There are many ways that we try to change, fix, or rescue the people we are in relationship with.
Whether we are trying to adjust the style of their clothes, inspire them to think more positively, or help them overcome an addiction, the drive to “fix” them is often a disguise for defending ourselves against “too much” emotional closeness.
When we come into a relationship as a fixer or a rescuer, we unintentionally place ourselves on unequal footing with our partners (or potential partners). In this dynamic, rescuing or fixing replaces the sharing of emotional experience — including empathy, intimacy and vulnerability — and psychologically protects us from being close, which isolates us from others. We inadvertently use our rescue operations to protectourselves from the very things we want and need from others.
But usually, we don’t recognize this defensive stance and are baffled by the sense of anxious “apartness.” So, what are we doing to fix or rescue our partner?
1: We look for a project to manage.
If we want a romantic partner who needs someone to be the solution to their life, we are looking for a project, not a partner. The problem is, if we take on a project and this individual makes headway with their issue, we quickly lose interest and start looking around for a new “project” – someone who reallyneeds us.
Or, conversely, we may resent the person who walks away from or rejects the help we offer.
The best way to let go of our project manager role is to be aware of our own needs. When we are honest with ourselves about what it is that we need from a partner, it is very difficult to allow ourselves to avoid those needs by solely responding to those of others. But when we account for bothour partner’s andour own needs, therelationship — not the other person— can be the project.
2: We try to distract them from their problems.
And we may do this by using entertaining distractions such as elaborate outings to divert their focus from what’s bothering them. Some of us might use outlandish behavior such as being perpetually “on” or “funny.” Or, we might engage in unending activities to fill leisure hours so that neither of us has the time or psychic space to think about problems.
This behavior may be especially pronounced in those of us who don’t want to acknowledge our own relationship issues.
If we realize that we are constantly entertaining our partner in order to distract them from our needs — and as a way of trying to make them feel better– then we need to consciously decide to give our significant other a role with equal weight.
By allowing our partner to offer a valuable contribution to the relationship, we can break out of the isolation of our one-person show and account for the value of what our partner has to add to the relationship.
3: We pretend that everything is ok.
Or we pretend that our partner meets our needs. In doing this, we ensure that we don’t feel real vulnerability – the type we would feel if we actually got close to our partner. And, we give our partner the illusion that he or she is meeting our needs, which in turn prevents both parties from raising and talking about real relationship issues.
When the relationship falls flat, we have no issues leaving it, because we were never truly invested in the first place.
But, if we can muster the courage to take a risk, be honest about our needs, and accept a role as an equal partner, we have the opportunity to engage in a genuine relationship.
With this comes the risk of being hurt, but, embracing this vulnerability allows us to enter into a real relationship with a partner who now matters.
4: We try to be our partner’s antidepressant
If, as children, we were constantly trying to cheer up a depressed, anxious, or absentee parent, then we are likely doing the same for our partners as adults. Bringing this “make them happy” behavior into adulthood, we look for a romantic connection with someone we can treat, not as an equal, but as a sick, dependent person who needs someone to help them get better. This can lead to resentment if the object of their care seems to “refuse” to get better.
Rather than giving and giving, we need to allow ourselves to be positively affected by what our partners have to offer.
When we put all of our energy into trying to make the other person happy, we ensure that we cannot, ake in what others have to offer. This, in turn, ensures that we prevent others from mattering “too much.”
5: We create crises for our partner to address.
If we are looking to fix or rescue severely depressed or withdrawn people, then we might try to save them by stimulating or even shocking them out their negative mood. Reminiscent of adolescent behavior, we may act out in ways that are distracting (and can be shockingin that they are often destructive to themselves and the relationship itself).
When ordinary rescue efforts don’t bring about indicators of relief, we may manufacture a crisis in our own lives, such as family or work-related issues.
In short, we will do anything that might bring about a histrionic exhibition of feelings, which we hope will shock our distressed partner out of their own problems.
Unfortunately, this technique rarely works, because it uses up the energy that might otherwise have been used to do real work on the relationship.
If we find ourselves exhibiting this behavior, we need to learn to hit the pause button. What happens if we don’t engage in this behavior?
With enough reflection and a commitment to refrain from shock tactics, we will be challenged to relinquish this old style of distracting others and begin — one relationship at a time — to accept and tolerate calm relationships that do not need extreme distraction in order to function.
6: We withdraw.
Aware of serious problems in the relationship, but feeling powerless to address them, we emotionally withdraw and even avoid contact with our partner.
By doing this, we believe that we are acting for the good of the relationship by putting aside our own needs in order to prevent a serious crisis that might destroy the relationship. But in reality, we are jeopardizing the relationship by undermining opportunities for showing the empathy, care, and love that it needs to sustain and grow.
If we find ourselves withdrawing from our relationships, we need to change our mindset and embrace a willingness to challenge our partners to meet our needs.
We need to realize that, if we dismiss our legitimate human needs by fading away from our relationships, we remove ourselves from them altogether. Presence is the solution here.
By fixing others, we place ourselves outside the dynamics of mutuality and reciprocity and, in doing so, wind up defending ourselves against accepting what other people have to offer. This is another way of saying that we protect ourselves from developing a healthy sense of reliance on other people or relationships.
Simply put, when we try to fix others, we reject the simplest fact of emotional connection: listening to each other. But when we try to rescue or fix another person, we are not listening to our loved one, which in turn, endangers the relationship.
About The Author:
Mark Borg, PhD, Grant Brenner, MD, andDaniel Berry, RN are the authors ofRELATIONSHIP SANITY: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Relationships(a Central Recovery Press paperback, on sale October 23, 2018) and are practitioners in the mental health field who bring over seven decades of experience working with individuals, couples, families and communities on how to maintain and thrive in loving relationships.