How to Tell If Your Character Has Dependent Personality Disorder

A degree of dependency on others is normal, but when that reliance is in the extreme, it could be a sign your character has a personality disorder...

There are some people you just click with, and that was the case when Kate first met her new roommate, Dana. It was almost spooky how similar they were. They liked the same things, shared the same opinions, did pretty much everything together. It was like finding a long-lost sister.

And that was when Kate first began noticing it. How anxious Dana got when she had to make decisions and how heavily she relied on her friend to give her advice, even on small things like what to eat for dinner or what to wear that day. How she never disagreed with Kate and how she changed her beliefs to match her friend’s. How she couldn’t bear to be alone and fretted about being abandoned whenever Kate wasn’t with her. And the longer they knew each other, the stronger Dana’s dependency became, until it completely defined their friendship.

Kate didn’t realise it, but her friend’s way of thinking, her anxiety, passivity and over-reliance on others, had a name: dependent personality disorder.

To Keep in Mind:

The information in this post comes from the DSM-5 (see ‘Further Reading’). Please do not use it to diagnose yourself or others. It isn’t intended to be a substitute for professional advice so do consult a qualified clinical professional if you have any questions about the diagnosis criteria. Feel free to use this information to diagnose your characters, however.

Dana, our guest character for this post and its Storycraft counterpart, has dependent personality disorder (DPD), a Cluster C personality disorder distinguished by its pattern of dependency, anxiety, clinginess and an intense fear of being left to function without the help of others.

Anxiety and fear are defining features of Cluster C personality disorders and DPD is no different. People with this personality disorder may struggle to express any disagreements they have with others, fearing that they’ll lose their support if they do. This can lead to them agreeing with everyone else’s opinions, even if that isn’t the case. Coupled with their anxiety over being left to take care of themselves, this can leave people with dependent personality disorder wide open to manipulation.

How Is Dependent Personality Disorder Diagnosed?

To be diagnosed with DPD, your character must display five or more of the following characteristics:

  • Has difficulty making everyday decisions—like what shirt to wear or what to order from a menu—without an excessive amount of advice and reassurance from others.
  • Needs other people to take responsibility for most of the major areas in his or her life.
  • Has difficulty expressing disagreement with others for fear of losing their support or approval. (Note: If these fears of retribution are realistic, then your character wouldn’t meet this criterion. It’s all about unfounded fears.)
  • Has difficulty starting projects or doing things on his or her own. (Note: This is because your character has a lack of self-confidence in his or her judgement or abilities, not because of a lack of motivation or energy.)
  • Goes to excessive lengths to get care and support from others, to the point of volunteering to do things that are unpleasant.
  • Feels uncomfortable or helpless when he or she is alone because of exaggerated fears of being unable to take care of himself or herself.
  • Urgently seeks another relationship for care and support when a close relationship ends.
  • Is unrealistically preoccupied with fears of being left to take care of himself or herself.

As with all personality disorders, the characteristic features of dependent personality disorder must be inflexible, pervasive and enduring. They’re part of the person’s personality, after all. That means these features can’t just be one-offs or occasional thoughts, feelings or actions. They should be present across a variety of situations, across much of the person’s adult life.

The DSM-5 states that dependent personality disorder should be diagnosed in children and adolescents with great caution, as being dependent on others, like caregivers, is usually appropriate at this point in development. Therefore, unless you’re very familiar with the personality disorder and what it looks like, I’d keep your characters diagnosed with DPD to adults.

You should also keep the culture your characters comes from in mind when deciding whether they have dependent personality disorder. Their culture could also emphasise passivity and deferential treatment of others, features of DPD, or discourage dependent behaviour. It’s only when their behaviours are excessive even within their cultures that they would be diagnosed with DPD.

Dependent Personality Disorder and Relationships

The relationships people with DPD have aren’t necessarily negative ones, but they can be very taxing for everyone involved if boundaries aren’t set. For example, relationships often start out as positive. People who become the friends or lovers of individuals with DPD may feel like they’ve found a soulmate or long-lost sibling. They like the same things as the person with DPD, they’re adored by this person, and they always have someone there to love and cherish them. But as they get to know their DPD friend or partner more, they may start to pick up on their dependent characteristics.

The people in relationships with DPD individuals may actually be supportive of their dependence. Their parents may have directed their lives as children and continue to do so in their adult lives, or their partners or friends may encourage their dependence on them. Keep this in mind when creating a network of relationships in your novel.

Enjoyed this post? You’ll also like Your Character’s Very First Relationship (Hint: It Affects All the Others).

Dependent Personality Disorder and Other Personality Disorders

Because DPD has several features that are similar to or shared by other personality disorders, it’s easy to confuse them. Where DPD is distinguished from other disorders is in its predominantly submissive, reactive and clinging behaviour. Let’s review exactly how DPD’s characteristic features differ from those of other personality disorders.

DPD and Avoidant Personality Disorder

Feelings of inadequacy, a hypersensitivity to criticism and a need for reassurance are characteristic of both avoidant personality disorder (AvPD) and dependent personality disorder. Where they differ, however, is in their attitude towards relationships. The intense fear of humiliation and rejection felt by people with AvPD causes them to withdraw from relationships until they’re certain they’ll be accepted, whereas people with dependent personality disorder seek out and maintain connections with their important others, rather than avoiding and withdrawing from relationships.

DPD and Borderline Personality Disorder

Both disorders are characterised by an intense fear of being abandoned, but they differ in how the individual reacts to abandonment. In borderline personality disorder (BPD), the response is typically one of emotional emptiness, rage and demands. In dependent personality disorder, the response is typically one of increased appeasement and submissiveness. People with DPD might urgently seek a relationship to replace the lost support and caregiving, whereas the relationships of people with BPD tend to be more unstable and intense.

DPD and Histrionic Personality Disorder

In both histrionic personality disorder (HPD) and dependent personality disorder, there’s a strong need for reassurance and approval, which could come across as childish and clingy. However, while HPD is characterised by its sociable and outgoing flamboyance, with active demands for attention, DPD is characterised by its unassuming and submissive behaviour.

Remember: if your character meets the criteria for one or more personality disorders, they can be diagnosed with all of them. Just make sure the characteristic features fit together and have a basis in reality before you decide which disorders will co-occur.