How Dependent Personality Disorder Affects a Family

Dependent personality disorder (DPD) creates feelings of helplessness in those who have it, and their dependent behavior can have a negative impact on their loved ones as well. Without trained intervention families afflicted by DPD may disintegrate over time, but when treatment is provided it can lead to dramatic and positive changes in family dynamics—and this is especially true when family members participate directly in the recovery program.

When a person has dependent personality disorder (DPD), they rely on others to care for them and watch out for their interests. Even as they advance in adulthood they will retain their dependent characteristics, which shape their choices and act as a distorting influence in their interactions with friends, family members, and co-workers.

Adopting a veneer of normalcy, they may get married, have children, and assume many of the life responsibilities such commitments entail. But their feelings of helplessness and lack of self-confidence inevitably erect barriers that prevent them from enjoying a healthy family life.

Through their dependent actions and behavior, they subtly and subconsciously shape family dynamics to trap everyone in their orbit, which makes them feel more secure and protected.

On the surface at least, dependent personality disorder breeds passivity, resignation, and surrender. But people who have this disorder are often so frightened and desperate for attention that they wield their helplessness like a weapon, manipulating partners, parents, children, and siblings into taking care of them indefinitely.

This type of manipulation is motivated by fear of failure and abandonment and not by malicious intent. Nevertheless, it is still unhealthy for everyone involved.

Dependent Personality Disorder Characteristics

It is believed that DPD develops as a learned response to patterns of childhood conditioning and reinforcement. When needy or demanding behavior is rewarded by parents, and independent action is discouraged, it can set the stage for a lifelong habit of dependency.

First manifesting in adolescence or early adulthood, dependent personality disorder will betray its presence through a range of emotional, psychological, and behavioral symptoms. They may include:

  • Indecisiveness, an inability to make decisions or follow them through
  • Reluctance to take responsibility for personal, occupational, financial, or household affairs
  • A fear of being left alone, even temporarily
  • Lack of self-confidence and poor self-esteem
  • Self-centeredness, revealed by a tendency to constantly talk about one’s problems and concerns, with little or no acknowledgement of the needs of others
  • Going to great lengths to achieve validation, attention, or support
  • Passivity in the face of conflict, used as a strategy to disarm the anger or disapproval of others
  • Clinginess, neediness, and other behaviors that reveal extreme dependence on certain individuals

Needless to say, dealing with such symptoms on a daily basis can be exhausting for family members, who must pick up the slack for loved ones who lack the capacity to give as much as they take. Because of their neediness, a person with DPD absorbs the time and energy of everyone around them, often making it difficult for loved ones to take care of their own needs.

Dependent Personality Disorder and Relationships

When someone has dependent personality disorder, their relationships with spouses or partners can quickly become strained by the unequal status of the two parties involved. Most people enter into such relationships expecting authority and responsibility to be shared, and when undue burden is placed on one person it can leave them feeling exploited or overwhelmed, which may cause them to frequently lash out in anger or frustration.

Dependent personality disorder can also interfere with the parent-child relationship. Kids of all ages look to their moms and dads for guidance and support, but when a parent has DPD it can cause the lines of authority and responsibility to become blurred. Instead of children relying on parents, the parents may begin to lean on their children, and that reversal of roles can hinder the natural development of young people unprepared to handle such duties. In this case the caregiver becomes the cared for, and this can devolve into a subtle form of parental neglect.

Some adults with DPD fail to create their own separate families, in part because their needy and dependent behavior alienates potential partners. In these instances, they may remain reliant on their parents or siblings to help them make decisions and manage their lives: parents of adults with DPD are often called on to continue supporting their children emotionally, financially, and logistically, leading to feelings of resentment and disappointment that the adult child with DPD will inevitably feel and react to. This will only deepen their feelings of shame and embarrassment, and make it that much harder for them to find or build the self-confidence necessary to someday assert their independence.

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Getting Help for Dependent Personality Disorder

Dependent behavior takes a toll on everyone it affects, and when one person in the family has untreated DPD it can cause stress and misery for all.

When dependent behavior is observed, the first step is to seek out the services of a mental health professional, who can diagnose DPD and recommend a course of treatment that can ameliorate the symptoms of this unpleasant condition.

Treatment plans for dependent personality disorder will include individual and group therapy, possibly medication if an additional co-occurring mental health disorder has been diagnosed (this is common with DPD), holistic techniques that promote mindfulness and stress management, and life skills and coping skills classes that can show the person with DPD how to change the way they relate to others and the world around them.

But when DPD is present, its impact on the family should not be overlooked. Most residential mental health treatment centers offer family therapy programs as a part of their recovery regimens, and this type of therapy can be highly beneficial to families that have been put under long-term duress by the high-maintenance behavior of a dependent person. Ultimately, the person with DPD must learn to be more self-reliant, confident, and independent, and having the support of family members can give them the strength and motivation they need to pursue recovery with vigor and determination.

Men and women who’ve struggled with dependent personality disorder need liberation from the worst effects of this condition, but so do the ones they love, and that is most likely to happen when treatment and recovery become cooperative ventures.