According to classical psychoanalytic theory, the dependent personality is characterized by fixation during the oral stage, the first stage of psychosexual development. Because character types were named after their respective stage of psychosexual fixation, the dependent personality is usually called the oral character in classic psychoanalytic theory (Abraham, 1927c). Whereas the relationship between psychosexual fixation and subsequent personality traits seems rather obscure for some character types, for the oral character it was believed to be relatively straightforward. Because the role of the mouth in adult life has always been approved and accepted, oral characteristics could be more easily expressed without first requiring great transformations to mask them and make them acceptable. Thus, it is relatively self-evident that oral characters should enjoy eating, talking, and other forms of oral stimulation.
As with all psychosexual character formation, fixation occurs either through indulgence, leading to oral-receptive traits, or frustration, leading to oral-sadistic qualities. If the mother was always available to nurse her infant, the resulting intense gratification was assumed to lead to an optimistic spirit not easily shaken. However, it could also produce passiveness and inactivity, reflected in the implicit belief that some mother figure would always be available to meet the individual's needs. In effect, such children grow into adults who have never been weaned. Symbolically, they expect their mother's breast to just keep on giving, and they feel completely helpless, even astonished, when it stops. Although her relationship with Tom is now in jeopardy, Sharon would seem to be very much an oral character. She has been optimistic for most of her life that others will always offer themselves to meet her needs and she need never be weaned into adult independence.
In contrast, frustration during the oral stage was believed to result in an enduring ambivalence between hunger and hostility. Such children are unsure whether to nurse or bite. As adults, they seem to always require something more but remain hostile even when their needs are met. The psychoanalytic idea of oral fixation thus leads to a connection between the dependent and negativistic (passive-aggressive) personalities. Later psychoanalytic thinkers generalized Abraham's basic thesis beyond the nipple. Fenichel (1945), for example, argued that fixation in the oral stage led to identification with the caretaker, resulting in an inability to care for oneself, but also a desire to become a mother figure to others.
Dependent personalities tend to emphasize two defense mechanisms. As a result of their desire to remain childlike, they fail to develop the more mature defenses of normal adults. The first defense mechanism is called introjection, which literally means "to put inside," hence their need for fusion with more powerful and instrumentally
Focus on History
Karen Horney's descriptive eloquence is perhaps without peer, but it is difficult to sum up concisely what she regarded as the major solutions to life's basic conflicts. Although her primary publications were written over a short period, she sometimes used different terms to represent similar conceptions.
Considering the insecurities and inevitable frustrations of life, Horney identified three broad modes of relating: moving toward others, moving against others, and moving away from others. Those who move against others are aggressive types with expansive solutions; they glorify themselves and rigidly deny weakness and inadequacy. Those who move away from others have become alienated from life; they achieve peace, not by investing themselves in any aspiration, but by curtailing needs and wishes. By employing neurotic resignation, they go through each day as detached onlookers.
Those who move toward others, the parallel to the dependent personality in Horney's schema, are compliant and self-effacing. They have a marked need for affection and approval, along with a willingness to forgo self-assertion. Because their self-esteem is determined by the opinions of others, they subordinate their own desires, sometimes to the point of self-accusation, helplessness, passivity, and self-belittlement. For them, love solves all problems.
competent others. When dependents look inside themselves, they see inadequacy and incompetence, reflecting their basic lack of skills and knowledge. Such insights in turn provoke feelings of worthlessness and, moreover, an existential terror at the possibility of being left alone to care for themselves; this is what Sharon feels now.
To escape this terror, dependents seek to incorporate the presence, strengths, and competencies of a stronger figure. The bond achieved is much more than the average relationship. First, dependents seek to put the other person's identity inside themselves to create an amalgamation of weaker and stronger, of incompetence and skill, of worth-lessness and confidence. In the economics of the relationship, the dependent borrows strength, ability, and self-esteem in exchange for a willingness to serve the goals of another. Thus, dependents tend to become like their partners, whose identity and needs become their own.
Second, dependents tend to idealize their partners. No longer are their partners human beings with their own strengths, foibles, and frailties; instead, they may become superhuman protectors with near omnipotent power to provide a safe haven that keeps the dependent from harm. As young children, we all pass through a period during which we believe our parents are omnipotent and omniscient. Parents have the power to make it snow, the wisdom to make it stop, and the money to buy us whatever we want for our birthdays. And because they are all-knowing and all-loving, we can always trust that their actions will work toward our good, at least in the end. As our first case notes, Sharon describes her childhood as traditional and perfect, with her father being the strong figure on whom the family relied. As a little girl looking up to her daddy, he must have seemed the very incarnation of strength and ability.
The idealization of attachment figures is a normal part of growing up. Though we inevitably discover that our parents are not the infallible beings we thought they were, idealization lives on as romantic love. Surely no one is as perfect as your romantic partner. When Sharon met Tom, for example, he reminded her of her father, her previous prototype of strength. Eventually, most people work through their fantasies of idealization and see their girlfriend or boyfriend, spouse, or lover in the light of realism. At that point, it is time to work on the relationship, as Tom and Sharon have discovered. Dependents, however, outgrow their early idealization only with difficulty. They continue to inflate their partners much in the same way and for much the same purpose that the narcissistic personality inflates the self. In part, their awe of their protectors can be seen simply as a by-product of an artificially delayed development. However, it also transmits worth to the dependent, for if this quasi-deity, someone important and valuable, loves the dependent, then he or she must also be valuable. For Tom and Sharon's relationship, this means that Sharon has worth because Tom, being the amazing person that he is, loves her. Someone of his importance and brilliance would never squander his love on an undeserving person. In addition, the illusion further strengthens dependents' belief that their protector has the power to keep them safe from harm.
This is a principal reason that dependents are often so completely devastated when relationships end. In effect, abandonment becomes the final verdict of someone whose opinion they have previously accepted as unquestioned truth. Should the marriage fail, Sharon may experience the divorce as not only a break from Tom but also an abandonment by everything Tom symbolizes, including her father. In effect, she is being abandoned by an introjected ideal that forms an important cornerstone of her identity. If she cannot succeed in therapy in drawing a distinction between Tom and this internalized image, the future may prove particularly crushing.
Another way of coping with a problematic, hostile world is simply to deny that it is hostile at all. Although introjection creates soothing feelings of being allied or fused with a powerful other, it cannot eliminate all sources of anxiety. Accordingly, dependents make extensive use of denial to damp down whatever feelings of doom or apprehension introjection does not eliminate. All normal persons use denial, but dependents do so to wall themselves off from objective difficulties, to maintain the illusion of an internal utopia untroubled by external demands and harsh realities. Flight from a hostile world is easily seen in Sharon, who realizes some six months into couples therapy that her idealization hid many problems that were lurking behind the scenes all along. By creating a universe devoid of objective struggles, dependents make it easier to remain naïve, childlike, and syrupy sweet.
The second function of denial is to protect dependents from acknowledging their own hostile impulses. For dependents, anger is extremely threatening. First, it undermines their view that the larger adult world is really an extension of the playground. Second, if the sweet dependent is allowed to acknowledge anger, the next logical questions are: "Of what are others capable?" and "How do they really feel?" Such thoughts cannot be allowed to enter conscious awareness, for they effectively destroy the dependent's illusion of security and protection. This is not directly seen with Sharon, though by inhibiting feelings she was afraid to express toward Tom, she has probably built up a reservoir of anger, now closer to the surface given her fears of abandonment. Part of her may even be feeling a mixture of astonishment and anger, as if to exclaim, "How can you leave someone as sweet as me? Damn you for accepting all my goodwill!"
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