What Is Dependent Personality Disorder (and Can It Ruin Your Relationship)?

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There is endless advice out there on what to avoid to keep your relationship strong. You’re supposed to learn each other’s love languages; communicate openly about finances and sex; and seek counseling when necessary—and those are just some of all the things you are expected to do without risking a breakup. Relationships are work. Some elements of a good relationship, though, are out of your conscious control. For instance, you could have a personality disorder that really impacts the way your union goes. We’ve talked a lot about the romantic implications of narcissistic personality disorder and borderline personality disorder, but let’s look at how dependent personality disorder can affect your relationship—and what you can do about it.

What is dependent personality disorder?

Here’s the definition of DPD, according to the Cleveland Clinic:

Dependent personality disorder (DPD) is a type of anxious personality disorder. People with DPD often feel helpless, submissive or incapable of taking care of themselves. They may have trouble making simple decisions.

This might simply sound like a “clingy” or “needy” person (which you shouldn’t actually ever call a partner), but it’s deeper than that—and the Cleveland Clinic notes that with help, a person who has DPD can learn more self-confidence and self-reliance.

DPD is one of 10 types of personality disorders, and it starts during childhood or at least by the age of 29. Someone with this disorder has a deep need to be taken care of by others, relying on those close to them for emotional needs and even physical needs. They might even believe they can’t take care of themselves.

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How does DPD impact relationships?

Someone with DPD might be so unwilling to make their own decisions that they rely on others to choose what they wear each day—and that’s just one example. In a romantic partnership, where both parties are expected to care for each other, manage finances, take care of a home or kids, and generally act as a unit, it will obviously be a major issue if one person is deciding what the other one wears, eats, and does with their time, to say nothing of other bigger decisions they’ll have to make for them.

Moreover, experts believe DPD is more likely among people who’ve been in abusive relationships or experienced childhood trauma. Those, of course, impact future relationships in a serious way, but helping a partner work through issues related to past abuse or trauma can be challenging when they’re also refusing to take personal responsibility or make their own choices.

While it might be frustrating for the partner without DPD, this disorder can also be really harmful for the person who has it: Dr. Suzanne Degges-White recently wrote about DPD for Psychology Today and explained, “They crave affection so desperately that they are willing to yield to the desires of significant others on everything from the mundane to the monumental. Clothing choices, activity engagement, meal choices, diet, residence, and daily routine are all left to another to decide.”

In the hands of a controlling partner, then, someone with DPD is really at risk for unhealthy behavior. The Cleveland Clinic notes that those with the disorder may be more likely to stay in unhealthy relationships, too.

What to do if you suspect you or your partner has DPD

If you or your partner are “needy” or clingy to the point that one person’s decision-making is completely halted and it feels like the other party is making every single choice in both people’s lives, it could be DPD—but you can find out.

A healthcare provider can examine you to conclude if any other condition is causing the symptoms, but a mental health professional steps in after that to make a DPD diagnosis by asking some questions and comparing your answers to factors in the DSM-5. You’ll need five of these diagnostic criteria for a diagnosis:

  • All-consuming and unrealistic fear of being abandoned
  • Feelings of anxiousness or helplessness when alone
  • An inability to manage your responsibilities without help
  • Issues stating an opinion
  • A strong drive to get others’ support, even if it means doing things you don’t like
  • Trouble making everyday decisions on your own
  • Issues starting or completing projects because of a lack of self-confidence or an inability to make choices
  • An urge to seek a new relationship whenever a close relationship ends

While you could chalk up clingy behavior to someone’s attachment style, if it’s really DPD, you should know, because help is available to get a diagnosis and move forward.

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