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The Dependency Paradox

Those who know me best understand that I am a deeply philosophical person. One of my favorite topics in the science of relationships is an existential paradox, or what Dr. Brooke Feeney calls “The Dependency Paradox.”1

As I described in a previous post, humans have a fundamental need for connection to others, or “relatedness.” But we also need “autonomy” (a sense of independence and the feeling that we have personal control over our behavior).Intuition tells us that these needs are distinct, and possibly conflicting. But the “paradox hypothesis” suggests the opposite—people who are more dependent on their partners for support actually experience more independence and autonomy, not less. Logically this is a contradiction, but only to the untrained eye.

In a laboratory study, experimenters asked one member of a couple to report how much he/she accepted the other’s dependency (e.g., “I am responsive to my partner’s needs”); higher scores indicated more dependency. The other member of the couple was put in a separate room and given some challenging puzzles to complete. The couples were also given computers to communicate via instant messaging (IM), but this was a ruse. Participants completing the puzzles thought their partners were on the other end of the computer, but really it was an experimenter delivering IMs with direct assistance (hints, advice, or in some cases, solutions to the puzzles).

One might think that the participants with more dependency in their relationships would freely accept this assistance, but instead, the opposite pattern emerged. Those with more dependency actually completed more of the puzzles on their own, independently, and were more likely to reject IMs that contained hints or solutions. Paradoxically, dependence and independence went hand in hand.

In a second study conducted outside the lab, participants listed a personal goal that they would like to achieve on their own in the near future. After 6 months, the experimenters asked participants if they accomplished their goals. Those participants who independently achieved their personal goals (without their partner’s direct assistance) were the ones with more dependency in the relationship.

How can we explain this paradox? One perspective stems from attachment theory, and it works like this: when you are an infant, you are helpless and you have no choice but to depend on others. You need your parents (and sometimes others in your immediate/extended family) to help you learn, grow, and develop into a fully functioning person.3 The same process continues across the lifespan. Babies and children who are confident that their parents are available to support them grow up to function at a higher level emotionally, socially, and academically later in life. That is also why developmental psychologists label “secure” attachment as “autonomous.”4

John Bowlby himself said it best: "Paradoxically, the healthy personality when viewed in this light proves by no means as independent as cultural stereotypes suppose. Essential ingredients are a capacity to rely trustingly on others when occasion demands and to know on whom it is appropriate to rely."5

When I teach relationships research to my students, I especially emphasize this point: if you feel comfortable depending on others (and having others depend on you) that goes hand in hand with independence, motivation, curiosity, achievement, and general mental health.

For more on this topic (and some pop culture references), see this article I wrote for In-Mind magazine.

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1Feeney, B. (2007).  The dependency paradox in close relationships. Accepting dependence promotes independence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92 (2), 268-285.

2Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.

3Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. New York, NY US: Basic Books.

4Crowell, J., & Treboux, D. (1995). A review of adult attachment measures: Implications for theory and research.  Social Development, 4(3), p. 294-327.

5Bowlby, J. (1979). The making and breaking of affectional bonds. London: Tavistock Publications. (Quote is on p. 105)

Dr. Dylan Selterman - Science of Relationships articles Website/CV
Dr. Selterman's research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their partners (and alternatives), and how dreams influence behavior. In addition, Dr. Selterman studies secure base support in couples, jealousy, morality, and autobiographical memory.

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