Dependent Husband


Although I have plenty of my own mental health issues, in this case I’d like to ask how to deal with my husband’s issues. He is a very bright, energetic, college-educated adult who, at 30, still can’t cope with balancing the checkbook or sitting down to find a job he would actually be suited for. He has held a series of low-paying clerical jobs that he mostly hated. He is on medication for panic disorder, and in long-term therapy to deal with life issues. Based on my very unscientific reading, the diagnosis of dependent personality disorder fits him very well. The question is, how do I avoid making all the significant life choices and controlling things like household finances in this family, without having to really push him to do things himself? When I try pushing, it feels to him like just another way that I take charge of things too much – he wants to be left alone. We’ve been in couples therapy, and it helped, but we really can’t afford any more therapists at this point. Thanks for your time.

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If you think about it, a dependent personality is not possible in a vacuum. Rather, dependency is only meaningful in the context of a relationship on which the dependent person can be dependent. So – rather than viewing this problem exclusively in terms of it being “my husband’s problem” consider that it might be easier to work on if it is “a problem in our relationship that belongs to both of us”. More to the point – think about changing how you interact with your husband.

You already know what happens when you push him to do things (e.g., he perceives you as trying to “take charge” of him and he resists this control passively by wanting to be left alone. Work on not doing that anymore – it doesn’t help.

Here is a possible alternative way to handle the situation. First, have the two of you sit down and with both of your participation, agree on who has responsibility for getting different things done. This may be hard – but it is important that you do this mutually and without force so that both of you agree on specific things that are yours to get done and specific things that are his to get done. Then – you handle what is yours to handle and leave him alone. DO NOT step in to relieve him of his responsibilities even if he abandons them, severely procrastinates, etc. DO NOT nag at him or remind him more than one time about what he needs to do. Doing so involves treating him like an child – which he is not no matter how he might try to approximate such a state. Respect him by refusing to do things for him that he is capable of doing if he is so motivated.

My guess is that he “out-passives” you; that you typically get frustrated with his procrastination or outright refusal to take on responsibility, that you take on his responsibilities, and that you express your frustration about this situation to him in a way he interprets as an attack. Of course, feeling attacked, he would tend to either fight you or withdraw and get more passive and procrastinating. This type of relationship dynamic can go on and on in a vicious circle.

By refusing to do things for him, you will be showing him that he cannot manipulate you into taking responsibility for his own life. By refusing to be manipulated, you will hopefully arrive at an emotional place where it is easier for you to not get mad at him when he (probably unconsciously) tries to manipulate you in this way. If you are less mad at him, he has less cause to react to your anger and less cause to make you the reason why he can’t get things done. The more you can remain calm, and politely and respectfully send him the message that he needs to take responsibility for what is his to get done (if he wants it to get done), the better chance you will have over time of helping him to act responsibly, both towards you and for his own life.

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