Early experience sets template for dependency in women

December 09, 1999

Early socialization may make women more emotionally reliant - and more prone to depression - than men, according to new research.

The results of previous studies suggested that women's heavier home responsibilities and lower work status were possible causes for the disparity in depression rates between men and women. But such factors are only part of the picture, according to lead study author Heather A. Turner, PhD, of the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

"It is possible that socialization processes contribute to heightened vulnerability to depression among females," said Turner. "In other words, males and females may develop different self conceptions or personal attributes relatively early in life that influence the likelihood of experiencing depressive symptoms."

The tendency to be emotionally reliant - that is, to rely heavily on the positive feedback of others to maintain self esteem - is developed in women long before adulthood.

"Identity formation for females is inextricably tied to and dependent upon the development of intimate relationships," said Turner. "As a result, women's self conceptions are most strongly defined through interpersonal associations."

Adolescent boys and girls differ markedly in their sensitivity to the assessments of others, for example. Adolescent females tend to focus on being liked by others, while males are more likely to focus on academic and athletic goals, according to Turner and co-author R. Jay Turner, PhD, Florida International University.

In their survey of 1,393 individuals from Toronto, Ontario, the researchers found a strong association between emotional reliance and depression. Their research findings appear in the December issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

The researchers found that women were significantly more likely to be emotionally reliant than men, independent of other factors like social status, marital status, education, income, and job prestige.

In addition, women appeared more deeply impacted by their emotional reliance than men did. Emotionally reliant male study participants were less likely to be depressed than emotionally reliant female participants.

Study participants who were married were more likely to be emotionally reliant than those who were unmarried. But marriage was more strongly associated with emotional reliance for men than it was for women. The latter finding is consistent with previous research that suggested that husbands depend more on wives for emotional support than wives depend on husbands, according to the study authors.

"The fact that men tend to occupy more powerful positions in society may protect them from the debilitating effects of emotional reliance," said Turner.

"For men, emotional reliance may be perceived as a sign of sensitivity - perhaps a desirable trait for someone in a more powerful position, but one that does not necessarily create losses in ability or authority," said Turner.

Individuals - but women in particular - with higher education levels were less likely to be emotionally reliant, the researchers found. "It may be that higher education has a particularly beneficial effect for women by counteracting early socialization processes that encourage dependence," said Turner. Therefore, while emotional reliance may develop early in life, Turner's research also indicates that contemporary circumstances influence interpersonal dependence.

This research was supported by a research grant from the National Health Research and Development Programs of Health and Welfare Canada.
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The Journal of Health and Social Behavior is a peer-reviewed quarterly publication of the American Sociological Association. For information about the journal, contact John Mirowsky, PhD, 614-688-8673.

Posted by the Center for the Advancement of Health . For information about the Center, call Petrina Chong, 202-387-2829.

Center for Advancing Health

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