Over 34 million people serve as unpaid caregivers for loved ones, helping them with the daily living and/or medical tasks they cannot navigate alone. One of the questions I frequently get from caregivers is how to cope better with the exhaustion and sense of helplessness that can come with managing the logistics of two lives—theirs and their loved one’s.

When I speak with them, I’m always interested in how they’ve defined that precious boundary between themselves and the one that they are caring for. Healthy relationships require some separation of space—mentally, physically, and emotionally–but the frequent crises or watchfulness that caregiving often involves can make finding that line a bit difficult. It’s all too easy for people who care to become caretakers instead of caregivers.

Consider these questions and decide if you’ve moved beyond your role of caregiver into the ultimately thankless one of caretaking.

Do you think your loved should appreciate for what you are doing for him?

Caretakers often believe that jumping in to help people will make those people love them more. After all, who doesn’t appreciate someone who has sacrificed for you? Many do, but hoping someone will value you more because of what you do for him or her can be a sign your sense of worth is too dependent on what others think—and that’s an bucket that can never stay full.

Do you find yourself getting angry or resentful at your loved one?

Frustration and irritation is common in many stressed out relationships but one early sign that you may be in a lopsided relationship can be recurring resentment. It’s is one of the surest signs I’ve found in my practices that 1) some radical self-care and/or 2) a renegotiation of the helper-helpee contract is in order.

Does your loved one get resentful when you ask her to reciprocate in some way or take on some responsibilities?

One young client shared his insight that by being “the perfect boyfriend” at the beginning of a relationship and jumping in to solve all of his love’s problems, he created a dynamic that wasn’t healthy. When he asked for some reciprocity, it seemed to her as if he had changed. And he had—he wanted a more equal relationship than the one he originally negotiated through his actions.

Do you respect your loved one?

The wisdom that helped me release an old pattern of caretaking was something a friend said. Her perspective is that when you care-take people, you send them the message that you don’t respect their ability to take care of themselves. I realized by assuming that I saw their lives more clearly than they did, I was subtly telling them I thought they were not good enough.

Are you jumping in the way of the bullet from the Universe?

When caretakers pre-solve loved ones’ problems or protect them from the consequences of their actions, my experience is that two things happen. One–the loved one doesn’t get the lesson that dealing with the issue would have taught them and continues the behavior that created the situation. The second thing that happens is that the caretaker suffers by having to handle the situation, causing stress in his or her life. The metaphor I use with my clients is to ask them to imagine that the Universe is sending a bullet – in the form of a lesson that will ultimately (if a bit painfully) help their loved one grow. When they care-take, they save their loved one from the pain, but they also take the bullet! And furthermore it didn’t save anyone from having to get the lesson another way (including, I might add, the caretaker).

Bottom line–look to the words “caretaking” and “caregiving”

Are you gifting the person you love with care? That means you are offering a present of your time or assistance without expectation of return. Or, are you taking charge or taking care of them? Sometimes the answer is hard to see. If you aren’t sure, ask a friend who you know will be honest with you. If the answer is “caretaking,” it’s time to re-negotiate the relationship!


Caregiving requires the intention of love; caretaking requires the intention of fear.

Gary Zukav