Initially, the term codependency applied to those living in households with a substance abuser.


Today, researchers are aware that people in general display the characteristics of codependency. In fact, if you were raised in a dysfunctional family situation – be that because a member of the family was a substance abuser, perhaps battling with a grave illness, or emotional unavailable or abusive – you most likely had the pattern of codependency imprinted on you.

So, codependency stems from – and leads to more – unhealthy relationships. One of the most prominent unwholesome characteristics of codependency is caretaking.

But wait… why wouldn’t caring be healthy?

Because there’s actually a marked difference between caretaking and caregiving. One is unhealthy, the other is not. Caregiving is rooted in love and kindness. Caretaking, however, is rooted in insecurity and the need for control or the need to be needed for fear of loss.

How does this manifest itself?

Caretaking Vs. Caregiving

You cross the line into caretaking when you use all your energy and time to handle the problems of someone who is fully capable of handling them themselves.

You may do this to gain control of 1) the actions of the person you’re trying to help, 2) a situation that you have no power over, or 3) the perception of others, so they see you as a good person.

What are some of the signs that you may be caretaking?

  • Others often accuse you of crossing personal boundaries, or meddling. But you believe you know what’s best for others.

  • Other people’s ability to take care of themselves seems unlikely. So, you tend to solve their problems without first giving them the chance to try it themselves.

  • Solving other people’s problems comes with strings attached, expecting something in return (whether unconscious or not). After all, you sacrificed all your energy and time for them.

  • You constantly feel stressed, exhausted, frustrated, and even depressed.

  • Needy people are drawn to you like a magnet.

  • You’re often judgmental.

  • You don’t take care of yourself because you think that’s selfish.

On the other hand, you display caregiving when you offer a helping hand to someone who truly needs it. You accept what you can’t control and deal with the situation and the person compassionately.

How would you know you’re caregiving?

  • Well-defined personal boundaries are in place, and you honor those of other people. You believe that you only know what’s best for you, not someone else.

  • You trust others enough to know that they are capable of solving their own problems. So you give them a chance to do what they can to handle the issue, assuring them that you’re by their side if they need help, but you respectfully wait until they ask you to help.

  • Instead of keeping account of your good deeds, you give freely of your extra energy and time,

  • Giving of yourself feels satisfying, energizing, and even inspirational.

  • You don’t see the logic in judging others. Instead, you listen and empathize withoutjumping to conclusions.

  • You take care of yourself because you know unless you’re healthy and happy you can’t give assistance to others.

Caregiving Results in Healthy Relationships

Caretaking is a dysfunctional behavior. It’s something you learned. But you can change it!

When you become aware of what caretaking behaviors are, you can begin detecting them in yourself. It gives you the ability to decrease them and replace them with caregiving behaviors. Sometimes this is hard to do alone and you might need the help of recovery groups like Al-anon or CoDa or the help of a therapist. 

The result will be happier and healthier relationships with everyone in your life. You will have more time and energy for your loved ones – children, spouse, and extended family. You will set the example for others on how to create healthy boundaries and relationships. And, you can show them how to break free from the pattern of codependency.

Nancy Ryan, LMFT

Nancy Ryan, LMFT

Nancy Ryan, LMFT specializes in working with individuals and couples who want deep, satisfying relationships with themselves and their partners. She works with couples who are ready to stop the destructive patterns and want to build the love, friendship and romance back into their partnership.

For more on Codependency Treatment click here.