Cherry and Beth met in a MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) group at their church, hitting it off immediately. They loved the mutual connection with another mom, understanding the stresses and joys of having small children about the same age. Their weekly playdates became the highlight of each girl’s week. They would chat on the phone every day, comparing notes on what they would be fixing for dinner or what great, repeatable golden nuggets their toddlers spouted. That morphed to texting each other throughout the day, at least once an hour.
The intense sense of connection, of feeling heard and understood and valued, grew to be like an emotional drug for them. Over time, they realized they felt closer to each other than they did to their husbands. They preferred each other’s company to anyone else’s—including their husbands’. Texting throughout the day felt like a lifeline, a continual source of reassurance that all was right with the world. Eventually, caring for their children, the very thing that had brought them together in the first place, started to feel like an unwelcome burden that interfered with their first love—each other. Anyone and any thing that came between them was cause for resentment and annoyance . . . when it didn’t make them outright angry.
This was not normal female friendship. What started out as a lovely gift from God was corrupted into emotional dependency, which Lori Rentzel* defines as “When the ongoing presence and/or nurturing of another is believed necessary for personal security.” Emotional dependency happens when one or both people are looking to a person to meet their basic needs for love and security, rather than to God (relational idolatry). It is characterized by a desperate neediness of the other.
Emotional dependency (the other ED) is at the core of most lesbian relationships and a lot of homosexual relationships, but it is not limited to these. Husbands and wives can be emotionally dependent on each other, and so can women friends. When friendship spills over the retaining walls of what is healthy into an enmeshment with another person—when they put all their emotional eggs in the other’s basket, so to speak—the relationship has become broken and unhealthy.
My favorite anthem to emotional dependency is Barry Manilow’s Can’t Smile Without You, which sounds romantic until you think about how unhealthy it is:
You know I can’t smile without you,
I can’t smile without you,
I can’t laugh
and I can’t sing,
I’m findin’ it hard to do anything.
You see, I feel sad when you’re sad,
I feel glad when you’re glad,
If You only knew what I’m going through,
I just can’t smile without you.
Do you see how sick that is?
Emotional dependency feels like, “My happiness, my sense of security, is completely wrapped up in you giving me ‘The Three As‘ I need: attention, affection and affirmation. And if you withhold any of these from me, I will feel insecure, unloved and abandoned.”
When people feel insecure, they feel powerless. And when they feel powerless, they usually resort to some kind of control to get their power back. Manipulation is the glue that holds emotionally dependent people together, since the desperate neediness (remember, “I can’t smile without you”?) drives people to do desperate things to make sure the other person is tied to them at the heart. Such as sending close to 100 texts in a single day, to make sure the other person responds to them. And getting paranoid and angry (“Why aren’t you answering my texts? I can tell you read them, my phone tells me you read them, why are you avoiding me? What did I do? Why aren’t you answering me? TALK TO ME!!!!”). Such as giving gifts and anything else designed to bind the giver to the recipient. Such as using guilt to force the other person to engage (“You’re the only person in the world who understands me! You’re the only real friend I’ve ever had. If you leave me I will be completely and utterly alone!”).
The good news is that when friendships have overflowed healthy boundaries into emotional dependency, people can repent of their relational idolatry (making another person more important than God) and step back into balance. The other good news is that every aspect of unhealthy, emotional dependency on a person, is healthy dependency on God. One of my friends told me, “This was life changing for me, to realize that I could redirect my unhealthy energies to Jesus and it would make me a much better disciple!” Contacting Him 95 times a day through prayer (no texting necessary) is healthy. Feeling desperately needy toward Jesus is healthy. Giving gifts to Jesus to bind one’s heart to Him is healthy. Saying, “If you leave me I will be completely and utterly alone” is true—but praise God, He has assured us that He will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5).
When I have spoken on this topic in churches, I hear, “I expected that the dark underside you’d be talking about was gossip or something. I never would have expected THIS. Wow. I see how it can happen so easily.”
Forewarned is forearmed, I trust.
*Lori Thorkelson Rentzel’s little booklet Emotional Dependency, published by InterVarsity Press, is an invaluable and highly practical resource for understanding this issue.