A healthy marriage requires many things: Strong communication, openness, a zen-like ability to endure your partner’s paint-peeling morning breath. As life progresses and you begin a family, your lives become even more entwined. Emotional closeness is essential for raising children and adapting to what this requires, which means that, eventually, you might feel less like an individual and more of a unit. But there is such a thing as too much closeness. And extreme amounts of emotional dependency can be damaging.
Within the context of a marriage, emotional dependency is a state where one spouse’s self-worth becomes far too tied into the actions and attention of their partner. Even if that partner is able to provide that affirmation at first, the stakes have become too high—or are now perceived as too high—for that to possibly sustain itself.
A key factor in identifying this as an issue in your marriage is distinguishing between emotional dependency and emotional closeness.
“Emotional closeness implies both giving and getting,” says Ana Jovanovic, a clinical psychologist who coaches couples as they navigate parenthood. “The person you are close with is a flawed human being that makes different choices, has their own needs, can be upset or sad, may want their own time or time with others.” Emotional dependency, she notes, is a different beast entirely. In that case, the need for emotional closeness is constant, extreme, and can only be soothed by your partner.
At its worst, your spouse’s own emotional expression becomes more and more restricted.
“Their partner is then not allowed to be angry at them, to withdraw, to spend time with someone else, to have their own thoughts and feelings – because everything that they might do feels like an unbearable rejection,” says Jovanovic. “When you depend on somebody, it feels like you have all your eggs in one basket.” As such, she notes, you begin to spend all your time looking for warning signs that those eggs are in danger.
If you feel this applies to you, you’re far from alone. Insofar as old notions of masculinity can still affect a husband’s ability to effectively communicate and set boundaries, it’s a pretty common problem, and there’s a lot you can do about it.
The secret to addressing these problems can hardly be called a secret at all — it is couched in the same skills and priorities that make for any healthy relationship: honesty and communication. As it relates to emotional dependency, however, the person you need to be most honest with is yourself. The more self-reflection you’re able to do, the more you’ll be able to verbalize your specific needs — what you expect from your partner that you feel you’re not getting — and the more you’ll be able to discern which ones are more and less reasonable.
According to Clinical Psychologist Dr. Dara Bushman, the fallout from an emotionally dependent marriage often includes a loss of one’s “sense of self and purpose,” meaning that a sense of continuity that carries over from your life pre-marriage is critical. In other words? You have to sustain your individuality. Make an effort to stay your own person. As such, establishing physical boundaries is one of your best options in establishing a path towards emotional closeness. “Agreeing to stay involved in activities, hobbies, and friendships each participated in before the relationship takes the burden off your partner to meet your needs,” says Dr. Bushman.
There are also trickier factors at play, as a far as fathers are concerned.
“Emotional dependency does not discriminate in men or woman,” says Dr. Bushman. While this is undoubtedly true, there’s a nuance to the situation that Jovanovic puts quite bluntly. “When you think of someone behaving needy, clingy, possessive, or jealous, the chances are you are thinking of a woman,” she says. “The longer we tie these behaviors to women only, the more chances we are missing [opportunities] to support the men struggling with these challenges in their relationships.”
Working moms must necessarily assign some kind of hierarchy to different elements of their life, as do we all. “In choosing their daily priorities, they are most likely to put kids first, work second and their marriage third,” says Jovanovic. “For an emotionally dependent man, this is likely to feel like a sign of rejection.”
Which ties into another aspect of emotional dependency, one that should serve as extra encouragement to take some of the steps mentioned above if you find yourself in this situation. “Dependency being modeled to children challenges them learning independence and how to fulfill their own needs,” says Dr. Bushman. “Children with strong emotional bonds are independent, assertive with their opinions and choices, appear competent, speak clearly, make eye contact, and verbally ask for what they want.”
When emotional dependency is displayed in a child’s parents, not only can it muddle their understanding of healthy emotional attachments, it can create a distancing effect between them and their child as well. “When your own need is urgent, you might be tempted to put your baby’s needs on the side,” says Jovanovic. “This is usually not something that happens intentionally.”
It can become, in other words, a cycle, one that may have begun long before you met your spouse. “The chances are that the feelings that lead us to develop this kind of dependency have roots in our early childhood experiences,” says Jovanovic.
In these cases, a deeper form of introspection can help you to identify the context of your feelings. This process, which Jovanovic calls “reaching the child within” is as complicated as it sounds, and is something that might require a helping hand from counselor or psychotherapist. But it will open you up to the peace of mind that comes with a universal truth: we are all needy, we all need affirmation. We simply need to adjust what we ask for and how we ask for it.
Again, one shouldn’t take these ideas to mean that your marriage should be devoid of all reliance and all dependency, with you not drawing anything from your spouse. As in all aspects of life, it’s about striking the right balance. “Healthy emotional closeness would be you as a whole, alone, solid, and strong and then enhanced and inspired by a partner,” says Dr. Bushman.