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What is Dependent Personality Disorder?

written by: Nicholas Kuvaas • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 1/28/2011

Those with dependent personality disorder (DPD) have a need to be cared for due to a lack of belief in their own abilities. This article discusses how dependent personality disorder is defined, the symptoms of this disorder, and theories about its cause.

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    What is Dependent Personality Disorder?

    Being dependent on someone else isn't always a bad thing. Children need their parents to survive and thrive, so dependency is normal to a degree. When someone becomes overly dependent, it becomes problematic. Still, this isn't considered a mental illness until a dependent person has serious difficulties with functioning in two out of three basic but fundamental areas - emotional expression, thinking/decision making, and interpersonal functioning.

    Someone who suffers from dependent personality disorder has a pervasive and excessive need to be cared for and needs constant reassurance about their decisions and actions1. Those with this mental illness have a lack of self-efficacy when it comes to their abilities to do or accomplish anything, so they look towards others for support. Once a dependent relationship has been established, their need for care further leads to submissive and clingy behavior due to a fear of being left alone and ultimately separated from the person on whom they depend.

    People with dependent personality disorder eventually become impotent due to their dependence. Their need to include someone else in every aspect of their life can lead to simple decisions becoming difficult without the help and reassurance of another. For example, choosing what clothes to wear would be a difficult decision requiring advice. Their dependence on others may be so high that they would maintain a dependent relationship in spite of numerous problems, for example if that relationship was to become abusive with the dependent person being subjected to emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.

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    Dependent Personality Disorder: Signs and Symptoms

    There are many other signs and symptoms associated with dependent personality disorder including the extreme fear of separation and problems with daily functioning. These two symptoms are required for a person to be diagnosed with this disorder1. Sufferers are likely to be extremely passive and avoid situations where they might be left alone. They also avoid personal responsibility, and are easily hurt by criticism or disapproval. Problems expressing their discontent with others is another symptom related to this disorder.

    These actions may bring their dependent relationship to an end. For the dependent person this can be a devastating and crushing blow as they feel totally helpless. Other issues possibly related to this disorder are alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and depression. If you think someone is suffering from this mental illness, treatment is the best option.

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    What Causes Dependent Personality Disorder?

    Like other personality disorders, there is no known cause for dependent personality disorder2. However, a theory based on the biopsychosocial model offers a possible explanation for its onset. It suggests that there is not one contributing factor to dependent personality disorder but several. These factors are thought to be biological, social, and psychological in origin.

    The biological factor is believed to be a genetic component, but the specific genes have not been identified. The social factor could include many aspects of their life but early relationships with their parents or friends which encouraged dependence are likely. The psychological factors include the sufferer's personality, temperament, and maladaptive coping strategies for stress. These factors likely combine to influence the onset of dependent personality disorder.

    There is also a body of research that supports this idea that children of parents with dependent personality disorder are more likely to develop it themselves. However, growing up in a DPD environment may not be the only cause, as other factors are expected to contribute to its onset. It may be that such an environment increases the risk factor of a child developing the disorder.