Emotional support is one of the big benefits of having relationships. When you face life challenges or stress, your loved ones can offer empathy and comfort by listening to your troubles and validating your feelings.
In a romantic relationship, you might turn to your partner for this support first. It’s normal to look to partners for emotional support and guidance, especially in a long-term relationship.
Emotional dependence, however, passes the point of support.
Most romantic partners depend on each other to some extent. But when you need your partner to meet all of your emotional needs, you’re probably not doing much to meet those needs on your own.
This total reliance on another person can eventually take a toll on your relationship and overall well-being
It can help to think of emotional dependence as a spectrum.
Emotional independence rests on one end. Completely independent people might resist all emotional support, preferring to cope with emotional needs alone, or even ignore them entirely.
Interdependent relationships, the healthiest type of relationship, fall in the middle. Interdependence means you can recognize your own emotional needs and do the work to get many of them met.
When you can’t fulfill them on your own, then you might reach out to your partner. In other words, you depend on them for some emotional needs, not all of them.
On the other end lies emotional dependence. Here, you typically end up relying on your partner to meet nearly all needs. When you experience distress, you might look to them immediately before trying to manage your emotions yourself.
Feeling as if you can’t live without their emotional support can suggest your relationship has veered toward an unhealthy level of dependence.
Other key signs of emotional dependence include:
- an idealized view of your partner or the relationship
- the belief your life lacks meaning without them
- the belief you can’t find happiness or security alone
- a persistent fear of rejection
- a constant need for reassurance
- feelings of emptiness and anxiety when spending time alone
- needing them to build your self-esteem, confidence, and self-worth
- feelings of jealousy or possessiveness
- difficulty trusting in their feelings for you
Trouble meeting your own emotional needs can have a significant impact on your romantic relationships, but the effects can also extend to other areas of life.
For the most part, emotional dependence doesn’t pave the way toward healthy relationships.
Emotionally dependent people typically need a lot of reassurance and support from their partners.
You might, for example, regularly ask things like:
- “Do you love me?”
- “Am I bothering you?”
- “Do you really want to spend time with me?”
- “How do I look?”
- “You don’t want to break up, do you?”
If you often experience feelings of insecurity or self-doubt, you might need their approval to feel good about yourself. This need can trigger fears of what might happen if they leave or stop providing the reassurance you need.
These fears of abandonment can, in turn, lead to attempts to control their behavior to hold on to them.
But trying to control people usually backfires. People who feel manipulated or unable to make their own choices may end up wanting to leave the relationship. A pattern of failed relationships is fairly common with emotional dependence.
Dependence in relationships also often involves some level of emotional distress.
Constant, low-grade worry about the future of your relationship and your partner’s feelings for you can make you feel anxious and uneasy. When you aren’t together, you might spend most of your time worrying about what they’re doing and whether they still love you. This fixation can leave your baseline stress level pretty high.
High levels of stress can affect how you experience and express your emotions. You might notice:
- sudden changes in mood
- persistent low mood or feelings of depression
- outbursts of anger or sadness, including crying or shouting
- physical expressions of your feelings, including violence toward people or objects
- somatic symptoms, including muscle tension, headaches, or stomach distress
If you rely entirely on your partner for emotional support, you miss out on discovering the ways that you can offer that support to yourself.
It’s not realistic to expect another person to meet all your needs all the time. It’s important to have a few coping tools you know you can rely on when others aren’t available.
Plus, the emotional distress you experience when they can’t meet your needs can easily occupy most of your mental space. This leaves you with little capacity to pursue enjoyable activities or spend time with friends and other loved ones — both things that allow you to tend to your own emotional needs.
Has emotional dependence started to sound a little like something you’ve noticed in your relationships?
Be honest with yourself. If you answered yes, take heart. You can absolutely take action to address this pattern.
These tips can help you better identify and meet your own emotional needs. Of course, it’s absolutely fine and healthy to lean on others as needed, but it’s important to know how to show up for yourself, too.
Get more comfortable with your emotions
The first step toward meeting emotional needs involves learning to acknowledge your emotions as you experience them. It’s OK if this proves challenging at first. It’s pretty normal to have trouble sitting with unpleasant feelings.
It might help to remember life includes both ups and downs. Without the bad, how could you recognize the good? The emotions you see as negative are just as important as the ones you see as positive. They help you recognize when things aren’t quite right.
Instead of hiding from less-than-ideal feelings or relying on someone to make them go away, get in touch with your sense of curiosity instead. Ask yourself what they’re telling you.
To learn more about yourself and your emotions, try:
Take charge of your emotional needs
So, now that you know more about your emotional mindset, what can you do about it?
Say you feel like your partner has been neglecting you. You feel jealous, lonely, or unloved. But instead of seeking reassurance, consider the situation from a different angle. In this way, you can help meet your own needs for reassurance and security.
Maybe they need space to work through difficulties of their own. It’s normal to need time apart, even in close relationships. This doesn’t always mean someone wants out.
Try focusing on what’s enjoyable now by:
- spending time with friends outside the relationship
- exploring your interests
- making time to relax
- practicing self-care
Explore your triggers
You might notice certain things trigger emotionally dependent behaviors.
- You catch yourself seeking reassurance most when dealing with outside sources of stress, like trouble at work or friend drama.
- Your self-esteem tanks when you make a mistake, and you really depend on their approval to lift you back up.
- You feel rejected and fear losing their love when they spend a lot of time with someone else.
Identifying specific triggers can help you explore coping methods, whether that’s talking to a friend about your feelings or using positive self-talk to remind yourself of your strengths and successes.
Talk to a therapist
When it comes to identifying and breaking patterns, working with a trusted therapist can have some major benefits.
Emotional dependence often relates back to childhood. Lacking a secure attachment to your parent or primary caregiver can set you up for attachment issues in your adult relationships. Some attachment styles can play a part in emotional dependence.
This can make overcoming emotionally dependent behaviors somewhat challenging on your own.
A therapist can help you explore issues from your past that contribute to present relationship concerns, and navigate healthier strategies of getting emotional needs met.
In therapy, you can also work to resolve other issues that often tie into emotional dependence by:
- developing greater self-compassion
- increasing self-confidence and self-esteem
- learning to recognize healthy relationships
- learning to challenge and reframe negative thoughts
Having an emotionally dependent partner can be draining. You want to be there for them and offer support, but there’s only so much you can do
At the end of the day, you alone can’t fix the issue, but there are a few ways you can offer support while protecting your own emotional needs.
Boundaries are necessary in all relationships. If you don’t have clearly defined boundaries, it becomes pretty difficult (if not impossible) for anyone to get what they need.
Say your partner has a habit of calling you at work whenever they have a bad day. You want to support them, but this makes it tough to get your own work done, and you’re worried what your boss will say.
Setting a boundary here can help. You might say, “I care about your problems, but I have to work, too. Instead of calling, please text instead. Then I can reply when I have a moment.”
Or perhaps they want to spend all their free time together, while you want to make sure you’re both making time for other relationships.
Try saying, “I love spending time together, but let’s set a limit of four nights a week. Time apart is important, too.”
Ask for what you need
You might worry asking for what you need can make them feel as if you don’t care about what they need. But that shouldn’t be the case.
Both of you have valid needs, but you can’t completely fulfill these needs for each other. You know how to get your needs met, and they have to learn how to do the same.
You can encourage them by practicing (and promoting) healthy behaviors. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with communicating your needs when you do so with respect. I-statements are a great way to do this without expressing judgment or blame.
For example: “I need some time to myself right after work. After that, I’d love to spend time discussing our days.”
Seek support together
If your partner continues to struggle with emotional dependence, they might find individual therapy helpful. A couples therapist can also help.
Therapy provides a safe, judgment-free space where you can get on the same page about relationship needs, boundaries, and future goals.
If you’re in it for the long haul but your partner doubts the relationship or your commitment, a counselor can help you work together to develop stronger trust and find more effective ways to communicate.
Emotionally dependent behaviors develop over time, so you probably won’t improve them overnight. While it’s important to take steps to address emotional dependence, it’s also important to have patience and compassion— for yourself or your partner.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.