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Emotional help: Rescuing the rescuer

By Rob Kaufman, LCSW

Picture the Swiss Alps in the dead of winter. Majestic mountains covered by a blanket of virgin snow, untouched by human footprints or the curvy lines of skis. Off in the distance is a small dot, which as you come closer you realize is a dog. Not just any dog, but a St. Bernard complete with that little barrel attached to his collar we've all come to expect. You discover that this dog is not merely wandering around the Alps, but rather is a rescue dog searching for a skier lost in an avalanche. The irony is that the skier for whom the rescue dog is searching is himself part of the ski patrol whose job it is to rescue other skiers in trouble. In other words, the rescuer is looking to be rescued. The moral of this tale is . . . I never met a rescuer who didn't want to be rescued.

First of all, what is a "rescuer?" A rescuer is someone who looks to take on the responsibility for someone else's behavior. For example, the wife who takes the blame for being hit by her husband because she got him so mad he couldn't help himself.

A rescuer is someone who feels a duty or obligation to maintain a relationship as it is even when they are feeling used. Such as friends who make themselves available physically and emotionally to others during times of need (like divorce or a death) even though the others are never there for the friends.

A rescuer is someone who makes excuses for someone else's behavior even when it is self destructive or harmful to the rescuer. For example, parents who make excuses for their children who mistreat them ("my daughter screams at me because she's hurting from the divorce.").

Rescuers like to think of themselves as big hearted or generous to a fault. After many years of counseling rescuers, I have discovered that most rescuers are not as altruistic as they would like to think of themselves.

Let's take a look at a typical relationship involving a rescuer.

By their very nature, rescuers, like the St. Bernard dog, tend to want to give to others and typically ask for nothing in return. So, during the early phase of a relationship we would expect to find the rescuer accommodating her boyfriend [for purposes of this writing we'll assume the rescuer is female but it could just as likely be male]. At first, when they would go out to dinner or a movie, he would ask where she wanted to go or what she wanted to do, but being a rescuer she would never voice an opinion choosing instead to respond "I don't care." After a while her boyfriend began to make all the plans for them as a couple since his girlfriend never voiced what she wanted. Instead of appreciating her accommodations or flexibility, he began to think of her as having no opinions or needs. He also saw her as someone who was there to serve his needs. Their dynamic was soon set in cement; her role was to give and his role was to receive.

Their relationship continued and led to marriage. One day, when the wife was feeling particularly tired, she asked her husband to help her carry in the groceries from her car. He paused, staring at her in disbelief as if she had asked him to mow their one acre backyard with nail clippers. She asked why he was staring at her and he explained that she had never asked for help from him before. Rather than appreciating that she had not ever asked for help (or much else for that matter) he grew annoyed with her wanting something from him. This went on from time to time; the wife would reluctantly ask for a small favor or for some assistance with something for which she had never asked for help before. Each time her request was met with bitterness and anger on the part of her husband.

Over time the wife grew more and more irritated and resentful that no matter how infrequent she asked for something from her husband, she was either punished for asking or refused altogether. She reminded her husband, with pride, how she never once asked him for anything during all their years together . He agreed with her and reminded her that he always believed she never asked for anything because she never wanted anything from him (or anyone else). This led to many arguments, as a result of which the wife felt used and taken for granted now that she had finally asked for something. Her husband, on the other hand, felt deceived since his wife gave him the impression she had no needs.

How did this happen? The rescuer, like everyone else, has needs. Because rescuers oftentimes don't feel worthy enough to ask for what they want, they convince themselves that if they give enough to others (especially those who are takers), the recipient of their giving will clearly appreciate the rescuer so much the taker will begin to give back to the rescuer, which is what the rescuer secretly wants all along; to be loved, nurtured and cared for. That is the hope and fantasy of the rescuer. But, because the rescuer has chosen a taker, someone who by definition takes and does not give, the rescuer never gets what she really wants, which is to be rescued.

This is where the taker feels manipulated and deceived. Had the taker known that the only reason the rescuer gave was with the expectation that the taker would give back to the rescuer, the taker would probably not have entered into the relationship with the rescuer.

This explains why rescuers are at risk for being in unhealthy relationships that are one sided. Ask yourself, what kind of man is comfortable with a girlfriend who never seems to need anything; a girlfriend who doesn't ask for anything from her boyfriend or others? Healthy people feel guilty only receiving and not giving in return. The type of man (or
woman) who is comfortable always receiving and never giving back is a taker; someone who is selfish.

So how do rescuers find healthy relationships from which they do not need rescuing? By letting those people to whom they give know that they, the rescuers, also have needs. Healthy rescuers take the risk of letting friends, family, and loved ones know they want things. It would be worthwhile for rescuers to examine their discomfort in receiving, which is part of the reason why they choose to have relationships with takers.

Remember, even the St. Bernard expects, in exchange for rescuing the skier, to receive food, water, shelter and a loving pat on the head for a job well done.

Rob Kaufman, LCSW is a psychotherapist specialized in families and divorce, in Encino, CA. See website.

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