about getting into boating and spelunking together, and their sex life had come back in a much more simplified form.

Dual Dependencies

Some relational dependencies are mixed with substance abuse or addiction, behavioral addictions and other forms of destructive dependency.  This dual or multiple dependency problem seems to readily occur in some highly dependent people.  Being overly dependent on other types of relationships such as being too unhealthily connected to one’s parents, or children, or family, or religion, or authoritarian political movements, or any group that seems to offer unrealistic safety and security.  All those can exacerbate and complicate the problems of relational dependency.

No small number of people feel they are too inadequate to be independent or live as self-dependent adults.  Consequently they may be drawn into dependency relationships of various types including those that supposedly offer romantic love and security.  It is intriguing that many people who are cognitively challenged in one way or another, or who have some form of dysfunction due to injury or illness, fully believe and rely with confidence on their own judgment and are the best directors of their own life.  At the same time other people who actually are more fully mentally or physically capable may operate with far too little self-dependency.  It seems to mostly be a matter of the programming people receive as they grow up.

A number of people have been raised to believe the right way to live is to be highly dependent on some ‘outer’ authority.  Consequently self-dependency and democratic, egalitarian relating comes hard for them.  Learning to depend on one’s own reasoning, intuition, feelings, judgment or inner wisdom and at the same time live in relationship to others doing the same can be quite a struggle.  People who have not learned these things seem to be extra susceptible to romantic, relational dependency and the false forms of love that lead away from healthy, real love.

Another common category are those who can be called overly socially dependent.  Often these are people who are in a love-like relationship, mostly for safety reasons, but their secondary dependency has to do with living far too afraid of what others may judgmentally say or think of them.  Sadly they live far too fear-based and conformist-confined.  These can be co-dependents that may tend to stay in empty and unfulfilling marriages.

Another very important special category of relational dependency involves finances and with it material and lifestyle dependency.  In more traditional, some would say ‘old-fashioned’, relationships one person is the ‘earner’ and the other the ‘homemaker’; both are contributors to their relational life but their status and respect is unequal.  There’s a similar type of division which also is quite common among the very well-to-do.  Financial dependency on a romantic or marriage partner can lead to, or add to, emotional dependency.

People who are not financially able to be self dependent often live with a sort of background fear that if they don’t sufficiently please their spouse they will be abandoned and destitute.  That can lead to secret resentment, passive aggressive attacks and a host of related difficulties.  Whenever there is a ‘two earner’ arrangement things usually seem to work better in regard to co-dependency issues unless one ‘earner’ makes a lot more money than the other.

The Cure

The cure for relational dependency forms of false love usually involves two major things.  First is the development of healthy, self-love and with it increased emotional self-dependency.  From that flows the courage to communicate one’s ‘scary to reveal’ truths.  The tools of love and the tools of truth have to be integrated and well used often to defeat many forms of relational dependency.  That frequently involves considerably hard work.  However, with that work relational dependencies change into reliance on real love, and for healthy living that’s what really works.

Remember Ellen.  Had she, early on, been able to tell her husband the truth about feeling too inadequate to hold his interest and his alliance (except through feigned illness) it might have saved them ever so much misery, not to mention time, energy and money.  Had Vince been able to ask his wife to try other couple involvements besides just those that were sexual, they might have had a much broader, and more fulfilling, and certainly less fear-based and compulsivity-based love life together sooner.

Some relational dependencies in some people cure easily and quickly.  Others take considerable effort and longer stretches of time.  The more destructive forms of relational dependency require talented therapists who are well educated and experienced in both treating dependencies and the knowledge of how to help healthy, real love grow and be maintained.  If you suspect you or someone you care about may be suffering from a relational dependency, false form of love you may want to think about finding a love knowledgeable therapist.

Perhaps the best way to do that has to do with checking out those therapists that hold the credential ‘Clinical Fellow’ of a national association for marital and family therapy or a similar credential, or those who are Professional Members of the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors.

As always, Go and Grow with Love

Dr. J Richard Cookerly

Love Success Question
How good do you see yourself at self-dependency emotionally and every other way, and are you also good at the teamwork of democratic, egalitarian interdependency?

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