by: LORRIE GOLDIN, LCSW
THE POLITICS OF HOSTILE DEPENDENCY
Why is it that regions of the country with a high proportion of people who rely on the government-funded safety net tend to elect politicians who vow to slash it? Differing world views and values, voter apathy, misinformation, and political manipulation of wedge issues are key factors that help explain this phenomenon. But the psychology of hostile dependency is also at play.
A recent New York Times article examines criticism of the safety net by those who increasingly depend on it. It notes that middle-class people who are angry at but reliant on the government "are frustrated that they need help, feel guilty for taking it and resent the government for providing it."
Therapists are familiar with such dynamics, which often play out in the transference and in our patients' lives. For example, a 35-year-old patient, who is severely emotionally and physically impaired, denigrates our therapy but can't bear to miss a session. He also rages against the mother he depends on, feeling humiliated by his need. A history of trauma fuels their particular dance of mutual hostage-taking. But we see this pattern in subtler forms in many therapies and among loving and attuned families. (Just ask any parent of a teenager!)
Hostile dependency suffuses not just families and therapy but also politics. Indeed, "Hands off my Medicare!" shouted by the anti-government protester is reminiscent of Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall?, a popular book for parents of teens.
Developmental and cultural models help make sense of today's political landscape. The U.S. is a young country with all the exuberance, idealism, frustration, and self-absorption of adolescence. Youth, combined with culturally-ingrained tropes of freedom and self-reliance, define our national character.
Stanford anthropologist Tanya Marie Luhrmann notes that "there is something deeply American about the force of our insistence that you should be able to ride it out on your own." Indeed, rhetoric regarding the "nanny state" exploits our shame about need and our fears of infantilism.
It's hard work integrating the equal imperatives of dependence and independence that define a well-balanced individual or society. Distinguishing between healthy and unhealthy entitlement or what fosters growth versus debility is not always clear. The task is further complicated by our national fixation on individualism. We often mistake need for failure, abandonment for freedom.
Like the tumult of adolescence, perhaps this reactivity will subside as the U.S. lurches ever onward toward a more secure identity in which our need for interdependence is embraced rather than disavowed.