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How To Stop Being “The Fixer” In Your Relationships



I’ve been trying to articulate for myself the difference between A) the healthy growth that naturally occurs in the course of a loving relationship versus B) the unhealthy pattern of one person attempting to fix, change, save, or rescue the other.


And by relationships, I mean all kinds - friendships, romantic partnerships, or family relationships.


Let me share the thoughts coming up for me. See what resonates with you.


When we play the role of fixer/helper/savior/rescuer in our relationships, we may often see legitimate areas of growth that would be genuinely beneficial for our partner, friend, or family member.


Perhaps we develop a vision of who they COULD BE - if only they made some changes in one or more areas of growth. We become invested in this vision for them & feel determined to help them reach these new heights of what is possible for them.


But let’s assume, as so often happens in relationships, that the other person doesn’t share our vision for them and their growth.


They aren’t aware of needing to grow in any particular way. They aren’t committed to that growth. They’re not ready to take steps towards that growth. They’re not prepared to hold themselves accountable for these changes.


What choice do we make then?


Again, if we’re in full-on helper/savior/rescuer mode, we decide to take the initiative for their growth. We take on the burden of facilitating the changes we believe they need to make. We make it OUR work, OUR task, OUR responsibility to see them grow.


If you’ve taken on this role many, many times in your life, you might start waking up to the reality that it simply doesn’t work. At least not in the way you thought it would.


Maybe the person does stubbornly start to change - because you push and shove, or guilt and shame, or carrot-and-stick them into your desired outcome. But their stubborn growth often arrives hand-in-hand with resentment, anger, or a whiplash return to old behaviors as they try to reassert their individuality.


Or maybe no change occurs at all and our inner fixer is left banging their head against a brick wall in frustration.


Or more tragically, in the case of really toxic relationships, our attempt to help the other person not only has zero positive impact on their behavior, but leaves us utterly depleted, broken, and abandoned.


(This last scenario should be a strong warning sign that the relationship is a toxic, even abusive, one. I think a fair rule of thumb for measuring whether another person’s presence in your life is toxic is that your best efforts to see them grow, or even to simply co-exist with them, causes you significant harm and suffering while they stay exactly the same.)


All this leads us to the question: is there a healthier, wiser course of action here for those of us who have been fixers, rescuers, and self-abandoning helpers in the past?


To start, we can begin to shift the focus from how the other person ought to change towards recognizing our own needs in the relationship and better communicating those needs through healthy boundaries.


Let’s say our friend, partner, or family member has a behavior pattern that creates negative experiences for us - annoyance, displeasure, frustration, disrespect. The fixer/helper/rescuer/savior wants to frame the problem as “I’m going to help them become a better kind of person who wouldn’t do this kind of behavior that bothers me so much.”


Instead, a healthier framing of the problem might sound something like: “I have needs in this relationship that I need to speak up about. For instance, I have a need to feel respected in my relationships. When you engage in these behaviors, I don’t feel respected. Here’s some examples of the kind of behaviors that would make me feel respected in this relationship. I hope you will hear me & honor my request for greater respect between us.”


Here, you have spoken up for yourself and your needs. You have presented the other person with a potential pathway to meet those needs and be in a healthy relationship with you, as well as boundaries indicating what you don’t find acceptable.


And when it comes time for them to respond to your requests with choices and behaviors, you have placed the responsibility for their decisions where it properly belongs: on them, not on your own shoulders.


If they have the capacity to meet your needs and show up in a healthy way in your relationship, that’s wonderful news.


But if they are unable to meet your requests, if they continue to dishonor your boundaries, if they respond to your communication in immature, disrespectful ways, then you have the right to reassess the future of the relationship. You have the right to change the parameters of their role in your life. You have the right to leave.


AT NO POINT is it your duty to save them, rescue them, fix them, or help them to love you in the ways you need when they consistently show no effort of their own towards those goals.


Healthy growth DOES happen in loving relationships, but it occurs precisely when each person takes full ownership of how they are showing up and takes full accountability for healthier choices & behaviors.


I am genuinely growing when I see clearly the need for change. I am committed to that growth. I’m ready to take steps towards that growth. I am prepared to hold myself accountable for new behaviors.


The people I am in relationships with can be a source of inspiration or motivation for my growth, and I can hopefully be a source of inspiration and motivation for their growth.


But I must walk the path of change with my own two feet, not theirs. And they must walk the journey of growth with their own legs, not mine.


I can’t take responsibility for saving them, and they can’t take responsibility for saving me.


I can’t rescue them, and they can’t rescue me.


What we CAN do, instead, is actually love another.


Loving one another means walking side-by-side as we evolve and change and grow… not by doing the work for them, not by being the other person’s savior, not by needing to rescue or being rescued … but by supporting each person’s inner capacity to choose the healthiest, wisest, most loving version of themselves.


- Matthew Foley

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