From Normality to Abnormality

Several normal variants of the dependent personality have been proposed, and these include characteristics that many readers will undoubtedly find in themselves. The devoted style (Oldham & Morris, 1995) is caring and solicitous, generally putting the welfare of others first. Similar to the devoted style is the agreeing style (Millon et al., 1994), built around the traits of cooperativeness, consideration, and amiability. Rather than risk upsetting others, they adapt their preferences to be compatible with those around them. Trusting others to be kind and thoughtful, they readily reconcile differences and make concessions to achieve peaceable solutions to conflict.

Healthy variants of the dependent are capable of genuine empathy for others, possessing a tremendous capacity for sustained unconditional love. Moreover, they are among the most trusting people, with a modest, uncritical, gentle demeanor that communicates almost unquestioned acceptance. Easy to please and demanding little, they never set unattainable standards for approval and are almost always encouraging of their mates and loved ones. Most have deep reservoirs of goodwill and are genuinely pleased by the good fortunes of others. Often, they are gracious even to those whom they may dislike. Despite the high esteem in which they are held, the more people value them, the more humble they become. Some are close to what we would consider saints but are simply pleased at being well thought of and embarrassed if regarded as special. Charitable in giving of themselves, they put a positive light on all life events and stress the virtues and good they find in others.

Unfortunately, the healthy and adaptive traits described previously are easily turned toward pathology. Dependents tend to fuse their own identity with that of others, a strategy that certainly carries its own risks, even for those in the normal range. At their very core, dependents hate to be alone. Because their identity is inextricably enmeshed with those they love, the idea of separation causes them intense anxiety, as we saw with Sharon. Whereas most normal persons acknowledge that separation is sometimes necessary for self-actualization, this thought is anathema to the dependent. When relationships end, dependents often feel dominated, used, depleted, and desperate. Having constantly blurred the boundaries between themselves and others, the loss of a relationship is effectively a loss of self. Considerateness turns to suffocation, and the ever-present voice of encouragement shades into a desperate subservience. To protect their investments in other people, they may infantilize themselves and refuse to learn adult skills of independent living as a means of holding onto their significant other. Sharon is reluctant to attend college or even learn how to drive. Some dependents may become so devoid of life skills that it is almost impossible for them to survive on their own.

Another way of contrasting the normal style with the disorder is by constructing more normal versions of the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria (see Sperry, 1995), paraphrased here. Whereas decisions, even everyday decisions, provoke excessive advice-seeking from the disordered individuals (see criterion 1), the style seeks out the opinion of others, weighs the advantages and disadvantages, but makes the decision based on their own analysis. Whereas the disordered require that others take responsibility for the largest part of their life (see criterion 2), the style is comforted by the support of others and enjoys their company but can perform adequately without it. Whereas the disordered often subordinate their own feelings and agree with others out of fear of separation (see criterion 3), the style prefers interpersonal harmony but is able to speak up when necessary and hold their ground. Whereas the disordered lack the confidence to start new projects or carry out their own responsibilities (see criterion 4), the style is capable of functioning autonomously but prefers to work in close proximity to others.

For each of these contrasts, Sharon falls more toward the pathological end of the continuum. She does not seek out advice to add to a database of information that she will ultimately process on her own; she is incapable of weighing the advantages and disadvantages. Better to trust such an important task to someone else. Instead, Sharon seeks advice before making everyday decisions because she would rather be advised by those she wants to please than risk offending them. Similarly, Sharon requires support from others to the extent that she must forfeit responsibility for major areas of her life. In school, she needed Brandy to "make it right," protect her from bullies, and sometimes do her homework. She is not merely comforted by support, then; she is lost without it. In her relationship with Tom, Sharon does not remain silent simply because she values interpersonal harmony; instead, she is afraid of the consequences of disagreeing. Finally, her attachment concerns are so intense that she lacks the confidence to follow through on new projects, such as going to college.

The remainder of the diagnostic criteria can also be put on a continuum. Whereas the disordered personality desires nurturance and support to the point of volunteering to perform unpleasant jobs (see criterion 5), the style is considerate and occasionally self-sacrificing, keeping the best interest of others foremost in mind. Whereas the disordered greatly fears being unable to cope when left alone see (see criterion 6), the style prefers the company of others but can enjoy occasional solitude. Whereas the end of a relationship results in a desperate search for a new partner in the disordered (see criterion 7), the style is nostalgic about lost intimacy but does not immediately seek to merge with another. Whereas the disordered are afraid of being left to fend on their own (see criterion 8), the style enjoys the affection of others as expressed through thoughtfulness but is not terrified of abandonment.

Again, for each of the preceding contrasts, Sharon falls more toward the pathological extreme. Whether the fifth diagnostic criterion applies to Sharon is debatable, because her domestic activities, such as having Tom's meals ready on time, are consistent with the stereotypical housewife role she enjoys. Nevertheless, we can imagine her struggling to keep the house especially clean or making Tom especially delicious meals when the relationship becomes strained, whatever the cost of time and labor to herself. Likewise, Sharon's need for others is exaggerated beyond what is normal. She seems to fear taking care of herself and prefers instead to have someone she trusts nearby at all times. She seeks therapy at the suggestion of the school principal. Tom even has to drop her off at work in the morning and pick her up again in the evening. Time alone is not experienced as solitude, but instead as the uncomfortable shadow of what she would very much like to avoid. Sharon cannot imagine not having a major attachment figure physically present in her life at all times. Although she does not seem to be seeking another relationship now that Brandy is gone, the spirit of the seventh criterion can be seen in the desperation with which she clings to Tom. Finally, Sharon is terrified that Tom will leave her and cannot imagine how she will make it on her own. In fact, it appears that she cannot remember Brandy without thinking about the significance of Brandy's loss to herself.

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