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The Caretaker Partner

When your partner is in difficulty, your natural response is one of compassion.  You don't want to see your partner suffer, so you do all you can to help him or her.  When it comes to short lived difficulties like, say, a bout of influenza, you can ideally shift in and out of a caretaker role easily and in a way that serves your relationship.  When your partner is in difficulty over a period of months or years, you might take on the role of caretaker and lose track of yourself and your own needs.

Being in the role of caretaker can meet needs for contribution, acceptance, and having a sense of value or competency in the relationship, but over time this role is held onto at cost to other needs.

At some point you realize that being a caretaker for your partner isn't working.  When you are more unconscious about it, this realization shows up as a sudden impulse to get out of the relationship.  Internally it can seem like a life or death matter.  You imagine that the only way to survive is to get out of the relationship.  Some relationships end at this juncture.

If you are able to bring more awareness and catch yourself in the caretaker role before you are completely depleted, you choose to stay in the relationship and begin to set firm boundaries.  At first you might set extra firm boundaries tinged with resentment because you don't trust yourself to meet your own needs and you blame your partner for not meeting your needs in the past.  For your partner who has been cared for by you for so long, your boundaries and resentment might be experienced as a shove or a wall.  

At this stage in the transformation process you are moving away from what you don't want (losing yourself) with the belief that your survival is being threatened.  There is a sense that you have to fight to have your needs met.  Trust builds as you become more conscious of the caretaker dynamic and  express your needs and requests and find your partner responsive to meeting your needs once he or she hears them clearly and understands your requests.  

As this trust develops and your needs are met consistently the energy of fighting relaxes and you can come back to center.  Living openly from your center you can moved toward what you want to create rather than away from a perceived threat.  Creating what you want from a connected place means recognizing interdependence and the need for collaboration.  At this stage you no longer have the impulse to set extra firm boundaries.  You can trust yourself and your partner to have a dialogue and negotiate with caring until a way for meeting all needs is found.

This week watch for situations in which you are tending to your partner and giving up your needs with resentment or a sense of submitting.  If you can't express your needs in the moment, take time later to identify them and come up with a request for your partner.

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The Cost of Self-Reliance
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“Emotional Cheating”

4 Responses

  1. Jul 27, 2012

    This clear and beautifully written article expresses exactly how I'm feeling. I didn't see why I felt so put upon and uncomfortable and if I admit it angry. I'm not finding ways to get my needs met. Too much responsibility is draining me So much so that my mind is scattered. I clearly need more support. The clarity of this article, explaining the dynamic relieves the confusion and guilt I have been feeling inside. In my head I've been stamping my feet like a 2 year old acting out. Then suppressing it all, and wondering where my competence went.
    I have to take charge in a new way. Thank you sincerely. I feel like you through me a lifesaver.

  2. Jul 27, 2012

    Dear Casey,

    Wow, I am touched that this could help you in this way. Thank you for taking the time to share. Feel free to share again as you make changes, perhaps another article about this will present itself.

  3. Jul 27, 2012

    Thank you, LaShelle, for this eloquent article on caretaking. I am not currently in a specific role of caretaking but I fall into this role easily and naturally in friendships. I am good in a crisis – you can count on me to give my all but without self-awareness it leads me to the resentment you mentioned. You have given me information on how to pull back from the crisis and return to center – rebalance the friendship. I see more clearly, now, that my lack of personal awareness and boundaries can lead me to deplete myself in the name of love and compassion for the other. Until I read “the belief that your survival is being threatened” I did not understand why I had so abruptly pulled away from a current relationship. I sincerely do not want to lose this friendship of which I speak and there needs to be more space for my needs – I am responsible for stating my needs. It is also clear, and thank you for expressing it, that this returning to center takes effort from each person. I am grateful this showed up in my email this morning. It gives me courage to call my friend and it also gives me hope for reconciliation.

  4. Jul 27, 2012

    Dear Karen,

    Thank you for your feedback. It helps me to hear the specifics you mentioned. Nourishing to hear that I have been of service.

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