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When It Comes to Caretaking and Helplessness, Enabling Is Disabling

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“Self-abandoned, relaxed and effortless, I seemed to have laid me down in the dried-up bed of a great river; I heard a flood loosened in remote mountains, I felt the torrent come; to rise I had no will, to flee I had no strength.” ―Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

A friend recently told me that convenience is the root of all evil. I knew exactly what he was talking about. Call it codependency, call it enabling. The caretaker, the hero, this person has been deemed the criminal in many cases, the one who “allows” the undesirable behavior, whatever it is, to exist.

But it takes two to tango. We caretakers—yes, that’s the role I have most often played; I have, in fact, fought to not be in the role of the helpless—often set ourselves up by rescuing those we perceive to be in need. So often, though, this is a power play to feel better about ourselves. Do we get something out of it? Oh, yes we do. For one, by being the provider or caretaker, we feel helpful, not helpless, and that is key. By being of service, we believe we are out from underneath (we’ve probably observed or experienced feeling helpless), we are above and in control, and this in many ways determines our self-worth and success. Caretaking behavior negates low self-worth that may come from being under someone’s thumb or auspice, and we feel we are free and in charge. Thus, there is a sense that we should feel better about ourselves. In control. Safe.

But what about the so-called helpless ones whom we perceive to be in need of rescue? The irony is that the ones in need, who are grown adults (since we’re referring to this position within adult relationships) and thus very capable in many cases to take care of themselves, often end up being the ones in control because we enable them to the point where learned helplessness enters the picture. Learned helplessness renders them incapable of doing things, and as much as I want to take responsibility for this and say caretakers are to blame, the truth of the matter is this is a dance created by two willing individuals who want to feel good and relinquish control because it’s easy and convenient—or take control because it also feels good and therefore is oh-so-very convenient. This is the irony of the dance and the self-talk.

We caretakers love to make things convenient for others; it’s what we do best. What we see as being a do-gooder—our need to be on top, to prove to ourselves we are not helpless by being overly helpful—actually renders others helpless and dependent on us. Although this should feel good, and perhaps it does initially, in the end it often enslaves us to our “victim,” who learns to, by no fault of his or her own, manipulate us (and probably others as well) and to settle into a role as the helpless one. Since they’re grown adults, we know they are capable in whatever way suits them, but once this pattern begins, we see the helpless one as the victim, unable to care for himself or herself, and then the caregiver becomes the martyr.

This pattern then becomes ingrained in us, and can and most likely will be repeated in other relationships. The irony is that both roles are similar, if not identical, as the martyr often also plays the victim and vice versa. It’s a two-way mirror and a two-way street, with both roles continuously going back and forth. Both people think they are being helpful and noble, but both are suffocating in their inability to take care of their own needs.

So how does one take care of his or her own needs? It’s simple once you recognize the patterns. The helpless individual starts doing things on his or her own instead of always relying on the other to “fix” problems, and of course the fixer does less fixing. This may come in a form of abstinence in the beginning. I don’t mean sharing less; I do mean expecting less. It means sharing without expectations. It means sharing the details of your horrible day without your partner giving you advice. If your partner continues to give you advice, thereby suggesting helplessness, you are likely to avoid sharing. This is where caregiving becomes harmful. So keep sharing, keep listening, take care of your own needs, and help only when someone asks for your help, give advice only when someone asks for it, and don’t expect help or advice unless you specifically say so.

Communication is key when it comes to breaking these patterns. Recognizing our role as either fixer or helpless one comes first, and then recognizing what we do in those roles. For example, a “victim” or helpless individual may manipulate by not offering to do something or by simply avoiding something, suggesting incapability. The fixer takes this cue and will do it for him or her anyway. These types of patterns become ingrained in the relationship.

Do you take control when the other person is in need? How often do you do this? Part of being in a relationship is to be there for our partners. However, doing it every single time and rendering them helpless is counterproductive to a healthy relationship. Do you expect your partner to handle many things for you? How often do you expect this? Expecting our partners to come through for us when we are in dire straits is one thing, but expecting this more often than not suggests a very unhealthy pattern for your relationship.

The symptoms of fixing and being a victim will be apparent in the bedroom, and possibly other areas of your life as well. Sexual satisfaction within a relationship is often a great indicator of these aspects within a relationship. Sexual issues often are symptomatic of much deeper issues. A fixer is like a parent, and a victim is akin to a child. Sexuality quite often will cease to exist in this sort of parent-child dynamic, as it suggests imbalance.

Sexuality thrives in autonomous situations, with autonomous people. We are well aware of the fact sex is more exciting when there is some level of mystery involved, some level of distance, some level of taboo. That taboo is often the unknown. Let’s face it: Being self-sufficient is a huge turn-on because it provides some distance. Not detachment, but distance. We can still be there for our partners, be their moral support, and be autonomous and self-sufficient when it comes to our emotional needs.

If you think you and your partner may be caught in this type of vicious cycle, just remember this: It may take two to tango, but it takes one to break the cycle.

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© Copyright 2013 by Moushumi Ghose, MFT, therapist in NYC, NY. All Rights Reserved.

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  • Kendal Dawson January 31st, 2013 at 2:13 PM #1

    I have watched my own mother go through this cycle of dependency with her parents and although she wants to take the very best care of them sometimes I think that all of them would be better off is she was able to let go a little bit and let them have a little more control over their own lives. I think that in some ways her role as caretaker has very much diminished the relationship that she has with her parents as the roles are reversed and it has been hard for all of them to deal with that. I think that there are other family members who saw her at first taking control of a difficult situation but they now see her as having too much control and really no one is happy about it anymore.

  • M.Bevan January 31st, 2013 at 2:31 PM #2

    A relationship should be a shared responsibility. Although partners can be and in fact should be a support to each other one should not become a crutch for the other.

    When the two partners act more like equals than as a victim and rescuer there is mutual respect and the relationship blossoms. While the rescuer may be happy in the short term somewhere down the line thoughts of being too hard pressed will come to his or her mind and the relationship will take a nosedive. Much better to avoid all that by staying away from this sort of a negative cycle.

  • MOE January 31st, 2013 at 3:51 PM #3

    Maybe this is the reason why family members shouldn’t have to step into this role, if possible an outsider should be hired to take this on because I think that they would be less likely to get into this kind of destructive cycle.

  • elvin February 1st, 2013 at 12:31 AM #4

    not a bad idea to help your loved one in need but it should not become a habit..remarking between the two is the toughest challenge and one wrong step can trigger a downfall..better to provide only as much help as needed..everybody has to learn to cope with their problems anyway..moral support?yes I’m here.but handle your problems for you?im sorry I can’t do that!

  • cely torrance February 1st, 2013 at 4:04 AM #5

    The problem is that so many people who take care of other people WANT to be the martyr, that’s the role that they crave and the thought of giving that up is not going to be something that they will relish because they like that feeling of being in charge and having someone who depends on them.

  • Moushumi Ghose February 1st, 2013 at 8:14 AM #6

    Yes, I definitely think families have a lot to do with this pattern. Often times a parent or both parents, even siblings may be the initial person who engaged in this pattern with you, this then gets perpetuated in adult relationships, because it’s familiar and maybe intuitive although not very comfortable.

  • hans February 4th, 2013 at 4:05 AM #7

    makes you wonder what things went on in a home for one to feel like they need this role to finally be a hero to someone

  • keira August 24th, 2013 at 2:14 PM #8

    hans, it’s not necessarily that something horrible happened to these people. for example, my mother was always overly-protective, playing constantly the role of the helper and i didn’t want to be helped that much cause it made me feel helpless and nobody likes that. later in my adult life, i became a helper myself only so i wouldn’t be a victim, cause i associated the parental domination with a restraint on my own independence. i suppose growing up like this it did not occur to me that people could be equal in a relationship. i still don’t believe that.

  • Moushumi Ghose August 25th, 2013 at 8:53 AM #9

    Exactly what Keira said, it’s not necessarily a dysfunctional pattern in the family but something that we hold onto that we repeat it over and over because we have created something in our mind which needs to be resolved, which can cause it to feel dysfunctional or ineffective over time. The key is to recognize what it is, why it’s occurring so we can move on a create newer patterns which suit our current life.

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