The Interpersonal Perspective

Harry Stack Sullivan (1947) described the inadequate personality—individuals who learn helplessness from parental models and require a stronger person to make decisions. Timothy Leary (1957) systematized many aspects of Sullivan's thinking. Together with his associates, Leary developed the Interpersonal Circle, which describes interpersonal conduct across a continuum from normal to abnormal. Leary's docile-dependent was characterized by a trustful conformity at more adaptive levels of functioning and by helpless dependency at more pathological levels.

Friends usually see the dependent personality as generous and thoughtful, overly apologetic, or even obsequious. Neighbors may be impressed by their humility, cordiality, and graciousness. By denying points of difference and avoiding expressions of power, dependents forfeit control over their own lives, believing that only others possess the talents or experience necessary to navigate the intricacies of a complex world. By acting weak, expressing self-doubt, and displaying attitudes of compliance and submission, dependents seek the complementary interpersonal response from others—namely, nurturance, protection, and displays of strength and confidence.

Beneath their warmth and friendliness, however, lies a desperate search for acceptance and approval, needs that are especially apparent under stressful conditions, as Sharon shows. At these times, dependents seek to narrow the interpersonal responses of others by becoming even more helpless and clinging. Only by being impressively submissive and loyal can they be assured of evoking consistent care and affection. When relationships are genuinely jeopardized, a depressive tone colors their moods, and they may become excessively self-sacrificing, adopting the role of inferior to provide their partner with the feeling of being strong, competent, and superior, precisely the qualities that dependents seek in their mates. In psychodynamic terms, these qualities are projected onto their significant others. Their posture, voice, and mannerisms convey an increased lack of self-confidence. They may speak so softly that they are barely heard. Their facial expressions convey meekness and vulnerability, and they seem to be pleading for help. They may become even more childlike to attract others to their purity and innocence.

Interpersonal formulations of the development of the dependent personality emphasize parental overprotection, overconcern, overnurturance, and active discouragement of autonomy as the major developmental pathways. Newborns are helpless and entirely dependent on their caretakers for protection and nurturance. During the first few months of life, children become attached to persons who provide them with nourishment and remove noxious sources of stimulation, such as a soiled diaper. Adequately nurtured, most children develop a sound attachment to their caretakers, including a basic capacity to trust (Erikson, 1959) and the feeling that the world is a place of security that will provide for their fundamental biological and emotional needs. Eventually, as toddlers, they begin to develop their own independent agency, including a burning curiosity about the surrounding world. As they learn to crawl, they make brief excursions to explore their environments, using their caretakers as a secure base to which they can return for protection and reassurance. As the naturally reinforcing power of curiosity takes hold, children become driven to develop their own exciting potentials. Eventually, children challenge the authority of their parents and learn one of the worst words that a parent can hear: "No!"

Some parents, however, never allow their children to develop independently. Rather than allow curiosity and agency to unfold naturally, they cater to the habits and needs of their children, memorize the idiosyncrasies of their biological rhythms and temperament, and constantly fret over their comfort. In effect, they remove any need to explore the world by bringing the world to the child. Such children are often so pampered that there is simply no reason for them to develop competencies that might generalize beyond the microcosm created by their caretakers. In effect, the increasing sophistication that accompanies psychological maturity fails to occur as normal developmental stages become drawn out over time. Even talking may be delayed. Constant attention to every need and nuance of their emotional state leaves children with little motivation to develop symbolic and linguistic capacities to name the objects they want or want removed. Fortunately, some children eventually come to resent the implicit intrusiveness of protection and successfully develop their own identity through some form of separation or rebellion.

Other children, however, never outgrow early overprotection and remain dependent on the care and nurturance of more powerful figures. Such parents often pathologically discourage independence for fear of "losing their baby." They seldom let the child out of their sight and express anxiety that normal maturational challenges will inevitably be harmful, as if learning to ride a bike or playing on the monkey bars would hurt or strain the child. Rather than let experience be the best teacher, they carry the child well beyond the walking stage, continue to spoon-feed, and discourage any motion that promises greater independence. Many children enjoy the intensified attachment and attention. Sharon, for example, remembers her own childhood as "perfect."

Chance factors may also play an important developmental role. Unusual illnesses or prolonged health issues may prompt normal parents to become overconcerned and tend to their child well beyond what is medically necessary. Conversely, an excessively worrisome and anxious parent may be hyperalert to the real needs of a normal child, resulting in undue attention and cuddling in infancy, followed by efforts to restrict natural curiosity and exploration later. Occasionally, special circumstances may throw parent and child together into an emotional symbiosis, as when one parent goes off to war or suffers some extreme accident or dies.

Parents play the dominant role in creating dependent pathology, but other family members and peer group experiences are often contributing factors. If one child is much more dominant or aggressive, the other may be forced to adopt a submissive posture and run to parents for protection. Alternatively, a hostile or difficult child may inspire another sibling to become the "little angel" who always seeks Mommy's advice and always does what she says, rewarding her attention and praise with warmth and affection. Feelings of dependency may be amplified when children with dependent traits begin school and must separate for the first time from parents who have thus far been their lifelong protectors. Feelings of unattractiveness and competitive inadequacy, especially during adolescence, may result in social humiliation and self-doubt, causing children to return to previous attachments in compensation.

Extending the ideas of Leary and his associates some years earlier, Benjamin (1996) emphasized that the dependent begins life with warmth, care, and attention and forms a normal attachment. Thereafter, however, caretakers refuse to let the child develop autonomy, either because they enjoy the intimacy that a dependent child affords or because they fear that frustration of any kind might result in later problems. At first, the protection and nurturance of caretakers inspires normal trust. Unfortunately, as the child grows older, the level of nurturance and protection remains constant, eventually being transformed into control, what Benjamin calls "relentless nurturance" (p. 227). In turn, control pulls for submission, and at the same time, all efforts to regain autonomy are greeted with blame. The result is a submissive child for whom being controlled is normal and for whom independence violates the standards of previous relationships, thus creating intense feelings of guilt. The child then internalizes the belief that although others are instrumentally adequate, he or she is not and never should be.

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