The moment you think of a dependent person, an image of someone who's needy, high-maintenance, and passive comes in front. But dependent people aren't always passive, according to a study.
In fact, many psychologists and therapists also thought in the similar way; passivity is key. But dependency is actually more complex and can even have active, positive aspects, said study author Robert Bornstein of Adelphi University.
Bornstein was sent towards a different concept of dependency by a series of experiments he did in graduate school. He paired a dependent person with a less dependent person and set them to debate an issue they disagreed on.
He expected that the dependent person would give in to their peer. But the opposite happened; 70 percent of the time, it was the nondependent person who gave in. So the assumption of psychologists was wrong; dependent people aren't always passive.
The reason, he realized, was that they wanted to impress the professor running the experiment.
"My understanding, based on what studies we've done so far, is that the core of a dependent personality is a perception of one's self as helpless, vulnerable, and weak," said Bornstein.
He believed this often comes from growing up with overprotective or authoritarian parents. So dependent people decide "the way to get by in life is to find someone strong and never let go." That means they want to impress authority figures who might help or protect them later; they also want to maintain relationships at all cost.
The surprising part is that this need to impress can lead to some very active, non-passive behaviour. The reliance on authority figures explained why dependent people are more likely to see a doctor when they have an alarming symptom, and more likely to stick to a treatment regimen or a weight-loss program when a doctor assigns it to them. This can also make them conscientious therapy patients.
Other studies have found that dependent college students have higher GPAs than non-dependent college students.
"If you're a non-dependent person, the general feeling is, 'well, I'll have to figure it out on my own,'" said Bornstein. Dependent students, who are predisposed to seek help from an authority figure, will go to a professor and ask for help," he added.
Another surprising finding was that dependent men are more likely to perpetrate domestic violence; they're so worried about maintaining the relationship that, "When they get desperate, they resort to coercive tactics," said Bornstein.
The study has been published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.