Emotional Dependency

Andrew Bunt
Articles 7 mins

It had happened again. He’d left without saying goodbye to me, and it felt as if I had been punched in the chest. As soon as he was out of earshot, I broke down, head in my hands, and quietly sobbed. This wasn’t the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last. I’d become emotionally dependent on this friend and was completely at the mercy of how he interacted with me.

Emotional dependency is a state in which your emotional wellbeing becomes unhelpfully dependent on another person.

As the name suggests, emotional dependency is a state in which your emotional wellbeing becomes unhelpfully dependent on another person. Their words and actions, and your interpretation of them, become the controlling factor in how you feel, and your emotional reactions are often out of proportion to the situation. Often emotional dependency will leave you wanting more from a person than is plausible for that kind of relationship.

Since no one person can meet all our emotional needs, such dependency almost always leads to emotional volatility and negative feelings such as rejection, abandonment, and depression. Often such attachments develop subconsciously, without us realising what’s happening, and for the one who becomes dependent they can be hard to see at first.

Anyone can become emotionally dependent. You can become unhealthily dependent on a friend, spouse, colleague, or authority figure, and the experience certainly isn’t unique to those of us who are same-sex attracted. But as we seek to navigate our relationships with others, many same-sex attracted people, like many opposite-sex attracted people, will face the risk of emotional dependency.

Why do we become emotionally dependent?

There’s no one reason why people develop dependencies on others, but it can be helpful to understand a bit of what might be going on below the surface. Like an army in battle, we will be best equipped if we have some deeper understanding of the enemy.

All of us are created with very real and legitimate human needs, needs to know we are loved, we’re valued, and we’re safe. When things go well in our lives, we know these things to be true of us, and that gives us an emotional security which leaves no need for overdependence on others. But for many of us, we find that these needs aren’t met. Sometimes the cause of this lack is easily identifiable, perhaps the experience of abuse or a traumatic event, but for others the cause isn’t clear, and we should therefore avoid making unhelpful accusations in these cases. When these legitimate needs aren’t met, we naturally look to get them fulfilled somewhere else; often this is a subconscious act.

All of us are created with very real and legitimate human needs, needs to know we are loved, we’re valued, and we’re safe.

Ultimately, these needs are designed to be met by relationship with God. Our relationship with God is where our core needs can truly be met. It is God’s love for us, his declaration of our value, and his protection which are the ultimate answer for our hearts. In a sense, we are designed to be emotionally dependent, but that dependence is designed to be on God not on another human.

This isn’t to say that human relationships aren’t needed or are unimportant. God has made us to need human community and something of his love and acceptance can be communicated to us through these relationships. We should strive to develop healthy, intimate friendships, but while these friendships have an important part to play, no human relationship will ever fully meet our needs.

How can we avoid and gain freedom from emotional dependency?

Understanding why we become emotionally dependent can help us think about how we might avoid such dependencies and how we might break free from existing dependencies.

Get to know God

Perhaps the most important thing we can do is to develop and deepen our relationship with God. It is as we do this that we will experience him meeting our needs. We deepen our relationship with God through gathering with God’s people as part of a local church and through spiritual disciplines like prayer, Bible reading, meditation, and taking a weekly Sabbath. If you want to know how to deepen your relationship with God, find a mature Christian and ask them to teach you.

Get to know yourself

Many of us live with wounds and insecurities which make us susceptible to emotionally dependent relationships. Until we are deliberate about exploring these, we will often not even notice they are there. We can start this exploration through reflecting on our emotions (‘Why am I feeling like this?’), our reactions (‘Why did I react like that?’), and even our patterns of sin (‘Why do I keep doing that?’). All of these are windows into our subconscious thinking.

When we find ourselves in an emotionally dependent relationship, we can explore why it has emerged, asking questions like: ‘What am I looking for from this person?’ ‘What am I afraid of losing if I don’t have this relationship?’ ‘Where am I asking them to give me what only God can give me?’

Some might find it easiest to do this on their own, while others may feel safer doing it with a trusted friend. Some of us may need a bit of extra help and may benefit from the support of a Christian counsellor. When we’ve got to know ourselves better, we’ll be better equipped to help ourselves grow by allowing God’s Spirit to heal us and meet our needs, often by taking hold of truths and promises given to us in God’s word.

Be open with other people

In seeking protection from or freedom from emotional dependence, we’re not actually aiming at independence but interdependence. God puts us in church family to love and support one another, to point each other to him as the one who can best meet our needs, and to mediate some of his love and care to each other. Find people with whom you feel you can be really honest. Be honest about relationships that you think could become problematic and be honest about what you’re learning about yourself, allowing these friends to offer wisdom and encouragement to you.

Develop multiple close friendships

Emotional dependency tends to be focussed on one person, and so a good way to avoid becoming emotionally dependent is to be deliberate about developing close friendships with multiple people, rather than just one. Learn to be wise about your friendships. When you recognise that you have a friend upon whom you could easily become emotionally dependent, think about how much time you will spend with them, whether you’ll spend time alone with them, and how you can protect yourself in the friendship.

Live out biblical love

Emotional dependency is usually one-directional; we look to the other person to love and care for us. Ultimately, we’re asking, ‘What can I get out of this relationship?’ But biblical love is very different. Biblical love is about self-sacrifice and putting others first; it leads us to ask, ‘What can I give in this relationship?’ A good way to avoid emotional dependency is to be deliberate about looking to serve in our friendships and not just to be served.

Freedom for the right dependency

My emotionally dependant friendship became a controlling feature of my life and left me depressed and sometimes unable to function. With the support of a Christian counsellor, I was able to get to know myself better, recognising the legitimate needs which fuelled my emotional dependency, and to deepen my relationship with God, alongside healthy relationships with friends, to gain freedom from the dependency. The journey was long, and it was painful, but it was worth it to experience the fullness of life which comes from being emotionally dependent on God.