When we are in relationship, many of us fall into an unhealthy pattern of trying to “fix” or save our partners. Perhaps it’s as seemingly innocent as encouraging our loved ones to change their hairstyle — or maybe we are attempting to help them overcome alcoholism. But, becoming a “fixer” or “saver” in a relationship is not a good strategy if we want to enjoy a healthy partnership with a happy significant other.
Most of us who are trying to fix or rescue our partners are acting out of anxiety. Understandably, we are anxious because being involved in intimate relationships can be highly stressful. Relationships force us to become aware of vulnerabilities that we often try to downplay or deny, which in turn, spur us to seek security. And, many of us find that security by trying to fix, rescue, or save our partners. After all, there is nothing so security-enhancing as feeling like we have something valuable to offer to someone else.
To further complicate matters, many of us are completely unaware that we are engaging in “fixing” or “saving” behavior. So, how can we tell if we are trying to fix or rescue our significant other?
1. We are constantly attracted to or are attractive to people who need help. It is important to look at patterns of behavior and choices we’ve made. It is often not a conscious desire to be involved with those who need help, but if we find that’s who we end up with more often than not, then we need to hit pause long enough to question our motives: Am I seeking a partner or someone to fix? Am I looking for equality or am I avoiding it by taking someone on as a project? Am I willing to allow someone else to contribute to me or is my generous behavior being used to guard against accepting what someone else has to offer me?
2. We believe love is about taking care of another. But fixing isn’t loving. Rescuing someone else because we are too anxious to allow ourselves to rely on others isn’t love. Caring for others makes us think that we are in love rather than feel love (because fixing others is, ironically, exactly how we avoid feeling anything at all). But, a true, loving relationship involves caring for others and being cared for in turn. When caregiving dominates the definition of love to the exclusion of other factors like sharing experiences together and deeply opening up to one another, the relationship is dysfunctional.
3. We give abundantly, yet receive very little in return. When we are constantly “doing for” someone else, we are establishing a hierarchy that ensures inequality and imbalance, which sets up the caricature of a parent-child dynamic. The receiving little in return part is a way that we devalue the contributions of others. Someone who gives and gives and gives leaves no room for other people to give, which sends the message, “You have nothing of value to offer.” In doing this, we protect ourselves from developing an emotional investment in the partner or the relationship itself, while devaluing our significant other in the process.
4. We lack empathy while taking care of our partner. Because the relationship is imbalanced, we are able to distance ourselves from our rescued partner in order to protect ourselves from his or her perceived neediness. Neediness is a word that is used when one partner is unable or unwilling to meet the actual needs of the other, connoting a repulsive level of desperation and weakness. Likewise, when we continue to work to ease our partner’s suffering, we do so not out of compassion, but from the need to perceive ourselves as good people who have tried our best and really care.
5. We feel exhausted or depleted by our relationship. Constantly rescuing a partner in a long-term relationship is exhausting. And it is exhausting because, as a psychological defense against empathy, intimacy and vulnerability, it is driven by immense anxiety about the possibility of being close to others. Relationships where caregiving is mutual — and love means more than fixing — are invigorating for both partners. Rather than dreading coming home to face the chore of dealing with the other person — and feeling exhausted but justified after doing the heavy lifting — real relationships stimulate both partners in many different positive ways.
When a couple faces a serious illness, the risk of caregiver burnout is increased, especially when rescue dynamics are in play already. A serious medical illness may be the perfect storm for relationship dysfunction. But, even without rescuer dynamics, dealing with illness is one of the greatest challenges couples face.
6. We feel a sense of loss because our relationship does not enrich our life. When care in a relationship is one-directional, it is not only exhausting and depleting, it is terribly and inescapably lonely. The rescue operation establishes and maintains a deep sense of missing in the people who are caught in this dynamic. Feeling loss is a reliable sign that we are starting to let go of our defenses against intimacy. This means that, when we find ourselves missing the person who is, say, sleeping next to us, we might be hitting an emotional bottom.
While fixing a partner might look like reciprocal care on the surface, it ultimately serves a different purpose. Instead, we should seek to work with — not for or on — our partners. We need to relinquish our fearful accommodation of the other. Only then can we develop into loving, intimate partners who are compassionately empathic, openly vulnerable and reciprocally involved.
When we begin to drop the rescuing and fixing routines, we usually feel shaky on our feet. But with time and practice, we will begin to get the hang of loving one another more deeply and reaping the rewards in terms of mutual satisfaction, empowerment and individual health.
Mark Borg, PhD, Grant Brenner, MD, and Daniel Berry, RN are the authors of RELATIONSHIP SANITY: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Relationships (a Central Recovery Press paperback, on sale October 23, 2018) and are practitioners in the mental health field who bring over seven decades of experience working with individuals, couples, families and communities on how to maintain and thrive in loving relationships.
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