Magnetic Partners

What pulled you together may be pulling you apart.

The Plight of the Female Caretaker

The paradoxical struggle to tolerate a better relationship

The terms "caretaker" and "codependent" are most often associated with the field of addictions. And while not every codependent is a caretaker, oftentimes both tend to be the overly-responsible, over-functioning partner dependent on the addict or overt-symptom bearer to provide them with a sense of purpose. In caretaking of the more overtly sick partner, such as an alcoholic, the enabling individual pulls from it a sense of feeling needed while simultaneously placing a lower priority on his/her own needs. Most caretakers do so at the price of neglecting other family members as well, including their children—a cycle that helps to perpetuate what Bowen (1978) referred to as a mutigenerational transmission process.

Most of the caretakers I’ve met in life and in my clinical practice appear to be some of the sweetest people on earth. Most are women—although male caretakers do exist—warm and psychologically-minded, with an uncanny sense of radar for dysfunction, and a deep attraction to it as well. There’s no age limit on caretaking. Because one learns it in the family of origin, the apprenticeship tends to start quite young—ask any nurse—and like golf, can be carried well into one’s later years.

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Out of respect for the addictions field I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on caretakers and codependents, or for that fact any 12-step-model. Rather, I’m humbly offering my perspective by way of a friend’s story about her failed, but paradoxically fruitful attempt to challenge the consequences of her caretaking. Perhaps it will encourage some caretakers to take a closer look at their lives, and to feel the empathy for “themselves” that they so richly deserve.

My friend Jamie (as I’ll call her) told me that she had recently broken up with the “perfect guy.” Apparently, he was smart with a great career, treated her well, and they had fun together. Even the sex was good. “Why then did you dump him?” I asked. “Because I couldn’t fall in love with him,” she cried. “I just couldn’t love him even though on paper I should have been able to. I know, it sounds crazy. There’s got to be something wrong with me so rather than waste his time, I ended it.” My heart ached upon hearing this but it was typical of a caretaker to end it for “someone else’s sake and not hers.”

And “there’s the rub,” to quote Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Listening to Jamie it occurred to me that she had taken care of just about everyone in her life: a sick father, a penniless mother, a disabled younger sibling, one ex-husband who was a drug addict, a second ex-husband with terrible health problems, and an autistic child. She supported them all emotionally and financially. And to her credit, she remained upbeat and undaunted, equipped with a can-do philosophy and the confidence, skills, and tenacity to function at a high level at all times. Except when she temporarily succumbed to the burden of it all—then you could hear the crash a mile away.

My friend Jamie was in the midst of one of those crashes the night we spoke, but not from the burden of caretaking. This time the crash was courtesy of insight. Jamie was having one of those incredibly useful moments—as few and far between as they were—when she was actually able to see and feel on the deepest, most painful level what her internalized caretaking was costing her. It no longer made any sense to her. The deal no longer held value. And she couldn’t ignore it anymore. In all its primitivism Jamie realized that she was only attracted to, and able to fall in love with sick men who could reciprocate little other than their neediness. We both felt the sadness in Jamie’s words, but the hope as well.

Stephen J. Betchen, D.S.W., is the author of the book Magnetic Partners.

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