Dependent personality disorder (DPD) is a pattern of behaving passively and being excessively dependent on others in a way that may undermine a person’s well-being or life. Dependent personality disorder treatment can help with symptoms and support a person in maintaining healthy relationships.

Dependence in relationships is typical, as people usually depend on their loved ones for support and care. People with dependent personality disorder, though, can become excessively dependent, working to maintain relationships that may be harmful or one-sided. They may become passive and unable to make decisions on their own or behave assertively.

The main dependent personality disorder treatments are usually psychotherapy or psychodynamic therapy, often cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Sometimes, a person might take medication to relieve underlying depression or anxiety.

This article will explain the treatment options for DPD. It will also explain what the signs are and the underlying causes.

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Personality disorders may be challenging to treat because such disorders affect every aspect of a person’s interactions. They may feel integral to a person’s personality, so a person is unlikely to see their behavior as problematic. They may instead think that the problem is the way others interact with them.

When a person does seek treatment, the goals of treatment include:

  • helping a person understand that they have a personality disorder
  • supporting a person to identify harmful patterns of interaction
  • helping a person manage the emotions that cause their harmful patterns of behavior
  • modeling and teaching healthier ways of interacting

Therapy usually is the mainstay of treatment. Several different therapeutic techniques can work, but psychodynamic and cognitive behavioral therapy remain among the most popular and studied approaches.

Treatment with therapy can involve:

  • learning to operate independently and make decisions
  • learning to be aware of harmful relationships that survive on one-sided dependence
  • helping with dependence issues, such as clinginess

People with DPD may be in relationships with a pattern of excessive dependence, where the dependence runs in one direction. Their partner may need to take care of their basic needs or make decisions for them, even when they are intellectually and physically capable of managing these decisions independently.

Read more about the different types of personality disorders here.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of therapy that helps a person understand the connection between their thoughts, feelings, and actions. It also helps them identify and correct harmful false beliefs, such as, “I cannot function without a spouse” or “I cannot take care of myself.”

It can help a person identify their behavior patterns, and how those behaviors affect them and others, and then adopt newer and healthier behaviors. A person practices healthier ways of thinking and relating in therapy and then uses those techniques in their relationships to improve them and reduce harmful dependency.

Focusing on skills training, such as assertiveness and independence, may also help. People in CBT may practice these skills or identify barriers to developing them.

Read more about CBT here.

Psychodynamic psychotherapy is another popular and potentially effective technique for treating personality disorders. It aims to help a person understand how prior experiences, especially from early life, affect their behavior. Then, it uses the relationship with the therapist as a tool for healing and practicing healthier relationships.

It can offer significant insight into personality disorders and may help a person understand their feelings of dependency.

It is important for the therapist to avoid promoting dependence because the therapeutic relationship could then become harmful and may replicate negative patterns in the person’s life.

Read more about psychodynamic therapy here.

No specific medication has been developed to treat dependent personality disorder, and research on the effectiveness of medication has not been thorough or conclusive.

However, a doctor may prescribe medication to address underlying symptoms, such as antidepressants for depression or anti-anxiety medication for anxiety.

People with dependent personality disorder have a higher risk of substance misuse, so doctors should avoid prescribing potentially addictive drugs, such as benzodiazepines.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision, lists the following symptoms as diagnostic criteria:

  • difficulty making decisions without input or reassurance from others
  • requiring others to take over responsibilities they should tend to
  • approval seeking, and intense fear of disagreement
  • trouble starting projects without others’ involvement
  • an excessive need for nurturing and support from others, or a tendency to impose themselves on others
  • desperate attempts to replace one ended relationship with another
  • intense fear of being alone
  • disproportionate fears of being alone or unable to care for oneself

How to manage symptoms

Some strategies that may help a person manage their symptoms include:

  • working to understand that the dependent behavior is harmful and comes from a mental health condition
  • identifying ways that the dependent behavior actually undermines closeness with others
  • seeking treatment from a provider who specializes in dependent personality disorder
  • tracking symptoms over time, which may help with identifying triggers and assessing how well the treatment works
  • developing new coping skills, such as exercising, cultivating a new hobby, or doing something that promotes a sense of independence and self-efficacy, such as taking a public speaking class

Researchers continue to debate the underlying causes of personality disorders generally and dependent personality disorders specifically. Some potential causes include:

  • biological factors, including a genetic tendency toward anxiety
  • developmental factors, such as exposure to early abuse or trauma
  • environmental factors, such as cultural norms surrounding relationships or dependence

While some research has shown brain differences in people with personality disorders, it is unclear whether these differences cause the disorder or result from it. Researchers have not identified a specific set of risk factors.

A doctor or mental health professional can diagnose a dependent personality.

There is no lab test for the disorder. Instead, a provider diagnoses based on a person’s symptoms. It is important to ensure that something else is not causing the symptoms and that they remain relatively consistent over time and in multiple settings.

Criteria for diagnosing DPD includes:

  • a persistent, obsessive need to be taken care of
  • excessive clinginess
  • excessive submission

Many people with personality disorders may avoid seeking treatment, unaware that anything is wrong with their behavior. This can mean treatment is often delayed, leading to a poorer outlook. They may also leave treatment when they have to confront their own behavior.

However, personality disorders are treatable if a person persists with treatment. And in some cases, symptoms may spontaneously improve over time, with or without treatment.

People with personality disorders often do not recognize that they have a disorder. So while a person should speak with a doctor if they have symptoms dependent personality, it is also important to seek care if:

  • A person feels very anxious about abandonment.
  • A person often feels that people abandon them or do not invest in them.
  • A person feels unable to do things on their own or without support.
  • A person is very afraid of conflict.

Dependent personality disorder presents a frustrating conundrum. People may fear losing their relationships and desperately seek approval but find that these behaviors actually alienate people. Over time, a person may become more and more dependent, undermining more relationships.

Treatment can help, but only if a person acknowledges that their behavior poses a problem. Ask a doctor for a referral, or see a mental health professional.