I define dependency as the inability to experience wholeness or to function adequately and morally without the certainty that one is being actively cared for by another.
Dependency in physically healthy adults is pathological. It is sick. It is always a manifestation of mental illness or defect.
We all—each and every one of us—even if we try to pretend to others and ourselves that we don’t—have some dependency needs and feelings. We all have the desire to be babied, to be nurtured, to be cared for by persons stronger than us who truly have our best interests at heart. No matter how strong or mature or responsible or caring we are, if we look honestly and clearly into ourselves, we will all find the wish to be taken care of once in a while for a change. And each one of us, no matter how mature and evolved, still looks for and would like to have in his or her life, a satisfying mother figure and father figure.
But for most of us, these desires or feelings do not rule our lives. They are not the predominant theme of our existence.
When they do rule our lives and dictate the quality of our lives and our relationships, then we have something more than just dependency needs or feelings: we are dependent. And we have a psychiatric disorder.
Specifically, a person’s who life is ruled and dictated by dependency needs and insecurity suffers from a psychiatric disorder to which we ascribe the diagnostic name “Passive Dependent Personality Disorder.”
It is perhaps the most common of all psychiatric disorders.
(Peck was writing this in 1979. Since then, Passive Dependent Personality Disorder has been revised and replaced, and no longer appears in the DSM. Much, if not all, of what Peck is describing in this excerpt would now fall under the diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, which is now one of the most common [and most difficult to treat] personality disorders.)
People with this disorder—passive dependent people—are so busy seeking love that they have no energy left to love. They are like starving people, scrounging wherever they can for food, and with no food of their own to give others. It is as if within them they have an inner emptiness, a bottomless pit crying out to be filled but which can never be filled, except very temporarily. Hence they never feel “full-filled” or have a sense of completeness or adequacy or ok-ness. Hence they are always insecure, even distrustful; sometimes even paranoid. They always feel as if a part of themselves is missing. They tolerate loneliness very poorly and are prone to boredom. Because of their lack of wholeness, they have no real sense of identity or of who they really are, and so they define themselves solely by their relationships.
Rapid emotional changeability is characteristic of passive-dependent individuals. It is as if it does not matter upon whom they are dependent as long as there is just someone.
And it does not matter what their identity is as long as there is someone or something to give it to them.
Consequently their relationships, although seemingly dramatic in their intensity, are actually extremely shallow and other people are actually very disposable and interchangeable for them.
The word “passive” is used in conjunction with the word “dependent” in the diagnosis because these individuals concern themselves with what others can do for them to the exclusion of what they themselves can do. This is not to say that passive-dependent people never “do” things for others, but their motive in doing things is to cement the attachment of others to them so as to assure their own care.
And when the possibility of care from another is not directly involved, they have great difficulty in doing things.
Passive dependency has its genesis in a lack of love. The inner feeling of emptiness from which passive dependent people suffer is the direct result of their parents’ failure to fulfill their needs for affection, attention, security, and care during their childhood.
Children who are loved and cared for with relative consistency throughout childhood enter adulthood with a deep-seated feeling that they are lovable and valuable and therefore will be loved and cared for as long as they remain true to their best selves (what’s best in them).
However, children growing up in an atmosphere in which love and care are lacking or given with gross inconsistency enter into adulthood with no such sense of inner security, no sense of inner identity, and no real sense of what’s best in them. Rather, they enter into adulthood with an intense inner sense of insecurity, a feeling of “I don’t have enough,” a sense of I don’t know who I am or who I’m supposed to be, as well as a sense that the world is unpredictable and frightening. It is no wonder, then, that they feel the need to scramble for love, attention, care-taking, wherever they can find it, and once having found it, cling to it with a desperation that leads them to all sorts of unloving, manipulative, Machiavellian behavior that undermines and destroys the relationships they seek to preserve and be nurtured by. (They also reject these same relationships just as desperately because their excessive neediness and dependency makes them feel even worse about themselves and even more vulnerable, and since they are already distrustful of others and even themselves and life itself in general, this distrust only compounds their unhappiness, insecurity, self-protectiveness, and erratic-ness.)
Unloving, uncaring, inconsistent, addicted parents are people fundamentally lacking in self-discipline. And so when they fail to provide their children with a sense of being loved, they also fail to provide them with a capacity for self-discipline and impulse control.
Thus the excessive neediness and emptiness and dependency of passive-dependent individuals is only the principal manifestation of their personality disorder. Passive-dependent people also crucially lack self-discipline. They are unwilling or unable to delay gratification of their hunger for attention and security. In their desperation to form and preserve attachments they throw honesty to the wind. And they cling to unhealthy relationships with their parents, hoping that maybe they will eventually get the consistent love and attention and care-taking they desperately crave the second, third, even fourth time round, when they should give up these toxic relationships and enter into therapy.
Most importantly, passive-dependent people lack a sense of responsibility—not only for their words and actions, but for themselves and their own happiness and attitude. They passively look to others—frequently even their own children—as the source of their happiness and full-fillment, and therefore when they are not happy or fulfilled they “feel” that others are responsible, and act out on this feeling. Hence, they are endlessly angry and unhappy, because they endlessly feel let down by others who can never fulfill all their endless neediness or make them happy.
One final significant aspect of dependency is that it is unconcerned with spiritual growth. A passive-dependent person may talk a lot about spiritual growth, but really, he or she is not concerned. Dependent people are interested only in their own nourishment, but nothing more; they desire filling, they desire to be happy, but they do not desire to grow and mature, nor are they willing to tolerate the unhappiness, the loneliness, the deferring of gratification, and the suffering involved in real growth. (The nourishment and “spirituality”—pseudo-spirituality, really—that passive-dependent people are interested in is the quick and easy and effortless type—quick easy fixes, half-baked solutions, the path of least resistance.)
In summary, dependency may appear to be love because it is a force that causes people to fiercely attach themselves to one another. But in actuality it is not love; it is a form of antilove. It has its genesis in a parental failure to love and it perpetuates the failure. It seeks to receive rather than to give, to exploit rather than to nurture and to grow. It works to breed immaturity and infantilism rather than maturity, respect, goodness, love, virtue, decency, and growth. And ultimately it destroys rather than builds relationships, and it destroys rather builds people.
(Abridged and adapted from “The Road Less Traveled,” pp. 98-106.)
(See also this related post: http://theplacesthatscareyou.wordpress.com/2011/06/16/the-vicious-cycle-%e2%80%93-abuse-in-childhood-and-limited-or-impaired-self-capacities-affect-regulation-skills-and-avoidant-behaviors-in-adulthood/