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How to Break a Relationship Pattern of Taking Care of Others

by Elise Wile

It's one thing when you see a pitiful puppy on the side of the road and decide to take him home and nurse him to recuperation. It's quite another when you decide to do something similar with a romantic partner or friend. Unlike helpless puppies, adults cannot become mature and healthy without taking responsibility for their own behavior and growth. Recognizing this truth will help you avoid taking on "people projects" that inhibit your own goals.

Look to the Future

To put a stop to your caregiver behavior, focus on a longer-term goal, advises psychologist Bill Knaus, Ed.D., in the July 2012 "Psychology Today" article, "Stop Enabling Now." For example, perhaps you'd like to see your boyfriend develop the tenacity and discipline to be able to hold a job for longer than a three month period. Realize that as long as you continue to bail him out when the bills come due each month, you are enabling him to continue the behavior that is not working for him. Looking at what is best for the people you love may give you the strength to stop enabling them to fail. If a person isn't where she needs to be, give yourself a mental stop sign and remind yourself that they won't get there unless they do the heavy lifting themselves.

Set Firm Boundaries and Stick to Them

Whether you're currently in an unhealthy caregiving relationship or not, you can't go wrong setting firm boundaries. Such healthy fences serve as a barrier to behavior that can set you and a partner up for an unequal and dysfunctional relationship. If you're tired of taking care of partners who should be able to care for themselves, determine that you will no longer assume unwanted financial responsibilities, lend your car or otherwise engage in behavior that otherwise makes you uncomfortable. Then practice saying "no." It feels difficult at first, but you'll soon grow to enjoy it.

Stay in Touch With Your Priorities

Identify your priorities and then strive to keep them at the forefront of your consciousness. When someone asks you to engage in a care-giving behavior, ask yourself if it is in alignment with your priorities, says productivity coach Olga Degtyareva, Ph.D., on her personal website. This will make it easier for you to stick to the boundaries you've established and avoid slipping back into unhealthy, enabling behavior.

Seek Support

If you continue to find yourself slipping into your old unproductive behaviors even though you're aware they are harmful, seek support. Consider seeing a therapist or life coach to help you identify the emotional needs that are derailing your efforts to enjoy healthy, reciprocal relationships with others. Doing so can also help you to strengthen your resolve, says Knaus. When you're spending the time and money to get help for a problem, you'll be less likely to let a dependent person throw you off course.

About the Author

Elise Wile has been a writer since 2003. Holding a master's degree in curriculum and Instruction, she has written training materials for three school districts. Her expertise includes mentoring, serving at-risk students and corporate training.

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