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What Is 'Toxic Caretaking'?

Passively or actively enabling a friend or loved one's destructive choices.

Key points

  • Toxic caretakers, also known as co-dependent relationships, encourage destructive choices in friends and loved ones.
  • Toxic caretakers frequently appear loving, caring, and generous.
  • Substance abuse, delinquency, and deceitfulness are among the most common behaviors enabled by toxic caretakers.

Caretakers are a thoughtful and generous lot; ready to lend a hand, especially for a friend in need.

  • Need a ride to the airport?
  • Someone to watch your pet?
  • Want to borrow a few bucks until payday?

No worries! The caretaker will be there. Empathic, loyal, kind, dedicated; what’s not to like? After all, who doesn’t love to be cared for?

When Caretaking Turns Toxic

Recently, a young man who struggles with addiction confessed that his father was supplying him with drugs. This was particularly shocking because his father was paying for his son’s therapy sessions and expressed concern about his son’s dependency on drugs.

When confronted, the father became enraged and defended enabling his son’s addiction:

“At least I know the drugs that I’m giving him are clean. Safer than the drugs he would buy on the street!”

In a way, he was right. The drugs may have been safer, but was supporting his son’s addiction really the best way to help him?

Sadly, as the young man’s dependency increased, the father couldn’t keep up with his son’s demands for more drugs. After the young man survived a near-fatal overdose, his father came to his senses and enrolled him in rehab.

I truly believe the father thought that he was helping his son. But in the long run, like all toxic caretakers, he was doing more harm than good.

Signs of Toxic Caretaking

Unlike bad friends, toxic caretaking can be difficult to spot because the caretakers frequently appear loving and generous. What’s more, toxic caretaking frequently yields short-term benefits (see "How To Spot A Bad Friend").

What’s behind the toxic caretaker’s decisions? Most often, their decisions are driven by fear. Rather than face the fallout of confronting someone about their behavior, the toxic caretaker chooses to support it. In a sense, they choose comfort over growth, for themselves and the person they care for (see "How Avoiding Conflict Escalates Conflict in Relationships").

Toxic caretaking behaviors include:

  • Lying to protect a loved one or friend from negative consequences.
  • Not confronting a loved one or friend about their negative behaviors.
  • Passively or actively enabling a friend or loved one's destructive choices.
  • Turning a blind eye to detrimental outcomes for fear of retaliation.

Toward Healthy Caretaking

A healthy caretaker is someone who isn't afraid to confront a friend or loved one about their negative behaviors. It may be difficult, but in the end, it’s a growth choice for both individuals.

Healthy caretaking behaviors include:

  • Enabling and applauding a friend or loved one's positive choices.
  • Supporting a friend or loved one's growth even during challenging times.
  • Pointing out destructive behaviors.
  • Expressing love and affection freely without ulterior motives.

In the end, confronting a friend or loved one about their poor choices isn’t rude or mean; it’s an act of love.