Emotionally Dependent Relationships

Some of you may shudder when you see or hear the words Emotionally Dependent Relationships. This is especially true if you attended an ex-gay program that warned against the perils of emotional dependency.

Today I received a voice mail from a friend who attended Love in Action with me over ten years ago. Just the other day when we spoke on the phone he sounded chipper with a wonderful attitude about himself and life in general, but on the recorded message his voice sounded desperate. If I hadn’t understand the words in his message correctly, I would have inferred from his tone of voice that he had spent the night strung out on crack cocaine engaging in multiple unprotected sexual encounters. He sounded defeated and demoralized. What terrorized him? It wasn’t a “sexual fall,” as we called it back at Love in Action. No, he encountered the specter of emotionally dependent relationships.

Now this is a guy who has not really had sex with another guy in his whole life. Like some who come to a place like Love in Action, he pretty much always had sexual feelings for guys, but he was much more interested in a romantic relationship than in hooking up. The staff drummed it into him that his drug of choice came in the form of intense relationships with other guys. Explicitly and more subtly they stressed that such relationships were unhealthy, abnormal and sinful.

For many of us, the results of these teachings exacerbated our feelings towards the object of our affection along with the toxic feelings of shame and fear. Ex-gay ministers taught us to distrust strong feelings towards anyone, especially anyone of the same-sex even if that person was not gay or lesbian.

Christine Bakke recently wrote about this topic and did some art work which she shares in her blog post In Mesh. She writes,

The biggest problem I still face is fear of close relationships with others – especially women. Fear of “emotional dependency” or “enmeshment.” Fear of needing someone. Fear of…I don’t know. Just fear, and now just a consistent inability to wholly participate in friendships with others.

I know that it’s not true – that while some relationships can be unhealthy, most are not. And closeness and yes, even at times emotional dependency should not be demonized. There are times when we all need others, and to be shamed for relationships that we had while ex-gay, those that others deemed unhealthy; relationships that may have been getting us through some of the tougher moments in our ex-gay process…it is a great harm and a great disservice to us at a time when we were the most vulnerable, and the most laid bare, needing others around us.

Those ex-gay providers who expound on the hazards of enmeshment and emotional dependency most often target lesbians with these teachings, but gay men also fall under the sway of these misguided ideas. The fear and shame-soaked lessons about emotionally dependent relationships gave us false and dangerous guidance that still affect some of us today years after we left the ex-gay world.

We may not always be conscious of it, but today some of us still hold others at bay not allowing them to get too close lest we form some sort of negative bond with them. We secretly hold the beliefs that we are emotionally broken, flawed, dangerous. We live independent lives without deep and intimate connections with others. And when we begin to feel a drawing closer to a person, so often doubts and fears seem to come out of nowhere, and before we know it, we squash the blossoming attachment.

The reality is that humans need intimate, meaningful relationships.

It is not good for man or woman to be alone.

The concept of a single person is an abnormal modern construct. Up until recently most of our people lived in family units of some kind. The lone hermit was viewed as the rare saint or more often the town crazy person. Not everyone lived with a romantic and sexual partner, but they lived in families made up of all sorts of configurations. Modernity created the single person who so often lives detached from other humans except for business transactions, work, and long-distance family ties that tenuously hold people nominally responsible for each other.

Not that I want to bash the single life; I am single myself. But many of us long for something more. That longing comes from legitimate need—a human need, just like we as humans need physical touch. Without it we begin to grow depressed, to detach, to fade.

All sorts of research has been conducted that highlights the positive affects of skin to skin touch. After I have spent extensive time with someone who loves me, and we held each other, cuddled and touched, I felt joy even weeks afterwards when we were physically far away from each other. I’m not even talking about sex here (not that there is anything wrong with sex), but simply the human need for touching, holding, being physically present with another.

Jesus and the disciples created deep relationships among each other that were dependent and full of physical intimacy. (Look in the Gospels yourself, and you will find plenty of examples). From my time in the Mediterranean and parts of South America and Africa, I witnessed wonderful expressions of physical same-sex intimacy among friends. Physical and emotional intimacy and dependence can be healthy and healing.

Some ex-gay teachings on intimacy and relationships run counter to our natural, healthy human needs. They instruct us to divorce ourselves from reality, from our genuine needs as well as from our sexual orientation. They demand that we live lives devoid of physical intimacy except for the rare cases when ex-gays marry someone of the opposite sex. Other than that all relationships and forms of intimacy remain suspect and taboo. They allow us to be intimate with the Spirit of God, but we need to avoid physical and emotional connectedness with other humans.

no, No NO! We need to live in reality. As a Christian and lover of God, I know this to be true–God desires truth in the inmost part. We need each other. We need deep and meaningful relationships and that human touch—emotionally and physically. We need to depend on friends and lovers and loved one and have them depend on us to supply each other with the things only humans can give to each other.

As a Christian I recognize that this is how God set it up. Sure ultimately I know that God supplies all my needs, but just like God supplies my nutritional need through healthy veggies, legumes, fruits and grains, I receive God’s love through other people. God provides me so much of what I need from the emotional and physical intimacy I share with others.

In fact, in regards to these teachings, I see the ex-gay movement as an Ex-Human Movement. In some ways it mirrors what the modern world pushes on us, that we can make it all on our own, except instead of God, the modern world provides us with materialism.

No, we need each other, and when we don’t have our emotional and physical needs met, we mourn, we feel the loss and the pain of detachment, of emotional solitude. At those times I need to acknowledge reality and express my need to myself, to God and to others. It is not a matter of whining (and yeah some of my friends get tired of hearing it), it is a matter of being present in the pain of unmet need and then putting into words, images, prayers, sighs, and groans what we long for, what we need. We ask, we seek, we knock.

The false ex-gay teachings on emotionally dependent relationships rest on a faulty foundation. They overlook reality and in turn paralyze people and force them into a stagnant way of life. The best way I can think to counter lies like these is with simple, rational, truth. Then I can begin to detox from the noxious teaching that enabled me to be an emotional stranger for so long.

Then Jesus said, “Lazarus come out!” And the dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them “Take of the grave clothes and let him go.”

This post has 10 Comments

  1. Vince Cervantes on February 5, 2008 at 2:38 am Reply

    i had to take a deep breath after reading this. i really started crying midway through and couldn’t explain my tears. i began to realize how much i am afraid of allowing myself to be close to anyone.

    to this day i am guilty of holding my best friends are arms length (especially men). in fact, i have only handful of men i call best friends. i still have this fear.

    but your words were able to offer me understanding and are going to help me heal.

  2. Auntie Doris on February 5, 2008 at 7:28 am Reply

    Ouch…. you have managed to put far more eloquently my current feelings. As you already know from reading my current blog entries this resonates so strongly for me that I feel physical pain in my gut. I have been asked why I blog about what makes me hurt the most and I yet it is the need to be honest about what is going on. I can either choose to bury my deepest needs, desires, wants, fears and hopes, or I choose to be honest about the pain of that ‘unmet need’. Why is it ok to be able to say I am having a bad day at work, but not ok to say I am having a bad day at life?

    As a single woman these needs are as profound as those of people in the gay community. Church has a tendency to drum into you how ‘different’ and ‘other’ you become when you are still single. I thought I would be married with kids by the age of 25, and yet at 32 I find myself alone. However, I know that if I had been married early it would have been unlikely that I had experienced all the things I have as I would have taken a very different path. It would also have been unlikely that I would have met you. In which case, I will take the singleness… for now.

    I love you X

    Thank you.

  3. meghan q on February 5, 2008 at 3:30 pm Reply

    Wow your post really strikes a chord with me. It’s frightening that strong relationships have been twisted into something negative. The whole idea of trying to keep that distance from everyone, in order to stay detached, is completely against what it is to be human. And since that is an impossible goal, I can see how so many people are really scarred by the ex-gay movement…

    The intense closeness a person feels with others, no matter if this is experienced as a conversation with someone on a bus who you will never see again, or during one week at summer camp when you are twelve, or throughout your entire life with a friend or partner, is one of the biggest treasures about being alive.

  4. Barry on February 5, 2008 at 3:48 pm Reply

    “We may not always be conscious of it, but today some of us still hold others at bay not allowing them to get too close lest we form some sort of negative bond with them. We secretly hold the beliefs that we are emotionally broken, flawed, dangerous. We live independent lives without deep and intimate connections with others. And when we begin to feel a drawing closer to a person, so often doubts and fears seem to come out of nowhere, and before we know it, we squash the blossoming attachment.

    “I am single myself. But many of us long for something more. That longing comes from legitimate need—a human need, just like we as humans need physical touch. Without it we begin to grow depressed, to detach, to fade.”

    This describes me, however, I am conscious of it. I’ve tried to pull people into my world, but often I begin to have emotional attachments than can never be expressed, so I run away and hide. Eventually the pain dwindles, but the longing and the fear, of wanting more than I can ever have, remain. So I live as a hermit, not trusting myself or anyone else.

  5. KJ on February 5, 2008 at 8:57 pm Reply

    Well said, Peterson. Even those who remain single, for whatever reason, need deep relationships with others in order to be fully themselves. Ironic — We need others in order to be fully ourselves. When we are not fully who we are, we not only diminish ourselves, but thwart how the Spirit would use us in the lives of others.

  6. Carol on February 5, 2008 at 11:41 pm Reply

    The “lost” e-mail from the other day started out for my friend with this, “He puts the solitary in families.” and I went from there… How similar to what you have written here, with so much more detail and truth. I sometimes (no, most times) am too impatient with my writing to make all the points I want to make – but I totally agree/feel what you are expressing.

  7. titration on February 6, 2008 at 12:59 am Reply

    Thank you SOOOOO much for this post. It’s great. It triggered a lot of thought. For years I heard the word “Emotionally Dependant” thrown around. It was in little booklets that intervasity press put out about the evils of these relationships and how it would lead to homosexuality. Eventually I figured out that much of what they label emotionally Dependant is a simple crush. Or is what many heterosexuals experience in close dating relationships. So why if I experience those things is it now “emotionally Dependant”. Dumb!

    Yeah. I guess your post triggers a lot of anger and memories for me.

  8. Liadan on February 6, 2008 at 5:43 am Reply

    I think I love you, Peterson.

    In an emotionally independent way, of course. 🙂

  9. Anonymous on February 7, 2008 at 2:20 am Reply

    Thanks for posting this.

  10. MR on February 20, 2008 at 4:06 am Reply

    I have never been associated with the ex-gay movement, but I do believe gay sex is wrong. I experience attraction to other men, and I see celibacy as my calling rather than heterosexual marriage.

    Under these circumstances, friendships are extremely important to me. Strong emotional bonds, hugging, and intimate conversations are necessary and very fulfilling without leading to sex.

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