Caregiver Lessons: Don’t Slide Into Co-dependence (5 of 6)

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Between a cancer patient and caregiver, it is the caregiver who wields more power, especially in the early days. But what happens when the patient recovers and wants to reclaim that power? Find out how can the transition be smoother.

Naturally Nurturing

Most times the loved one who gets cancer and for whom you are the primary care-giver is already in a deep relationship with you. Either he or she is your spouse (related by marriage) or your parent or child or sibling (related by birth).

These are complex and profound human bonds of love and also of power.  We really care about them and not just care for them. When cancer appears as a third element in this deep bond of love, then as a care-giver, you no longer just have to care about them, you now have to also take care of them.

This brings out the nurturing, parenting human quality that nature has built into us to safely bring up our children, for example. This role of being the protector, provider, stronger person overall to someone who is weak, vulnerable and not able to take care of themselves is a role that comes naturally to us.

The Dark Side of the Carer!

Like all positive qualities, this role also has a dark side if not handled consciously. A psychological phenomenon called “Co-dependence” occurs all too often, when one partner starts feeling overly empowered because of the power they hold over the other.

In this instance, the carer feels powerful because of the neediness of the patient who is now depending on them.The patient has given their power away trustingly to the carer at a time when they are vulnerable.

This situation needs to be time-bound and not permanent. Because once the patient starts feeling better and stronger, the carer needs to hand the entrusted power back so that the patient can be free to make their own choices. This is the healthy way to be.

However, it is not easy for this power to be returned at the right time in the journey. The carer can hold on to the power for too long while the patient often gets used to be taken care of and becomes comfortable remaining a ‘patient’.

Since their needs are being met by someone else who seems to be happy doing so, the patient delays reclaiming their power and becoming responsible for themselves again. Not just physically, but also emotionally. The co-dependence is now complete. Both partners i.e. the carer and the patient are now trapped in this power-play.

Resentment Can Hurt

However comfortable, this co-dependence does not last because of its inherent distortion. Since all dynamics seek equilibrium, this positive bonding pattern will eventually swing like a pendulum into a negative bonding pattern where each starts resenting the other.

The carer starts feeling depleted because of continually giving energy and the patient feels resentful because they sense their lack of freedom. Most co-dependent relationships swing between these positive and negative states and can become emotionally exhausting for both carer and patient.

Encourage Independence

I hope you will watch out for this dynamic and have the courage and will power to break it. It requires tough love, not cruelty. As a carer, you should know that it is perfectly OK and in fact necessary for you to encourage your loved one to become independent of you. And indeed become their own person again.

The metaphor of the mother bird who forces her fledglings out of their comfortable nest once she has finished nurturing them to a point where they need to fly free, comes to mind. The carer role is psychologically that of the parent, and like even for parents, it is a phase which they need to move on from, once fulfilled.

Even though, as a carer, you already have a lot on your plate, this is one more task that you will have to do. It is worth putting in the emotional work that’s needed because in the long term, it will be the kindest thing you can do for your patient and the healthiest thing for you both.

*Hal and Sidra Stone – Partnering: a New Kind of Relationship’

Reflection

  • How healthy is the power dynamic between you (as the strong caregiver) and your loved one (as the vulnerable patient)?
  • How much are you (secretly) enjoying your new-found power?
  • What can you do to encourage your loved one to become ‘independent’ again?

More from this series

Title About the article
Lesson 1: Wear Your Oxygen Mask First The cancer diagnosis blows a big, unexpected hole in your energy supply. It’s like being on an aircraft which was flying smoothly, all under control, and suddenly the cabin pressure drops due to some unexpected turbulence.
Lesson 2: Eat to Live, Not Live to Eat Cooking for a cancer patient can be far more challenging than many books indicate. Sometimes it can take over your life and make you wonder if this is all you are now going to do.
Lesson 3: Acknowledge and Accept the Struggle Another unexpected aspect of the cancer journey is when you come up against your own, not-so-heroic side, and that of the loved one you are taking care of.
Lesson 4: From Pain to Transformation Pain can serve you, if you can only stop long enough and pay attention to the incredible learning and growth that you are experiencing.
Lesson 5: Co-dependence – Don’t Slide Into It Most times the loved one who gets cancer and for whom you are the primary care-giver is already in a deep relationship with you.
Lesson 6: Relationship as a Path to Wholeness Looking back, the very struggle of having to reclaim my power from Vijay after having spent over five years of not just being his wife and the mother of his children but also his primary care-giver and chief source of emotional support, did deliver something extra-ordinarily beautiful for me.

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