Orthodoxy Today
Good Marriage XII. Overdependency

Can mortal man be righteous before God? Can a man be pure before his Maker?
Even in his servants he puts no trust, and his angels he charges with error;
how much more those who dwell in houses of clay, whose foundation is in the dust, who are crushed before the moth (Job 4: 17-19)

At first glance it may appear that the holy Spiritual Fathers of the Church have little to say on overdependency -- an important constituent in marital discord discovered by researchers studying the interpersonal dynamics of marriage (Beck, 1988; Burns, 1985; Gottman, 1999). A closer look at the teachings of the Fathers however, reveals deep intuitions about human nature and relationships that penetrate this type of maritial dysfunction.

For example, St. Thalassios told us: "Our Lord Jesus has given light to all men, but those who do not trust in Him bring darkness upon themselves" (Philokalia II). People with an overdependency feel anxious and nervous about making decisions on their own. They feel safe when others make decisions for them. Behaviorally they appear helpless and submissive. Spouses with overdependency frequently ask their partner for reassurance regarding the choices they are making about current actions and possible future goals. Frequently they feel more secure following their partners' choices than any they could make on their own and can include every day activities such as recreation and meals or life goals such as occupation and employment. This could be viewed as living in "darkness."

Psychological Understanding

Cognitive clinical-psychologist Albert Ellis (1962) considered this "need" as one of the major "irrational beliefs triggering emotional dysfunction," he discovered in his clinical research. He defined this irrational cognition as: "The idea that one should be dependent on others and needs someone stronger than oneself on whom to rely." Ellis pointed out "freedom and independence are endorsed in our society."

This kind of psychological reliance on another person as an absolute support is considered far off from what is true and necessary for a stable and healthy self-identity. While inter-cooperation and collaboration between people in our complex society facilitates functioning like communication, the production of good and services, transportation, and so forth, it is irrational to maximize this interdependency by forfeiting to others the choices that are properly befitting to oneself.i

Beck's (1776) cognitive clinical research has found support for eight cognitive distortions related to emotional disorders, including the anxiety and fear characteristic of overdependency:

Selective Abstraction: The focusing on one event while excluding others. The overdependent spouse may focus on the particular present decision they fear to make, ignoring their successes at making decisions in the past. For example, Jack is agonizing over suggesting a trip to Hawaii, although the last few suggestions have been delightfully received by his wife, Jill.

Arbitrary Inference: Drawing a conclusion unwarranted by the facts in an ambiguous situation. Jill would like to take an adult education class in pottery. She may conclude, however, that her husband will be critical of her and think it is foolish.

Personalization: Interpreting a general event in exclusively personal terms. At a party, Jill heard someone say "Boy, people make some really stupid decisions in life." She immediately personalized the statement by assuming the statement was referring to her.

Polarization: Perceiving or interpreting events in all or nothing terms. Jack thinks Jill will think of him as a "bad" husband (as opposed to "good') for not taking the new position at work he was offered. He fails to see that she may evaluate other decisions he has made quite favorably. There are a lot of points between "good" and "bad."

Generalization: The tendency to see things in always or never categories. Jill becomes increasingly anxious about making decisions. She thinks she will never be able to do things on her own because she is so afraid that Jack will eventually leave her (arbitrary inference). Jill's anxiety and her safety needs lead to further defeating behavior patterns, further distancing her from her husband, Jack, thereby weakening the marriage even more.

Demanding Expectations: Beliefs that there are laws or rules that always hold true. Jill feels she has to be dependent on her husband, Jack, because he is so strong and she needs his strength. This is similar to Ellis's (1962) irrational belief previously discussed.

Catastrophizing: The perception that something is worse than it actually is. Jill thinks it would be awful, the end of the world, to make a wrong decision.

Emotional Reasoning: The judgment that one's feelings are facts. Jack has a feeling that if he takes the new position at work, his new boss may not like him. When asked how he knows this, Jack responds "feelings are always right." He failed to distinguish between the fact that although feelings are real, feelings cannot prove whether something is true or false. I tell my patients that no matter how strongly some people "felt" the world was flat when Christopher Columbus set sail, Columbus proved the world was round. Feelings are not facts.

Psychological Consequences

The consequences of overdependence are subtle. On one hand open conflict is avoided, but at the expense of the overdependent spouse being unfaithful to their "real inner desires and preferences" and the loss of respect on the part of the decision-making spouse. Dependent spouses and individuals view themselves as incompetent and suffer loss of healthy self-esteem (Morelli, 2006a,b,c). A dependency cycle is set up whereby continuing reliance on one's husband or wife (or others perceived as being "strong") leads to even greater degrees of reliance. At some point even choices and other behaviors that an individual is capable of doing are given over to one's spouse. This is especially true when the overdependency extends to personal domains such as the choice of clothing to buy, what to wear, or even what tooth paste to use.

Opportunities to learn to make decisions and to learn new activities are lost by the overdependent individual. Again, this adds to the cycle of dependency. The dire need for safety, and fear of making mistakes inhibit efficacious decision-making and actions. At best, the supportive spouse loses respect for their mate, at worst it can lead to manipulation and control of the dependent person, possibly leading to egregious criminal and sinful behavior. This is similar to the deleterious effects of evaluation sensitivity discussed in another article (Morelli, 2008). In the case of evaluation sensitivity, the motive for the flagrant behavior is a desperate "need for approval;" in this case, the motive to conform comes from the fear of the dependent spouse to make their own decisions and their desperate need for the safety of dependency.

Psychological Intervention

The dependent spouse has to first recognize and label the irrational belief and cognitive distortions. Then the spouse has to begin disputing and restructuring the distortions. Three questions are helpful in the restructuring process:

  • Where is the evidence?
  • Is there any other way of looking at the situation?
  • Is the situation as bad as it seems?

Examining the root belief discussed by Ellis that: "The idea that one should be dependent on others and needs someone stronger than oneself on whom to rely," makes a good start. For example, the dependent spouse may ask himself for "proof or evidence" of this irrational need. Alternatives may be explored. In this case, asking themselves (aided by a licensed, trained mental health practitioner if necessary): "Was there ever a time in which you were not with your spouse and made your own decision about something?" can be helpful. I have found that patients will first focus on some poor decisions they made in the past, but with persistence a great number of good decisions can be uncovered. Then, clinically - or pastorally - I ask the patient what they can learn from this new information and interpretation.

Each one of the cognitive distortions has to be challenged and restructured the same way, either by the dependent spouses themselves or in more severe cases under the guidance of a trained professiona. During this time, measured "homework assignments" should be taken on and performed. A couple was referred to me for marital counseling with the husband as the designated patient as he had a severe dependency problem.ii One aspect was that he could not buy any clothing without his wife's presence and reassurance

Before setting up the homework assignment we first agreed on some facts. First, that $5.00 was a small amount of money in today's society. Then we agreed that $5.00 was a small investment in his psychological and marital welfare. Then I gave him the assignment to go to a men's shop and purchase a tie. Of course he was reluctant but we kept reviewing the facts already agreed on. We also restructured his other distorted cognitions (as listed above), coming to the conclusions that: he had made some decisions before, he had no evidence his wife would disapprove, it would not be the end of the world, he could always learn from his purchase and try again, etc. As simple as this sounds this was the start of a successful solution.

Assertiveness Training

Another intervention that has shown to be effective in overdependency is assertiveness training (Wolpe, 1958). Assertiveness may be defined as an honest and true communication of real feelings in a socially acceptable manner and in which the emotional reactions, welfare, and good of the other are taken into account. Two collateral principles have to be practiced and learned in assertiveness. The principle of the minimal effective response and escalation.

First Principle: Minimal Effective Response

The minimal effective response is to use words that are without offence and socially and spiritually appropriate. Paralinguistic (such as lack of hesitation, tone level, fluency) and nonverbal factors (such as eye contact, facial expression, posture) are important in working on this. A wife may tell her husband, "Honey, I am always asking you what clothes I should buy, but because it is really important to learn to do this on my own, I am going to shop today on my own." She would practice this initializing the conversation without hesitation, in a normal conversational tone while looking her husband in the eye, and standing or sitting up straight (Kelly, 1955 ; Morelli, 2006d ).

Second Principle: Escalation

Sometimes messages spoken in a normal communication tone are ignored, not responded to, or even met with belligerence. In such cases, escalation of the choice of words and paralinguistic delivery must be resorted to by the communicator. In the example above, if the wife's request to buy her own clothes is met with resistance she may then say in a firm, non-angry tone: "Jack, I feel really bad when you respond like that to me. I have the right to make up my own mind about my clothes, so I am going out shopping today on my own. I am sorry to be so firm about this, but it is very important to me, discussion on this issue is now over." If he responds favorably to this escalated communication, she should reply with a pleasant: "Thank you for understanding." To emphasize her lack of anger she could go out of her way to respond pleasantly to the next topic her husband may talk to her about (as long as it is not on the topic of buying clothes). Escalation does not always work and essential condition for success is that the communicator has to be prepared to act on their plan, even without spousal approval. In all cases, modeling anger, crossing legal limits, and lack of Christ-like charity must be avoided.

Fixed Role Therapy and Behavioral Rehearsal

In clinical and pastoral counseling settings I have found it most advantageous that scripts be practiced before hand. In such cases I employ programs that use role-playing techniques, such as the ones described by Kelly (1955), Morelli (2006b) or the behavioral rehearsal strategies recommended by Bandura (1986), and Ellis (1962). I start with the patient imagining the setting in which they have to take an independent action. I point out that the goal is to express their feelings and views and not necessarily have the other person comply with their wishes. Following the work of Bandura (1986) (that imaginal rehearsal before behavioral rehearsal enhances the effectiveness of the role-playing in both the office and real-life settings in framing the assertive remarks that have to be made), patients first practice using imagery, followed by role-playing with me.

The Great Saboteur

Among the cognitive distortions mentioned above, arbitrary inference by mind-reading is the greatest saboteur of assertiveness. For the spouse trying to conquer overdependency, mind-reading is trying to discern without evidence what the other spouse is thinking and feeling (Morelli, 2006d). The overdependent husband or wife usually thinks that the spouse will be angry or judgemental. However, since it is impossible to know the state of mind, thoughts, or feelings of other people, the non-assertive person inevitably injects his/her own interpretation into this void. The tendency is to interpret ambiguous signals based on his private attitudes, thoughts, and feelings (Morelli, 2006d). The three disputing questions listed above can aid in dispelling these irrational interpretations.

If left unchallenged, mind-reading easily devolves into a set of cascading scenarios that have no basis in reality. One scenario becomes the basis for the next with the progression becoming increasingly threatening, usually culminating in emotional paralysis, inaction and continued overdependency.

Putting it into Practice

Various assertive responses are attempted by trial and error and given to the patient to try out as homework assignments. Subsequent sessions monitor and refine the process. Imaginal and behavioral rehearsal also includes the particular pragmatics or paralinguistic nuances of the communication: response speed, volume, inflection (tone of voice) and dysfluency (stammering, etc.), eye contact, facial expression, gestures, and posture (direction of leaning: forward, back, relaxed or stiff, etc.). Patients reported that they experienced less anger and upset and felt more empowered and confident as they learned these assertive skills. They report achieving a higher level of compliance with the therapy program as they are learning to overcome overdependency.

Spiritual Consequences

Dependency is a characteristic of children. Independence (conforming to God's Will) is a characteristic of Christian adulthood. This echoes the observation by St. Paul: "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways" (1 Cor. 13: 11).

St. John of the Ladder: On Unmanly Fears

Step 21 of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, penned by St. John of the Ladder is titled: On Unmanly Fears. He describes " ... a childish behavior within a soul advanced in years ... it is a lapse from faith that comes from anticipating the unexpected."

The inspired Holy Father pointed out "(F)ear is danger tasted in advance, a quiver as the heart takes fright before unnamed calamity. Fear is a loss of assurance." We will all go before the "dread judgment seat of Christ" as individuals. Our accountability before Christ is an individual accountability. As St. Paul taught: "So each of us shall give account of himself to God" (Romans 14:12). I cannot imagine Our Lord being pleased with an overdependent spouse going before Him and saying "I couldn't decide for myself which was good or bad, right or wrong, I was afraid to make my own decisions so I let my husband (wife) make my decisions for me."

St. John of the Ladder wrote: "The slightest concession to this weakness means that this childish and absurd malady will grow old with you." The writer of the Book of Proverbs (25:19) tells us: "Trust in a faithless man in time of trouble is like a bad tooth or a foot that slips."

Our Lord's Words on Reliance on Others

There is a beautiful parable of Our Lord, recorded by St. Matthew that at a first glance has nothing to do with overdependency, but with Godly meditation can be understood as undue reliance on others:

Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, 'Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.' Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' But the wise replied, 'Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.' And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut. Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, 'Lord, lord, open to us.' But he replied, 'Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.' Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. (Matthew 25:1-13).

Just as each of the maidens were responsible for having oil for their lamps, so each spouse in a blessed marriage is responsible to work out their own salvation before God. The maidens who relied on the others were not known to the bridegroom and were not able to enter the wedding feast. The oil spoken of by Our Lord in this parable may be seen as a symbol of the psycho-spiritual independence each spouse must bring into their marriage. Metaphorically, this oil may be composed of both the decisions regarding the personal areas of their lives, and the moral choices of doing God's will in all things.

Spiritual Intervention

Marital Grace

The blessed married couple committed to Christ and His Church has the additional help of God's grace and healing by virtue of the graces given to them by their blessed marriage. It is not inconsequential that after sharing The Common Cup during the Orthodox Marriage Service, the "holy martyrs who had fought the good fight" and thus by their strength have "received [their] crowns" are called upon to entreat Our Lord on behalf of the couple. To have the strength of the martyrs each spouse should pray: "The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?" (Psalm 27:1). "The Lord is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts; so I am helped" (Psalm 28:7).

Spiritual Considerations

Certain passages from scripture and teachings from the Church Fathers may be reflected and meditated on by the spouse struggling to overcome overdependency. Consider St. Paul's instruction to the Corinthians : " ... each man's work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done" (1 Corinthians 3:13). The critical points are "each man's work will become manifest", and "fire will test [this] work." The overdependent spouse must make the commitment to pray and work to gain the strength to stand with Christ here on earth so they may stand on their own before Him, with holiness, at the gate into eternal life.

Trust in Christ Alone

Our strength, hope and trust must be in Christ, and Him alone. The Psalmist put it well:

Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no help. When his breath departs he returns to his earth; on that very day his plans perish. Happy is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God (Psalm 146:3-5).

Each person, man, woman will stand before Christ, no "son of man," either husband or wife, will be next to them.

Spiritual Transformation

A spiritual transformation has to take place in the person conquering overdependency. This transformation must be a metanoia (a change of mind). A recognition of a separation from God, of a darkened vision that is focused on the world and not God. Metanoia is usually associated with a fundamental element in the Holy Mystery of Confession, in which we are reconciled to God and healed of our infirmities. It is a requirement that for sins to be forgiven; not only must one admit guilt and ask forgiveness but also change one's focus and commit to Christ.

Overdependency: An Infirmity in Need of Healing

Is overdependency a sin, a transgression, an infirmity? Yes! Didn't St. John of the Ladder call it a "lapse of faith," and a "loss of assurance" (which is also falling short of the theological virtues of faith and hope). Thus overcoming over-dependency calls for a core change in the center of the heart. This change has to be based on focusing on God and trusting in Him. Hope, not in men or others, but God alone. St. Theognostos said:

...hope needs a firm will and an honest heart. How without grace can one readily believe in things unseen? How can a man have hope concerning the hidden things held in store unless through his own integrity he has gained some experience of the Lord's gifts? These gifts of grace are a gage of the blessing held in store, which they manifest as present realities. Faith and hope then require both virtue on our part and God's inspiration and help. Unless both are present we labour in vain (Philokalia II).

It is in this sense that we can understand the words of St. Thalassios, cited above, that we "bring darkness upon ourselves," not just humanly, but spiritually.

Consider the words of St. Maximus the Confessor:

The person who loves God values knowledge of God more than anything created by God, and pursues such knowledge ardently and ceaselessly. If everything that exists was made by God and for God, and God is superior to the things made by Him, he who abandons what is superior and devotes himself to what is inferior shows that he values things made by God more than God Himself (Philokalia II).

Synergia: Grace Builds on Nature

The words of St. Paul to the Romans can aid us to acquire the spiritual virtues of faith and hope in a synergia with the human behavioral and psychological traits practiced in clinical settings. St. Paul spoke of the sufferings, endurance and character which bring on hope of sharing in God's glory. The ris -taking needed to overcome overdependency requires new behaviors be acted on in the face of uncertainty, which is a degree of mental suffering. Once the person starts acquiring and continues in its acquisition endurance is also acquired, and this can easily be viewed as character.

St. Paul taught that this is also the path to cooperating with the grace and peace of God through Our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to hope -- and optimism drawn from God's divine love:

We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us" (Romans 5:1-5)

St. Philotheos of Sinai wrote: "Faith disposes us truly to fear God. Hope, transcending servile fear, bind us to the love of God, since 'hope does not disappoint (cf. Romans 5:5), containing as it does the seed of that twofold love on which hand 'the law and the prophets'" (cf. Matthew. 22:40) (Philokalia II).

Beyond a Marital Problem

I started this article with a consideration that overdependency was a barrier to smart marriage. We have now come around to understand that not only is it a barrier to a blessed Orthodox (and Christian) marriage, but also to our union with God Himself. It behooves couples (for their marriage and most of all for their salvation) to make their prayer the beautiful psalm, "He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, who abides in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, 'My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust'" (Psalm 90:1-2).

Our "Declaration of Independence" is Founded on God

St. Paisios of the Holy Mountain (Ageloglou, 1998) wrote: "We should do whatever can be humanly achieved; the rest which is beyond our power, must be left in God's hands." And the holy monk tells us again: " ... we must reject any form of worldly assistance or human hope and with a pure heart, unhesitatingly and trustfully devote our mind to God. Then, the grace of Christ will fill our soul at once." Spouses, and indeed all, married or single will gain independence and salvation by dependence on God alone.


Ageloglou, Priestmonk Christodoulos. (1998). Elder Paisios of The Holy Mountain. Mt. Athos, Greece: Holy Mountain.

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Morelli, G. (2006c). Healing: Orthodox Christianity and Scientific Psychology. Fairfax. VA: Eastern Christian Publications.

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Morelli, G. (2007, June 5). Good Marriage IV: The "Preference Scale" - A Tool for Communication, Negotiation and Collaboration. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles7/MorelliSmartMarriageIV.php.

Morelli, G. (2007, November 20). Good Marriage X: Perfectionism. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles7/MorelliSmartMarriageX.php.

Morelli, G. (2008, January 9). Good Marriage XI: The Game Of Relationship Self Esteem. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles8/Morelli-SmartMarriageXI.php.

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i. Special factors such as the "realistic" needs of handicapped individuals must be considered. Even in such cases the "treatment philosophy" of physical, occupational and rehabilitation medicine is to maximize personal function: -- "what the individual can do for themselves."

Cultural factors must also be considered, what is "dependent" behavior in one culture, may be normative in another culture.

ii. In couple counseling the designated patient is actually the couple themselves. Each brings into the marital relationship a cognitive, behavioral and spiritual "set" which is incongruous in some ways to the "set" of their spouse. Both have to unlearn maladaptive "sets," learn adaptive "sets" and then fit them together. For example, this may take implementing imperfection tolerance. Developing imperfection tolerance involves the use of The Mental Ruler Technique (Burns, 1980, Morelli, 2006c) and The Preference Scale (Morelli, 2007) and is explained further in Morelli (2007).

Fr. George Morelli

V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.

Be sure to visit Fr. Morelli's new site Orthodox Healing  for the latest essays and information.

Published: January 20, 2008

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