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"Loving" Too Much or Not Enough: The Problems with Emotional Dependance and Detachment



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03/01/2007 - Last month, the topic discussed in this column was love what it is and how to love in a healthy manner. I thought it would be appropriate to address the "flip-side" of love and talk about what love isn't. One of my favorite cartoons has the caption "The Emotionally Dependent Dog" and shows a person standing at the door, leash in hand, asking the dog if he wants to go for a walk. The dog responds "Yes . . . but I really want you to want to go for a walk, too." Obviously, the dog has a very poorly defined, inadequate sense of self and is not in touch with his own needs and wants. He is a people pleaser and an approval addict. All of that psycho-babble just means that the dog does not really have a love relationship with his owner but instead requires the owner to be happy in order to experience happiness himself. Love in its purest form is expressed by freedom; emotional dependence produces bondage.

What causes some people to be emotionally dependent? A primary factor is low self-esteem a lack of appreciation and value for who you are as an individual apart from your relationships with others. This is something that is learned in childhood and perpetuated throughout the individual's life. When I first came to Casper in 1988, I had the privilege of working with junior high and high school students; most of whom either had substances abuse issues or were affected by substance abuse in their families or both. Some experienced emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse. Some of them had been abandoned emotionally or physically by one or both parents. As a result, there were gaping holes inside them that caused them to use others in their relationships or to be used by others. The ones who are used are likely to be emotionally dependent. Often, these individuals pick people to be in relationship with that are totally incapable of loving them. If you don't feel that you deserve love, you find someone who is detached and unavailable emotionally. Then you can love them enough to change them if you can just love enough, put up with enough abuse, and endure enough bad behavior, you can rescue them. If you can rescue and reform them, you have really earned the right to be loved! The ones who use others never have to risk being hurt by rejection, abandonment, or abuse ever again. Either way, left untreated, this lack of self-esteem carries over into unhealthy adult relationships. Unfortunately, unhealthy relationships are often reinforced in this society through the media books magazines and movies. These emotionally dependent relationships are presented as "idealized romance" or "undying devotion". In my generation, James Bond is an example of a hero who has incredible charm, good looks, an insatiable sense of adventure, unmatched bravery and the ability to get out of any trouble that comes his way. He is totally independent and prides himself in his ability to fight the bad guys, face incredible odds and danger, and come out on top. He also has very shallow relationships that are basically sexual in nature with no commitment. He uses his charm and sexual prowess to entrap and outwit villainous women. There are countless more contemporary heroes and heroines for our younger generation who are exploitative and exploited in their relationships. It has become an environment where it's uncommon to find an individual or a role model who is healthy and who has a healthy view of love that is not distorted by either dependent "neediness" or self-preserving and self-centered "detachment".

It is not hopeless, however! If everyone would take responsibility to examine his or her own life and determine if there are "holes" that cause them to be dysfunctional in relationships, there can be spiritual, emotional and relational healing and growth. In my experience as a human being and a counselor, it usually takes a crisis of "hitting bottom" before we are willing to consider making changes; but there are many resources (books, mentors, counseling, etc.) that can help us break out of destructive relational patterns that keep us from experiencing love, connection, community with others, and loving, healthy relationships.

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