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Diana B. Denholm, Ph.D, LMHC
Diana B. Denholm Ph.D, L.M.H.C.

When Caregivers Care Too Much

4 warning signs that caregiving is damaging you and your loved one

Over-caring starts with being the “good” wife (or husband, son or daughter).

Meet Alvio and Jennifer. They were married right after college, some 45 years ago. When Jennifer learned that her darling Alvio had emphysema, she was devastated. Like most wives, Jennifer immersed herself in her husband’s care. Jennifer knows a good wife doesn’t let a sick husband do things himself. So even though Alvio is still able to do most everything and doesn’t need much help, Jennifer does everything and takes care of all of his needs. After all, his life is at stake! But Jennifer is so caught up in his care that she doesn’t notice its negative effects.

Over-caring starts with being the “good” wife (or husband, son or daughter).

Avoidable damage may appear without notice. Now, her life is buried in a list of to-dos for Alvio. She no longer enjoys her favorite activities, partly because she doesn’t have time and partly because she doesn’t have the energy. She won’t accept help from anybody. She thinks it will take too long to give directions, and others won’t do things right anyway. Yet she is irritated with people who don’t offer help.

She is beyond exhausted, and is angry—with Alvio, with herself and at how her life has turned into something she hates. And she is harming Alvio. Her anger spills over into his care and she is often abrupt and insensitive with him. In subtle ways, and with the best of intentions, she does further damage because her over caring turns Alvio into a physical as well as an emotional invalid. You see, if you do everything for your husband, you take away any chance he has to still feel like a man and to feel proud of himself and to stay physically fit. You stop being his wife and you become his mother-–and not a very nice one.

Codependence underlies over caring. Codependence, which is also called "enabling", is doing for someone what they should be doing for themselves, allowing (enabling) them to continue their weak or inappropriate behavior. When you enable, you are over caring—caring too much—and in the wrong ways. Outside of the grief process, this is the source of caregivers’ most profound pain. It is the cause of irritability, anger, excess work, stress, and critical and guilt-ridden feelings toward ourselves. Codependence is at the center of fights (or verbal shutdowns) with loved ones over what they should or shouldn't do, and the conflicts and confrontations with relatives over our loved one's care. In short, codependent behavior is toxic.

Why you don’t recognize over caring. Jennifer, like so many caregivers, was encouraged and rewarded for being selfless since she was a child. She was taught that it was wrong to think about herself and her needs. This was so engrained in her that she didn’t realize it was destroying her, Alvio, and their marriage. Fortunately, she learned she had options and choices to save her marriage and her life.

Here are four warning signs of over caring and options for what you can do instead.

1. Knowing what's best for your loved one and insisting on making that happen.

Jennifer genuinely thought it was her responsibility to be in charge of everything related to Alvio’s illness, including what he and everyone should do in regard to it. She tried to engineer things so everyone adhered to her ways. The option: Realize that (if the ill person is mentally able) ultimately it is the ill person's disease and their responsibility to decide the course they and it will take. The caregiver needs to discover the ill person’s wishes.

To do this, Jennifer learned some basic communication tools and had a discussion with Alvio. For the first time since he was diagnosed, she found out what he really wanted and expected. Now she was able to decide what she would do, and would not do, in response to his wishes. My book presents step-by-step instructions on how to do this.

2. Pleasing everyone, but not yourself.

When in-laws visited, Jennifer followed their wishes, not hers. It seemed that either silence or confrontation were her only options, so she said nothing. And she was rewarded with praise and positive responses. It felt good in one sense, but also filled her with anger and resentment. The option: Jennifer learned to use a special kind of response so she wouldn’t have to make her in-laws wrong in order for her to be right. Now she’d say: “I realize you want Alvio to eat dinner at 6:30, however, we’ve decided that he does better with dinner at 5:00.”

3. Reading your loved one's mind.

Jennifer also tried to do Alvio’s thinking for him, partly to save time and partly to guarantee the outcomes she wanted. She felt she knew his mind, yet sometimes assumed things that weren’t correct. The option: Jennifer learned how to work collaboratively with Alvio, rather than making one-sided agreements.

4. Being pleased that the ill person relies on you.

Jennifer’s friend, Mary, was also a caregiver. Whether it was conscious or not, she made herself needed and indispensable so her husband would remain reliant on her, and her alone. This reliance ensured her place in her husband’s life, offered a sense of stability and job security, gave her a feeling of importance, and showed the world how hard she worked. The option: Mary needed to ask herself who is benefiting more from this image: she or her husband? Mary, who was enjoying her martyr role, needed to consider counseling.

Whether caring for a spouse or parent, when you choose to stop assuming all of this unnecessary responsibility and control, your workload will decrease, your anger and stress will subside, you’ll have fewer arguments yet better communication, and you’ll end up with more time for yourself. Your home will become more peaceful and you will help your loved one feel stronger and more independent and capable. And most importantly for Jennifer, rather than resenting her husband, she reclaimed the loving feelings she had toward him and became his wife again.

Learn more about all of these methods in The Caregiving Wife’s Handbook, and stay tuned for further articles containing valuable tips and tools on other caregiving.

About the Author
Diana B. Denholm, Ph.D, LMHC

Diana B. Denholm, Ph.D., L.M.H.C., is a medical psychotherapist and the author of The Caregiving Wife's Handbook.

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