Kristie and Steve had been seeing each other on and off for almost 4 years. It has really been more off than on and she has even gone as long as 7 months without any contact, but, “As always,” she says, “He pulls me back in.” The relationship was full of other women, hot and cold spells, disrespect, using and an infinite number of lies. All good reasons in and of themselves to end the relationship.
One day, after breaking no contact, Kristie asked Steve if they could get together. He explained to her that he was very sick and wouldn’t be good company. She insisted and then proceeded to break plans she had already made with friends. She then went to his favorite restaurant to pick him up some take out. The restaurant wasn’t open yet so she sat in the coffee shop across the street for an hour waiting to place her order.
She arrived at his place and immediately began to take charge. He was indeed sick so she put him to bed after he’d finished the meal she’d brought. She had a business trip coming up and had a ton of errands to run, but she stayed by his side, waiting on him hand and foot, for the next day and a half.
She desperately wanted to share intimacy with him, but as sick as he was it was the last thing on his mind. She was a little put off, but she understood. When she left his home he was on the mend and thanked her for taking such good care of him. She, on the other hand, started to feel the symptoms of his affliction, but had no time to care for herself ,as she had to run those errands she’d put off and get ready for her business trip.
We are all going to have to be a caregiver at some point in our lives. Whether we become parents or we have to care for our elderly and ailing parents. While the behaviors between caregiving and caretaking might be similar, the motives behind the behaviors are completely different.
Caregiving entails providing care for an adult, while still respecting their boundaries and autonomy. It’s never about trying to jump in, fix, control or direct another’s life. it’s providing aid with a healthy detachment and trusting that the other person knows what’s best for themselves. It’s about providing care without expectation or guilt and not getting lost in the process.
Caretaking is about control and an exaggerated sense that you know better and that you are responsible for the wellbeing of others. The above story is a great example of caretaking, Notice how Steve tried to convince her not to come. This was too great an opportunity for Kristie, to show her mettle, to pass up. She went out of her way to get him his favorite meal even stuck around for over an hour waiting for the restaurant to open, knowing fully that he’d never do the same for her. She then continued to ignore her own needs, while making sure everything in his life was fully taken care of.
She wasn’t practicing self-care and left herself short of time to get her own life in order before her trip and exposed herself to his virus so she can look forward to coming down with the flu on her business trip with no one to take care of her. She knew full well that he would not go to the same lengths for her. So why did she do it?
Codependents have very poor communication skills and often have trouble being direct and asking for what they want. Consequently, they tend to try and control their partners through mild forms of manipulation, such as over-giving, over-doing, over-complimenting, people pleasing and caretaking.
By doing these things, a codependent gets to be “the good guy,” but in reality they do these things with an expectation in mind. One of those expectations being – I fulfill your needs, now you fulfill mine. Rather than ask directly for what they want, a codependent carries the belief that if they take care of their partner’s needs, their partner should also be able to read their mind and give them what they need.
Codependents like to play the guilt and shame game as well. It’s what they know. What they were taught. Deep down the codependent knows that their over-giving will not be reciprocal. They then get to play the victim or the martyr and say, ”After everything I’ve done for you, look at the way you treat me.” That form of manipulation worked on them and now they attempt to use it on their partners. The problem is – it worked on them because they have empathy. You can’t make someone feel guilt or shame if their empathy chip is broken or non-existent.
Another task caretaking accomplishes is, from a people pleasing perspective, when your partner has others on the side and you are trying to be chosen, a codependent will try to out-do the competition thus making themselves indispensable to their narcissist. “Look at how much I do for you. Jenny would never be able to keep your books for you and take care of your children (from another relationship) like I do. Look how I keep your house clean and always go over and above to keep you happy and make your life easier.”
There’s subtle manipulation in the giving, in that, if you don’t choose me you’ll be without all of these things I do for you and your life will be more difficult. So you better toe the line, be appreciative and reciprocal. Of course that never happens, an emotional manipulator will expect all of these things from you while giving very little in return. When this happens the codependent becomes upset and resentful.
Helping and fixing are part of the codependent’s programming. It may relate back to those rare moments in childhood when you would receive praise by a parent for going out of your way to help and fix.
The best solution to caretaking is mindfulness. It’s important to ask yourself these questions before you jump into any given situation where giving aid might be required:
- What is my motivation for helping? Do I want something in return?
- Is this person fully capable of handling the situation themselves?
- Will I be putting myself out (getting sick, financial burden, ignoring other friends, family, time) by helping?
- Is my help wanted? Can I stop myself from butting in?
- Do I derive my worth through my ability to help?
- Is the care I’m providing reciprocal? If I was in the same situation would this person provide the same care to me?
- Do I feel responsible for this person’s well-being?
- Do I get lost in the outcome? Has this person’s problem and the solution to this problem become bigger than my own life?
- Am I trying to control this person through the aid I’m providing?
- If I don’t get gratitude or appreciation do I feel angry or resentful?
Learning the difference between caregiving and caretaking is an important step in recovery. If you find yourself in a situation that requires you to give aid be mindful about how far you are willing to go. Stop yourself from engaging in unsolicited aid or assistance. If you find that you are helping because you have expectations, or the help you are providing is your number one priority stop yourself immediately and turn your focus back towards your recovery.
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