Why is dependency seen as a problem?

If there is any type of construct that is quintessentially part of the dominant American culture, it is the concept of independence. The idea of independence has led us down some questionable paths as a country. You should look no further than how our national dialogue is focused more on "dependency on welfare" than on actual poverty. Perhaps it is also related to how dominant American culture can be less rooted in specific places, being a culture of mobility. Most social scientists will contrast independence with interdependence. One is not necessarily seen as superior to the other but rather they both promote a different ethos.

In mental health, it becomes much more complicated because we often talk about how important independence is in development. Children are expected to do things like sleep by themselves, sooth themselves, handle their own conflicts, make their own decisions around schooling and negotiate all sorts of relationships in an age appropriate way but always in the direction of achieving more mastery, autonomy and independence. However, on the other hand, there is definitely a countervailing movement that also supports interdependence.

So for instance, to use developmental psychology again, when you look at children becoming successful at school and in the community, people caution against "adult-morphizing" adolescents, which can ignore how important supports are in supporting their development. The reason it is seen as problematic is that people ignore all the types of supports that privileged adolescents get, feeding into the myth of their independence and their superiority. In turn, we often pathologize other communities, like adolescents of color and/or poor adolescents for things like educational gaps and other markers of achievement. What is often unmentioned is that part of the disparity is because many adolescents need the types of seemingly invisible supports that already exist in privileged communities.

By supporting interdependence as a necessary part of healthy development over independence, it would allow a more open discussion about attending to the needs of all adolescents, rather than pathologizing them and their community. To wit, in Philadelphia, a city devastated by school budget cuts within a context of deep structural poverty and an inadequate infrastructure, students and their families are still blamed for the gaps in education. Structural problems morph into personal failures due in part to the myth of independence.

Ideas around pathologizing dependency does not end with myths around poverty and adolescent development. The DSM-5 has two personality disorders—Borderline Personality Disorder and Dependent Personality disorders, both which are highly gendered and seen as conditions partly related to women being unable to manage their own feelings and lives. It's a curious paradox in that women are both seen as needing to be relationally oriented and then pathologized for that need. However, arguably, men have their own dependency needs. If you consider stereotypical heterosexual masculinity, the idea of a dutiful wife, for example, never considers his dependency, only hers. When you also consider myths around feminine dependency across race and class categorizations, it becomes even more complex and is used to stereotype all sorts of women in different ways.

So I'd challenge people to think more about what this myth of independence is costing us as a country. Because of this myth, some of the very real inequities many of us are facing remain unrecognized, unexamined and unaddressed. And on a personal and psychological level, I think it is worthwhile to examine whether myths around independence are often leading people into isolation because of the ways that normal reliance on human relationships are negatively characterized.

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