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Posted on Sat, Jan 28, 2012 : 5 a.m.

How much dependency is healthy?

By Carolyn Hax

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

How much dependency do you think is healthy in a relationship? -- Dependent

Dunno. Since there are different ways to be dependent, you'll need to define dependency. If you're speaking in emotional terms, then feeling as if you couldn't be happy without this person in your life is where I'd draw the line for unhealthy dependency.

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Re: Dependency:

Could you explain this more? I definitely feel as if I would be devastated if I lost my wife, and it's difficult for me to imagine what life without her would be. That makes me overly dependent?

-- Anonymous

I see a difference between being devastated by someone's loss, and being unable to recover from it. You can be devastated and still recover the capacity for joy, affection, laughter, immersion in a hobby or cause -- all while missing the person, and even while feeling as if a piece of you is gone.

If you trust that you will eventually recover your happier emotions in the event of a loss, then I think your investment in someone is deep but healthy.

I'm making it sound so easy to pin down when it's not, but I hope that at least makes sense.

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Re: Dependency:

Well sure, I'd agree that feeling like I'd die without my partner would be unhealthy dependency. I'm worried more about subtle entanglements, such as the fact that in our current living situation, I have financial commitments that I couldn't meet were he to suddenly walk out on me. Or that he's included in plans I have made over a year in advance. Things like that. Thanks!

-- Dependent again

I didn't say die, I said be incapable of happiness; and I was "speaking in emotional terms." Different beasts.

Scheduling things with someone a year in advance doesn't sound like dependency to me. To appreciate how normal such scheduling is, in fact, just flip it around: How strange would it be to refuse to plan things because he might leave you or die tomorrow?

As for the financial commitments, though, you do sound as if you're counting on someone else to an unhealthy degree, especially if your relationship isn't one (like marriage) that affords you at least some legal and financial protection.

For your own peace of mind if nothing else, you need either to work actively toward reducing these commitments, or to have a viable Plan B in the event your money supply departs. Both would be even better.

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Re: Dependency:

Does this answer only apply to romantic relationships? How much dependency is healthy in a friend/best friend relationship? How much dependency is healthy for sister/brother/mom/dad relationship?

-- Anonymous 2

Since the advice is essentially to beware when the source of your quality of life or happiness lives outside your body, I don't think it's limited to romantic relationships. You can apply it to friends, siblings, parents, prized possessions, pets, jobs, a geographic area, anything. Honor the moment by accepting that it can end at any time.

Email Carolyn at tellme(at), follow her on Facebook at or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at

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