Dependence Regulation

Dependence Regulation Definition

Dependence RegulationDependence regulation refers to people’s tendency to adjust how close they allow themselves to be to a significant other to match the perceived risks of rejection. People risk greater closeness when they are more confident that their relationship partner accepts them and regards them positively (and the risk of rejection is perceived to be lower). In contrast, people find less to value in relationships where they are more uncertain or doubtful about the other’s regard for them (and the risk of rejection is perceived to be higher). People regulate dependence so that they can protect against the potential pain of rejection in advance by devaluing relationships where rejection seems likely. After all, it should hurt less to feel rejected if people can convince themselves that they did not really care all that much about the partner that hurt them in the first place.

Dependence Regulation Background and History

Psychologists interested in studying bonds between parents and children and between adults in romantic relationships have long recognized that relationships are inherently risky. Depending on another person, and coming to love and value them, gives that person tremendous power over one’s emotions and welfare. Having one’s needs met by a significant other can be a great source of happiness, but having one’s needs ignored by that same significant other can be a great source of unhappiness. Consequently, situations of dependence—situations where one person relies on another person to meet his or her needs—raise anxieties about rejection and disappointment.

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Imagine an interaction between spouses, Harry and Sally. When Harry has broken a promise to spend an evening out with Sally, Sally must decide whether to risk letting her welfare depend on Harry’s actions again in the future. Deciding not to trust Harry’s promises protects Sally from feeling rejected or let down in the future. However, such a cautious or self-protective choice also limits Harry’s future opportunities to demonstrate his trustworthiness, putting the well-being of the relationship at greater risk.

Relationships thus present a central context where two fundamental motives—the need to protect against the potential pain of rejection and the need to establish satisfying connections to others—can frequently conflict. For people to put concerns about rejection aside psychologically, they need to be able to give themselves some sort of assurance that the risks of rejection are minimal. A sense of confidence in a relationship partner’s positive regard and caring provides the psychological insurance policy people need to establish and maintain satisfying and fulfilling connections to others.

Evidence for Dependence Regulation

To establish the needed level of confidence in a relationship partner’s positive regard and acceptance, people need to believe that this partner sees positive qualities in them worth valuing. To feel confident of Harry’s regard, for instance, Sally needs to believe that Harry sees her as warm, and smart, and responsive. Once established, this level of confidence in a partner’s regard has a transforming effect on relationships.

Dating and marital relationships and parent-child relationships generally thrive when people both feel and are more valued by their relationship partner. For instance, in both dating and marital relationships, people report greater satisfaction and less conflict the more positively they believe their partner sees their traits, the more loved they feel, and the more positively their partner actually regards them. As for the qualities people attribute to a romantic partner, people in both dating and marital relationships are more likely to see the best in their partner’s traits when they believe their partner loves and values them. Feeling positively regarded by a partner also predicts increases in satisfaction and decreases in conflict as relationships continue over time.

Dependence Regulation Implications

Unfortunately, some people do not have an easy time believing that their partner loves and values them. In dating and marital relationships, people who generally feel badly about their own worth—that is, people with low self-esteem—dramatically underestimate how much their partner loves and values them. Children with low self-esteem also underestimate how much their mothers love and value them. In contrast, people with higher self-esteem better appreciate how much others value them.

For people with low self-esteem, unfulfilled needs for a partner’s positive regard and approval then create substantial difficulties within their relationships. First, feeling undervalued, people with low self-esteem look to specific events in their relationships to try to figure out whether their partner really cares about them. However, they are much more likely to read into negative than positive events. For a low self-esteem person, a routine event, such as a conflict or a partner being irritable, then exacerbates the fear that their partner does not really care about or value them. In fact, low self-esteem people tend to perceive rejection in situations where their partner may be behaving quite benignly. Low self-esteem people then protect themselves against such heightened anxieties by finding greater fault in their partner and by reducing closeness. By lashing out in return, low self-esteem people can effectively diminish the pain of this perceived rejection. Unfortunately, however, such reactions then have the effect of annoying and upsetting a partner who was not actually upset in the first place.

A dramatically different sequence of events is likely to occur for someone with high self-esteem. People with high self-esteem are not likely to be on the lookout for problems, because they are generally more confident of their partner’s positive regard and love. Instead, they are able to mentally transform negative events in their relationships, seeing even events like conflicts as a testament to their partner’s love and caring. In situations where they feel hurt or rejected by their partner, people with high self-esteem also resist the impulse to hurt the partner in return. Instead, they take such events as an opportunity to draw closer. Consequently, people with high self-esteem are better able to cope with relationship ups and downs. An understanding of dependence regulation dynamics can be applied to explain why some people are involved in less satisfying interpersonal relationships than others.


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