‘Taking Care Of’ or ‘Caring For’ Your Partner? Why it Matters.

Marriage guidance, advice, and relationship tips from expert marriage therapist Azizeh Rezaiyan

In my couple’s therapy sessions, partners often talk about “taking care of each other.” They go on and on about all the ways they make special efforts to make their partner happy. Unfortunately, these couples are not alone in their confusion about the difference between taking care of their partner (caretaking) and caring for their partner.

The fact is, there are only two people whom we should take care of in life. One is our own self and the other is our minor child. Of course, there are times and exceptions when we must take care of our ill partner or old parents, but they remain exceptions. For the rest of the people in our lives our task instead is to remain caring. This conflation of caretaking and caring for is incredibly common, and it is very dangerous and damaging to relationships.

In marriage and relationship counseling, couples learn in depth about the difference between the act of caring and the act of caretaking. The topic deserves the extra time and attention; it is crucial to learn the difference. Not understanding it can mean one spouse’s genuine efforts to be kind and loving can be a source of marital discord. It’s an unfortunate fact that well-meaning attempts to show care can take the marriage into “needs to be saved” territory.

Here’s the critical difference between caretaking vs. caring for:

Caretaking: When we take care of our partner in an intimate relationship, the dynamic in the relationship becomes a parent-child one. This dynamic kills intimacy and sexual desire. Gradually, partners on the receiving end of caretaking feel controlled, inadequate, and slowly resentful. In addition, they receive the message that they are incapable of – or not smart enough to be – taking care of themselves. The partner also perceives they are not inherently lovable. They learn that in order to be loved, they must do things for the caretaking partner at the expense of their own well-being. This dynamic eventually makes the partner feel exhausted, taken advantage of, and angry that no matter what they do, nothing is good enough.

Caring for: When spouses engage instead in caring for each other, both partners perceive a sense of genuine kindness and reward of feeling fulfilled. Caring for without caretaking remains respectful to the boundaries of self and others. It is supportive but not intrusive. It enhances intimacy, bringing sensuality and love to the relationship which strengthens the bond between the couple.

If you or your partner seem to have a problem with the distinction between caring for and caretaking, really consider seeking marriage counseling. Caretaking can be toxic and deadly to an otherwise good relationship, and it is imperative to address it. Spending some time and money addressing caretaking relationship issues and learning healthy “caring for” strategies can truly mean a happier, more fulfilling marriage and life. This is an area where couples therapy can be most effective, so if you need marriage help with caretaking, take heart. Don’t deny yourself and your spouse the peace and happiness that can result when healthy relationship behaviors take root.

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