Love and Dependency

Dr. Bernard Stein

A discussion based on the writings of Erich Fromm, Scott
 Peck, Brenda Schaeffer, David Smail and on the author’s 
professional experience (edited version).

What is Love

Love is one of the hardest concepts to define accurately. Scott Peck
 defines it as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s 
own or another’s spiritual growth”.

I find Scott Peck’s definition the most helpful to work with as a
 psychotherapist, though I would replace the word “spiritual” with the words
”emotional and spiritual”. His definition is in terms of the goal, or purpose
 which the love aims to serve. It is purposeful in an altruistic direction, it is 
active, an act of choice which is under the control of the giver. It puts the 
other person’s needs first, or at least on an equal footing with those of the
 person who offers the love.


Addiction, on the other hand, is defined by Peel and Brodsky as an
unstable state of being, marked by a compulsion to deny all that you are or 
have been, in favour of some new and ecstatic experience.

Addictive love is a reliance on someone else, in an attempt to fulfill unmet
 needs for affection, love, affirmation, acceptance, etc…. or to avoid fear and
 pain, solve problems and attempt to get others to take care of us. The 
addicted person sees no alternative way of maintaining his balance without
 using other people. The problem for the addict is that addictive love gives 
personal power to someone else than the self, since the addict needs the
 other person. It therefore disempowers the addict.

The problem for the other person, whom the addict has latched on to, is
 that the addict never has, indeed never can have, enough.
 Addictive love or dependency is parasitism, not love. A parasite requires 
another human being for its survival. There is no choice, no freedom
 involved in that relationship,

Dependency is an inability to experience wholeness or to function 
adequately without the certainty that one is being actively cared for by 
another. We all have the wish to be taken care of for a change from time to 
time, and this is quite healthy. A characteristic of the dependent person is
 that the need is ongoing and cannot be fully satisfied. Just like a starving
 person, they have an inner emptiness crying out to be filled, but they won’t,
 or do not know how to, fill it themselves. A dependent person is more
 concerned with what others can do for him than what he can do for himself
 or for them. He is confusing NEED with LOVE.

The origin of dependency lies in a lack of parental love, attention and care 
at a crucial time in a child’s development, in the early years of life (see Dr.
Thomas Harris’s book: I’m O.K., You’re O.K., regarding the influence of the 
early formative years on a person’s identity and character). This leads to a 
person who feels questionably lovable or valuable, and who will then cling to 
love whenever they find it with a desperation that leads them to be unloving
 and manipulative. They will often destroy the very relationships they seek to 
preserve by holding on to them so tightly that they strangle them to death.
 Love needs freedom to survive just as a person needs oxygen to live. 
Dependent people look passively on others as the source of their happiness 
and fulfillment, and feel that others are responsible when they are not happy
 and fulfilled. They therefore feel endlessly angry and let down by others
 who, in fact, can never hope to fulfill all their needs – nor would it be 
appropriate. They are addicted to people, sucking the goodness out of them,
 virtually gobbling them up, consuming them. They may turn to the bottle or
 to drugs or food as people substitutes when no one is available to be sucked 
or gobbled up any more.

Dependency may appear to be love because it causes people to fiercely 
attach themselves to one another, but it is unhealthy love, the antithesis of 
real love. It is manipulative and ultimately destroys rather than builds 
relationships and people.

Falling in Love

Falling in love is a sex linked erotic experience in Scott Peck’s view, and I
 agree with him. Firstly, we don’t tend to fall in love with our children or with 
friends of the same sex if we are heterosexual or of the opposite sex if we are 
homosexual, even though we may care about them greatly. Secondly, it is 
invariably temporary: if the relationship continues long enough we
 eventually fall out of love. This does not mean we necessarily cease loving 
the person with whom we fell in love, but the feeling of ecstatic lovingness characterising the experience of falling in love always passes, though some maintain this passion longer than others. To identify in what ways falling in 
love is different from love, we need to look a little closer at ego boundaries.

Ego Boundaries

To begin with there is no separate identity, no boundary, no separation 
between “Me” and the world. Gradually, that sense of “Me” develops from
 the interaction between the infant and the mother and the world. By mid-
adolescence most of us have learned that we are individuals confined to the 
boundaries of our bodies and of our family and societal expectations, and 
with limited power each of us is a relatively frail and impotent organism,
 existing only in co-operation within a group of fellow persons called society.
 We are isolated from others by our individual identities, boundaries and 
limits. This isolation can feel very lonely and painful in comparison to the 
blissful oneness with the world we experienced as an omnipotent infant and 
toddler, when our needs were automatically attended to (if our mother was 
reasonably attentive). Yet we yearn to escape from behind the walls of our 
individual identities to a condition in which we can safely be more unified
 with the world outside ourselves. A wish to return to the blissful experience
 of oneness with the mother, either in utero, or soon after birth, to lose our 
ego boundaries, and to re-experience that unconditional love which nurtured 
us in infancy, and made no demands of us. The experience of falling in love
 allows us this escape – temporarily.

In falling in love there is a collapsing of a section of an individual’s ego 
boundaries. There is a merging of one’s identity and boundaries with those
 of the Other, a pouring out of oneself into the Beloved and a dramatic,
 ecstatic removal of loneliness. This is the quest for intimacy. Brenda
 Schaeffer defines intimacy as the exchange of thoughts, feelings and actions 
in an atmosphere of open-ness and trust. In unhealthy dependency, true
 intimacy is frequently lost, if it was ever achieved in the first place, as true
 open-ness and trust are not encouraged in dependent relationships.

Falling in love has little to do with purposefully nurturing one’s spiritual
 or emotional development, or that of the other person. The sole purpose is
 to terminate our own loneliness through intimate joining. For those people 
who feel they have little loving to give, the only intimacy they will be capable
 of is sexual intimacy. Emotional intimacy is beyond their ken.

This is not to say that falling in love has no value – this desire for inter-
personal fusion is the most powerful striving in human beings, the most
 powerful passion, rivaling hunger and the need for oxygen. It keeps the 
human race together. It primes many relationships, which can eventually
 develop into true loving relationships, in the fuller sense of the word.

Let us now take a look at a healthier kind of love. First of all, look back at Scott Peck’s definition. Extending one’s self means to extend one’s limits and 
to grow into a larger state of being. In loving another, we do this. Therefore, 
loving another is an act of self evolution, even when the purpose of the act is
 someone else’s growth. We are incapable of loving another person unless we 
love ourselves. Everyone is familiar with the Biblical injunction: “Love thy
 neighbour as thyself”. This is usually quoted to enjoin us to be more 
considerate to our neighbours. I wish to turn it on its head and use it to
 suggest we should learn to love OURSELVES, as a result of which we can 
then love our neighbour all the more deeply. We are here given a very clear
 message that not only is it acceptable to love one’s self, but it is actually the 
correct state of being! In puritanical circles, and in circles where there is very 
little real love, self-love has been distorted into a sin. By self-love, I mean self 
acceptance, affirmation, acknowledgment and approval, taking one’s feelings
 seriously, having compassion for one’s own failings, and not putting oneself
 down. Generally being caring and gentle to oneself, as one would wish
 others to be towards him.

Let us further define love. Love is not a feeling, but an activity. The 
feeling sometimes associated with love is affection.


Genuine love requires commitment. A lack of commitment would be
 harmful to the other person’s emotional and spiritual growth. Commitment 
is necessary for us to manifest our concern for the other person’s growth 
effectively. Commitment is the cornerstone of the psychotherapeutic

Effort and Discipline

Love is effortful, it requires work – the work of attention, time and 
forethought. Love also requires discipline, it requires that we put ourselves
 out for the other person.

The Risk of Loss

Love requires that we have the courage to take the risk of loss. Loving
 another encourages that other person to change. Dependent people want to
 hold on to sameness, they are afraid of change. A changed person may no 
longer allow them to be so dependent and manipulative, with the attendant
 fear of not having their hungry needs met by that person any more!
 Encouraging emotional and spiritual growth, also encourages independence. The extension of the self involved in loving is also an enlargement of the self 
into new dimensions. This promotes independence and self-knowledge -
 these are frightening attributes to a dependent partner.

The Risk of Confrontation

The truly loving person will agonise over necessary acts of criticism of the 
beloved, weighing up the pros and cons, and will be reluctant to presume
 that he or she is right and the beloved wrong. A loving relationship requires 
loving leadership; guiding the other in his or her spiritual path, which
 requires loving critical guidance. Mutual loving confrontation is a significant 
part of all successful and meaningful relationships. For the relationship to 
endure the stresses of such confrontation, requires that there be a deep
 commitment between both parties. Many people are paralysed by the fear of
 commitment: in childhood, and whenever they were shown some
 commitment, they could never trust it, because the trust was always breached 
in one painful way or another, which led to the feeling of being unworthy of

We may have a limited ability to love, because of the amount of energy
 required in truly loving another person. We need not feel guilty about this. 
As we grow as people emotionally and spiritually, it requires less energy to
 extend oneself to another person. It therefore becomes easier.

Separate Boundaries

Finally, and this is perhaps the hardest lesson, love is separateness; in a 
truly loving relationship the distinction between oneself and the other is 
always maintained and preserved. Whereas in addictive love, there is a
 manipulative invasion of the other’s boundaries, and an attempt to mould the
 other person to one’s needs. Scott Peck makes a useful analogy between a
 loving relationship or marriage, and a base camp for mountaineers.
 Successful climbers know the importance of spending at least as much time 
tending to their base camp as they actually spend in climbing mountains.
 Climbing mountains is equivalent here to pursuing one’s own emotional and
 spiritual growth. Tending the base camp provides a safe base from which to
 evolve in the most conducive environment. Through the separateness and 
the personal growth each partner brings something back to the relationship 
which enriches the union. Returning from their individual peaks as “bigger,
 better” people, each spouse or friend can better nurture the marriage or the
 relationship. Sadly, in many marriages one or both partners spend all their
 time stuck in the “base camp”, thus negating the true purpose of the 

Bernard Stein is medical consultant to the Clanwilliam Institute for
 Personal, Marriage and Family Therapy. He also practices psychotherapy form the Greenlea Psychotherapy Centre, 118 Greenlea Road, Terenure. 
Telephone 01-908979.