Codependent Caretaking: Signs to Look Out For

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "No More Mr. Nice Guy" by Robert Glover. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is a codependent caretaker? How can you tell if you are one?

Sometimes, actions that seem generous and kind can actually be insidious. Genuinely caring for someone is not the same thing as caretaking, which is defined as giving care to others with your own needs in mind. From there, it’s a slippery slope towards codependent caretaking.

Learn more about codependent caretaking and why it happens below.

Signs of a Codependent Caretaker

Sometimes “generosity” comes with strings attached. This is called a “covert contract,” and is based on this assumption:

I do something for you → You do something for me → We both walk away satisfied, pretending our needs and this transaction never existed

A common example of a covert contract is giving a compliment just to hear one back. When you get a new haircut and no one notices, you might compliment a coworker’s hairstyle to prompt a similar compliment. In this case, your kind words didn’t come from a genuine place but from a personal need for external validation. 

Covert contracts often leave people disappointed, but we do see them “work” to an extent in our day-to-day lives (see our example above). When we hear “I love you,” we’re compelled to say “I love you” back. If a coworker surprises you with a holiday gift and you’re empty-handed, you feel guilty for not giving them something in return. You feel like you owe them despite knowing you never agreed to exchange gifts. What makes us feel this way?

It has to do with what Robert Cialdini—in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion—calls the reciprocity principle. According to Cialdini, this principle is the innate indebtedness we feel when someone does something for us (even if we didn’t need or want that something in the first place). 

Although Cialdini discusses this principle in relation to business and customer relationships, we can apply it to our interactions with covert contracts. Concepts of fairness—like “I scratch your back, you scratch mine”—are so ingrained in our daily lives that we’re already in a position to be manipulated when presented with the “giving” end of a covert contract. Covert contracts can “work” on us because they take advantage of our reciprocal nature.

Caring vs Caretaking

Glover defines caretaking as spending all your time attending to other people’s needs so that you can avoid your problems, have your needs met, or feel important. Caretaking is, in itself, a covert contract. It’s generosity that stems from neediness rather than love. 

Genuinely caring for someone is not the same thing as caretaking. Nice Guys might think they’re caring, but Glover points out some major differences:

CaretakingCaring
Gives based on the giver’s desiresGives based on the receiver’s needs
Gives to fill a voidGives out of an abundance of love
Gives to getGives to give

The Codependent Caretaker

The concept of “caretaking” is most commonly discussed in regards to codependent relationships, especially between parent and child. 

According to marriage and family therapist Darlene Lancer, a caregiving parent provides their child with unconditional love and care. Parents who caretake have their own needs in mind when “giving” to their child and often feel righteous or expect something in return for their “self-sacrifice.” These parents typically feel responsible for their child, rather than a responsibility to their child. 

Lancer notes how caretakers can become codependent caretakers: When a child constantly has things done for him to meet his needs, he learns that 1. he’s not responsible for his own needs and 2. he lacks the confidence and abilities to tend to them. From there, the child grows dependent on his parents and the caretaking evolves into a form of control

Further, when a child grows up equating love with self-sacrifice—this being a key tenet of his parent’s caretaking, as noted above—this mindset may be carried into his adult relationships. In his book, The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck says this belief results in:

  • Social sadomasochism: This is an unconscious desire to be hurt in our relationships. The desire comes from an attachment to the moral superiority that comes with being the victim of mistreatment. In this case, you may enjoy feeling like “the good guy.” To uphold this dichotomy, you accept abuse from “the bad guy.” 
  • Destructive nurturing: Otherwise known as caretaking. (In our case, the caretakee becomes the caretaker.)

Thus, a codependent caretaker creates a vicious cycle and caretaking is both a cause and effect of this imbalanced type of relationship.

Codependent Caretaking: Signs to Look Out For

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Elizabeth Shaw

Elizabeth graduated from Newcastle University with a degree in English Literature. Growing up, she enjoyed reading fairy tales, Beatrix Potter stories, and The Wind in the Willows. As of today, her all-time favorite book is Wuthering Heights, with Jane Eyre as a close second. Elizabeth has branched out to non-fiction since graduating and particularly enjoys books relating to mindfulness, self-improvement, history, and philosophy.

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