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From a Kellian perspective dependency on other people is not something we grow out of as we mature, but is integral to living in society (Kelly, 1962/1969). We exist within a web of relationships involving interdependencies and in this sense are more dependent as adults than young children. What is distinctive about young children and their dependencies is that the latter are concentrated, so that available resources, such as parents, meet all needs. As they get older this concentration decreases ideally, so that dependencies become more dispersed, with some people meeting some needs, and other people meeting others.

Kelly considered that undispersed dependency was a problematic approach to obtaining support. This is not because our wants and needs are not met using such an approach – indeed they may be. It is not because we are unhappy in such situations or even that those we rely on are unhappy with our depending on them (though that can be a problem). Rather it is that we are vulnerable in changing times so that our needs cannot be met.  Also that very concentrated mode of depending militates against change, the latter being something that Kelly felt was desirable.

Critical to the process of dispersing our dependencies effectively was the nature of construing used (Kelly, 1955).  Much of such construing is preverbal, even into adulthood. Fewer differentiations, whether of people, problems or needs, would parallel undispersed depending. Pre-emptive construing, whereby an element is seen in one way only, and impermeability, construing that does not readily accommodate to new circumstance, were similarly linked to lack of dispersion. Interactions based on role constructs, whereby people relate to another by attempting to see the world from the other’s perspective, were important.  Presumably by entering into the other’s ways of construing we can more readily monitor the impact of our dependencies on them.

Kelly proposed a way of assessing dispersion of dependency, called the Situational Resources Grid (Kelly, 1955), and subsequently termed a Dependency Grid (Fransella & Bannister, 1977). This grid contained possible resources on one axis, and potential problem situations on the other. Participants were requested to ‘think of a time when they had the most trouble with each problem in turn.  If these people had been around, to whom could they have gone for help’. They placed a tick for each resource on whom they could depend.

This aspect of Kellian theory, and its associated measure, was largely ignored in research, therapy and secondary accounts of the nature and scope of the theory for a number of decades. Two pioneering studies used the grid in very different contexts. Crump, Cooper, & Smith (1980) explored occupational stress in air traffic controllers, and as part of that study the social support networks drawn upon under stressful work situations. Beail & Beail (1985) drew on both the theory and methodology to provide an alternate perspective on de-institutionalisation for former psychiatric patients living in a hostel. Their concern was that such organizations aim to "encourage independence", an aim that is doomed to failure from a Kellian position. 

Research into dependency was facilitated by Walker, Ramsay & Bell (1988) who provided a statistical means to differentiate degree of dispersion of dependency, known as the dispersion of dependency index (DDI). This study provided a test of the kinds of construing linked by Kelly to differing degrees of dispersion.  More impermeable and preemptive construing was linked to lesser dispersion of dependency, consistent with a developmental perspective (Walker, 2003). Other research has been reviewed by Walker (1997).

A number of people have elaborated on the clinical implications of this aspect of Kelly’s theorizing (e.g. Walker, 1993; Chiari, Nuzzo, Alfano, Brogna, D’Andrea, di Battista, Plata & Stiffan, 1994; Leitner & Faidley, 2002). Kelly (1955) himself pointed to a distinction between primary and secondary transference in the therapeutic relationship.  In the former case the therapist is viewed in terms of the primitive dependency construing of childhood, with the client relating to the therapist "as if his life depended on it" (Kelly, 1955, p. 670). Such a relationship may be necessary to stabilise severely traumatised clients in the early stages of therapy, but will limit experimentation, the focus of a personal construct therapeutic strategy.


  • Beail, N. & Beail, S. (1985). Evaluating dependency.  In N. Beail (Ed.) Repertory grid technique and personal constructs: applications in clinical and educational settings London: Croom Helm, pp. 207-217.
  • Chiari, G. Nuzzo, M.L. Alfano, V., Brogna, P.,  D’Andrea, T., di Battista, B., Plata P. & Stiffan, E. (1994). Personal paths of dependency. Journal of Constructivist Psychology, 7, 17-34.
  • Crump, J.H., Cooper, C.L. & Smith, M. (1980)  Investigating occupational stress: A methodological approach.  Journal of Occupational Psychology, 1, 191-204.
  • Fransella F, Bannister D (1977).  A manual for repertory grid technique.  Academic Press, London,
  • Kelly, G. A. (1955). The psychology of personal constructs. New York: Norton.
  • Kelly, G. A. (1962/1969). In whom confide:  On whom depend for what? In B. Maher (Ed.) Clinical psychology and personality:  The selected papers of George Kelly (pp. 189-206).  New York: Krieger.
  • Leitner, L. & Faidley, A.J. (2002).  Disorder, diagnoses, and the struggles of humanness.  In J. D. Raskin & S. K. Bridges, (Eds.).  Studies in meaning: Exploring constructivist psychology. New York: Pace University Press.
  • Walker, B. M. (1993). Looking for a whole 'Mama': Personal construct theory and dependency.  In L. M. Leitner & N.G.M Dunnett, Critical issues in personal construct psychotherapy. Malabar, Fl.: Krieger, pp. 61-84.
  • Walker, B.M. (1997). Shaking the kaleidoscope: Dispersion of dependency and its relationships.  In G.J. Neimeyer & R.A. Neimeyer Advances in Personal construct Psychology, vol. 4.  Greenwich, Connecticut: JAI, pp. 63-100.
  • Walker, B.M. (2003).  Making sense of dependency.  In F. Fransella (Ed.). International Handbook of Personal Construct Psychology, London: Wiley.
  • Walker, B.M., Ramsey, F.L. & Bell, R.C. (1988). Dispersed and undispersed dependency, International Journal of Personal Construct Psychology, 1, 63-80.

Beverly M. Walker

Establ. 2003
Last update: 15 February 2004