When Is Nurturing Behavior Harmful to Your Relationship?

5 surprising but serious downsides of seemingly caregiving behavior.

Posted Feb 25, 2021 | Reviewed by Matt Huston

3dom, photographer/flickr free image
Source: 3dom, photographer/flickr free image
  • Some people have a tendency to be more nurturing than the norm, which may be due to their nature or early-life experiences within the family.
  • As adults, people may carry these overly nurturing tendencies into their romantic relationships.
  • Excessive nurturing can have negative effects on a relationship—for example, a partner might make ever-increasing demands.

Some people seem born to nurture others. Researchers haven’t yet located a “nurturing gene,” but it’s almost axiomatic that by nature some individuals experience an inclination to serve others that far exceeds the norm.

On the other hand, an abundance of nurturing people learned to be that way because of how their parents raised them. Typically—though not always (a necessary qualification)—the messages they repeatedly received were that their fundamental value resided in putting their mother’s and/or father’s wants and needs ahead of their own.

When, consciously or not, they complied with their parents’ tacit demands, they were rewarded: words of approval, acceptance, and love routinely followed their self-denying, martyr-like behavior. And even if their selfless, un-child-like conduct didn’t “earn” them particularly positive messages, over time they became acutely aware that not adopting a subservient role led to criticism, disfavor, or outright repudiation. In such cases, they could either rebel or renounce their own dependency needs in order to strengthen their all-important (and all-too-tenuous) attachment bond to their caretakers.

Although this post won’t focus on these parent-pleasing individuals—literally reared to become people-pleasers generally—it’s useful to comprehend how family dynamics may have stunted or constrained their personality development. And, as they got older, increased the likelihood that they’d be afflicted with chronic emotional issues related to anxiety, depression, and anger.

To sum up, people-pleasing—or excessive, even dysfunctional, nurturing of others—is likely determined both by biological predisposition and early family programming. Anyone instilled with a deep-seated belief that their value is inextricably linked to what they can contribute to the lives of others will be vulnerable, as adults, to a large variety of relationship problems. For such conditioning can repeat itself automatically until they become cognizant of how hurtful it is—especially to themselves, their partner, and their principal relationship.

Because putting a healthy, non-pathological priority on their own needs was associated with outward disapproval and they could never learn how to approve of and validate themselves from within, they’ll try to secure and stabilize later relationships by doing what by now has become so familiar (or “family-er”) to them.

The Negative Impacts of Over-Nurturing in Adult Relationships

If you have been made to feel that others are intrinsically worth more than you and that taking responsibility for them is the only viable route toward being accepted (however conditionally), the question is:

How, in the context of a committed adult relationship, might all this affect your partner? (e.g., see E. T. Grant, 2018).

Below are five of the ways. And if your caregiving—or nurturing—is in fact overdone, its impact on your partner will (given how the human psyche operates) be almost uniformly negative:

1. You encourage, or maybe even pressure, your partner to depend on you, rather than allowing them to handle challenging situations on their own. If you could get your parents’ positive attention only through regularly demonstrating that you could be relied upon to do their bidding, this old programming may compel you to act similarly with your present-day partner. But such behavior can induce your partner—especially if their own parenting didn’t adequately address their dependency needs—to take advantage of your “giving-ness” in ways detrimental to their growing their own separate capabilities.

Generally speaking, it’s hard to feel good about yourself unless you’ve developed the personal strength to stand up to adversity. But frankly, it can be extremely tempting to evade such challenges when there’s an easy way to get out of them. If you’ve pretty much invited your partner to dump their problems on you, then, even though with enough time and reflection they could overcome them themselves, they'll be less apt to do the latter.

True, simply relying on you will afford them some immediate, tension-alleviating relief. Inevitably, however, it will keep them from moving forward in their life. And in the end, they’ll probably blame you, their overly helpful partner, as responsible for their stagnation—ironically, because you took too much “loving care” of them.   

2. Going beyond this, you’re likely to look for ways to help your partner when you’re not asked to. Not realizing that you’re being intrusive, since your partner may not want your assistance, they may interpret your helping behavior as invading their space. And so your faulty ideas about closeness can culminate in their being prompted to establish greater distance from you to escape what feels suffocating. Curiously, your super-sensitivity toward them can be taken as grossly insensitive. And it does reveal an inaccurate, off-target empathy.

In her book The Disease to Please (2001), Harriet Braiker quotes a man, who divorced his too-pleasing wife, this way:

I know how much you have always done for me ... but what I felt was growing resentment, even anger, because I felt weak and needy. I never felt like you needed me, and that made me stop feeling like a man [i.e., his dependency felt emasculating and compromised both his self-respect and sense of autonomy].

3. By “parenting” your partner as, regrettably, you were obliged to with your parents, you’re essentially condescending to them. And because sooner or later they’ll feel infantilized by your taking so much responsibility for them, they’ll probably experience you as having damaged their self-image. They may not be consciously aware of it, but they’ll perceive you as having “engineered” a demeaning, non-reciprocal relationship with them.

Originally, they may have been flattered by all your attention and grateful for your having made their life much easier. But eventually, they’re likely to see you as controlling and dominating, and willfully stripping them of the freedom to make their own choices and decisions. And increasingly frustrated with you, they’ll perceive themselves as a victim in the relationship—and you (unconsciously trying to make yourself indispensable to them) as a perpetrator.

So might you, for instance, have ordered for them when you went out to eat, believing they’d appreciate not having to make up their own mind? If so, you weren’t permitting them to act autonomously in an area where they may have felt perfectly capable and would have much preferred acting alone. Contrary to what you intended, your caring and devotion might well have been experienced negatively—as overcrowding “smother love.”

4. You tell your partner what they’re feeling—or what they should be feeling. And also likely, you’ll instruct them how best to cope with, or perhaps extinguish, these feelings. Inasmuch as you’re over-involved with your partner, you may not be able to resist identifying with them emotionally and projecting your own feelings onto them. And given your powerful people-pleasing tendencies, you’re likely to take responsibility for these feelings, too—and without checking what, personally, is true for them.

No one likes to be “pre-empted” like this, so you’ll probably get push-back when you presume to have the mind-reading authority to talk to your partner about what they’ve yet to share with you. The likely outcome of your conjectures then is that they’ll feel you’re intruding on them and, if only to assert their independence and free will, be motivated to withhold more and more from you.

5. Your being so helpful to them can lead them, if they’re now in a regressed state, to make ever-greater demands on you. And at some point you’re likely to burn out, feeling exhausted by their turning over to you anything and everything they’re no longer comfortable tackling on their own. Given how you’ve “re-conditioned” them, they may be less and less ready to function as the adult they were before you started intervening on their behalf.

To conclude, if you can relate to any of the five points above—whether as disproportionate caregiver or disgruntled care-receiver—it's time to check in with your mate and explore what may need to change.

© 2021 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.  All Rights Reserved.

Facebook image: SeventyFour/Shutterstock