The Dependency Paradox

We value self-sufficiency and independence. We respect somebody is self-motivated and can take initiative. We admire people who are resilient, and who can adapt to changing situations and confusion and land on their feet able to deal with the next thing.

So what does it take to have that kind of independence?

Recent scientific research has demonstrated an apparent paradox, the “Dependency Paradox”.  The people who are most independent are the ones who are most dependent.

At first glance makes no sense.  You are either independent or dependent, right?  And there is a strong cultural bias that dependency is to be avoided.  To be dependent is to rely on other people, to need other other people, to be needy. Nobody wants to be needy…we want to be strong and capable and independent.

So how can this be? It turns out that people who are securely connected to a significant other and comfortable in that dependence upon another are the ones most able to operate independently.  They have the self-confidence and resilience to handle stressful changes and make autonomous decisions on their own.  Dependence and independence are not mutually exclusive conditions, they co-exist more strongly and with greater health than when separated.

People who don’t have that grounding connection with others, who are alone out of the necessity of their life circumstances, do operate independently.  However, it takes an incredible amount of psychological work to continually be bracing oneself against the next storm, and to be looking for the next buffeting, in Shakespeare’s words,  “to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

When you have a secure connection with another person, there is a place to retreat and be nourished and share the burden.  It’s analogous that when you get enough sleep it is easier to deal with a stressful situation than when you are exhausted.  When you are secure in your social and loving relationships, you have more resources for handling situations independently.

How can we know that this is true? A child playing at a playground will be more adventurous when they know that their mother is sitting on a bench watching than when they are in the yard without her.  Similarly an adult will function more optimally at work, have better mental health, more stable emotional regulation, and more creative risk-taking when they have a nourishing social network and stable romantic involvement.

Carnegie Mellon researcher Brooke Feeney coined the phrase “The Dependency Paradox” in a paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  In one of the studies that she describes, people sat alone in front of a computer to solve a challenging problem.  They were told that their romantic partner could message them from another room with support and advice.  In actuality, it was a researcher who was providing them with encouragement and solutions to the challenge.  People with the most secure relationships tended to accept the emotional support from their partners, but ignore the advice so that they could solve the problems on their own.  Less securely attached partners tended to rely on the hints to solve the problems.

If you want to be autonomous and sovereign and strong and independent, do not rule out depending upon others.  In fact, you will be stronger and more independently resilient if you are vulnerably present and connected in significant relationships with the right people.


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