7 Sneaky Hooks That Trap The Codependent Rescuer in Love

By Briana MacWilliam, MPS, ATR-BC, LCAT Licensed and Board-Certified Creative Arts Therapist & Attachment Coach

Are you always trying to save your partner from themselves? Do you feel like you need to be in control of the relationship at all times?

If so, it’s likely that you’re a rescuer in love.

It’s easy to get caught up in the rescuing mentality when it comes to love. We want to save our partner from their pain and make them happy, because that makes us happy!

While this may seem like a noble thing to do, it can actually be quite harmful to both you and your partner, and lead to codependent dynamics.

If you want to have a healthy and fulfilling relationship, it’s important to learn how to stop being a rescuer, and start attracting lovers who show up as equal partners.

In this article, we’re going to explore a case study and offer some tips for how you can reframe the rescuer’s narrative and step into your power.

Specifically, we are going to…

  • IDENTIFY THE SIGNS of rescuer behavior and WHY we do it in the first place.
  • DEBUNK several self-sacrificing myths in codependent thinking.

By the end of this segment, you will…

  • RECOGNIZE when you are slipping into the rescuer mentality and be able to put the kibosh on that ASAP.
  • UNDERSTAND WHY you’re always rescuing your partners, and how to change that behavior.

Let’s begin by examining how a codependent rescuer shows up in their relationships.

The Codependent Rescuer in Love

We all want to be loved and to love someone in return. It’s a natural human desire. And yet, for codependent rescuers, this can be one of the most difficult things to do.

We often find ourselves attracting people who are needy and require our help and support. While this is certainly something that we are drawn to and want to offer, it can be challenging when it becomes our only role in a relationship, and we wind up sacrificing ourselves to “save” the other.

Rescuers often believe the behavior of your partner is a reflection of your own value and your ability to love. In your mind, if your partner messes up, it’s because you weren’t loving them well enough. It’s not their fault – it’s yours. Surprisingly, this gives Rescuers a sense of control that they are terrified to lose. Losing
influence means losing value. Losing value leads to being unlovable, rejected, and ulTimately abandoned.

However, if your “failing” partner begins to “shape up” and “get with the program,” you may lose your attraction to them. As the roles in your relationship shifts, you may not feel needed anymore. Although it seems logical that you’d be thrilled by the change, it can actually be devastating. The more InTimate connections that are now possible feel threatening because you’re not always in charge anymore– which
can feel terrifyingly vulnerable.

Rescuer habits might include:

  • Smoothing things over when your partner gets drunk and embarrasses themselves.
  • Translating what your partner really means when they are being rude and abrasive.
  • Staying up all night, burning the midnight oil, helping your partner meet a deadline after they’ve procrastinated too long.
  • Making yourself ok with a partner that sleeps around to boost their self esteem.
  • Cleaning up after a partner, managing their schedule, supporting them financially, and making sure that they get to where they need to be, on time.
  • Playing the role of therapist if they slip into adult temper tantrums.
  • Suppressing your needs and wants, because you’re afraid they can’t handle them, or you would come across as too intense.

If you find yourself in this situation, I’m sure you can relate to Ann’s story.

When You Want to Leave, But Can’t: Ann’s Story

Ann is an anxious and Open Hearted heterosexual woman in her mid thirties, who sees herself as a codependent “rescuer” and fixer when it comes to her avoidant, Rolling Stone partner, Tom. Ann wants a committed and intimate relationship, and while Tom has opened up about his painful past to her, he still refuses to make any promises or commitments.

Ann is convinced that Tom’s emotional unavailability only indicates an underlying sensitivity and fragility, and that he is still dependent on her for unconditional love, in their ‘situationship.’

Unable to bear the thought of disappointing him, Ann agrees to settle for less than what she wants and needs, so that Tom might avoid his own pain, and so she might avoid Tom’s judgment, and her own guilt.

Ann states:

“I can’t cut all contact with Tom, because he will suffer tremendously and I will have failed my task of caring for him. He has suffered so much. He needed unconditional love more than anything and that’s more important than my egoic need for him to be my romantic partner.

Although cutting all cords is unambiguously what I want and need at this moment in time, I can’t inflict that hurt upon him. He does not deserve that.

I vividly imagine the judgment he might feel towards me for having “left him at his most vulnerable” and that his attachment to me will fade and decay. I fear that I will have killed the most beautiful thing I ever had. I feel a desperate urge to FIX this, and a deep responsibility, like a parent to a child.”

So, let’s break down Ann’s statement a little bit and identify some of the limiting beliefs she is harboring about her relationship, as an example of someone who falls into rescuing habits of thought and behavior.

7 Sneaky Hooks That Trap The Codependent Rescuer in Love

In Ann’s statement, we see several strengths, including clarity and congruency between internal wants and needs, a sense of personal agency and esteem, considerable insight and generosity towards her partner, an ability to be patient and self reflective, a capacity for emotional awareness and expressiveness, and
perhaps she is even a bit poetic.

However, we also see several limiting beliefs popping up that are pretty common among individuals with insecure attachment that slip into rescuing their partners, so let’s explore these themes and beliefs with a bit of detail.

Hook #1: Paradoxical Power Dynamics

First, According to Ann’s statement, on the one hand, she seems to assume quite a bit of power in this relationship, while on the other hand, she also feels helplessly trapped in it.

She basically says…“He will suffer tremendously if I leave him…I need to fix this…I have an abiding responsibility to him …like a parent to a child…he needs unconditional love and I’m the only one who can give it to him.”

So, while there is no doubt that Ann means what she is saying quite lovingly and sincerely, it is also somewhat grandiose. Additionally, in believing that she has this much power and influence over Tom, she is also suggesting that he has little agency over himself. There is something a bit condescending in that, which serves to keep her in a superior position – proving her own goodness to herself and to him. Which means, deep down, she may NOT feel so good about herself, if she needs a relationship like this to prove it.

Paradoxically, however, she also expresses that Tom, even in his vulnerable state, has tremendous power over her! In fact, so much power, that he has persuaded her to remain trapped in an undefined situationship that she “unambiguously” wants and needs to leave.

Ann says… “I vividly imagine his judgment and disappointment towards me…I fear his attachment to me will fade…that I will have killed the MOST beautiful thing I ever had.”

So, on the one hand Tom is seen as vulnerable, hapless and helpless – enough to convince Ann to sacrifice her own needs and desires to stay in an unwanted situation – yet, she ALSO perceives him as a powerful judge, capable of taking away “the MOST beautiful thing” she’s ever had.

This allows us to deduce a few other false premises that are probably operating beneath the surface… and the next one has to do with splitting.

Hook #2: Splitting and Black-And-White Thinking

We see Ann splitting things into extreme camps, including good and bad, deserving and undeserving, worthy and unworthy, powerful and helpless – this reveals the presence of a harsh inner critic, which then creates and reinforces these splits.

Externally, this evolves into a savior-victim dynamic, or, as Ann experiences it, a parent- child dynamic. But the truth is, in adulthood, it’s hard to find someone that is all good or all bad, all powerful or completely helpless; if Ann could integrate this understanding, it would relax the inner critic and give her more freedom to assert herself without becoming a surrogate parent to her lover.

Hook #3: Diffuse Boundaries

Next, we see diffuse boundaries. Or we might call them “enmeshed” boundaries. Which means there is confusion about what energy belongs to her, and what energy belongs to him, and so their feelings and senses get all mixed up together. For Ann, this has led to taking on more than what really belongs to her. In other words, Tom’s pain is her pain, so she will suffer on his behalf, to either earn his love and/or to justify her “goodness” and “worthiness” to her own inner critic. This helps us to understand why Ann equates love with a measure of suffering.

Hook #4: Believing That Suffering Earns Love

Let’s look at suffering in love. Ann seems to believe that in order to be truly loving, unconditionally loving, you must suffer for it, because that makes you deserving. In this case, Ann thinks it makes Tom worthy of her complete self-sacrifice. She demonstrates this when she says, “He’s suffered so much…he doesn’t deserve the pain he’ll feel if I leave him.”

Which is the same thing as saying, he’s suffered so much, and now I owe it to him to stay. He’s earned it, he deserves it. And in suffering for Tom, Ann earns the approval of her own inner critic – which then rewards her by alleviating any feelings of guilt or shame over her own repressed desire for autonomy.

Hook #5: Harboring An Inflated Sense of Emotional Responsibility

Diffuse boundaries also lead to confusion surrounding emotional responsibility. In Ann’s case, her sense of emotional responsibility is inflated, as evidenced by her fantasizing that her presence or absence is essential, on a fundamental level, to the optimal survival of Tom’s inner emotional life.

At the same time, her preoccupation with his wellbeing, reveals it is also the source of her emotional wellbeing, – which means she is both GIVING Tom too much emotional responsibility for her happiness, while at the same Time TAKING away his emotional responsibility to himself, which is actually an illustration of an enmeshed, codependent dynamic, and affectively enabling.

Hook #6: A Need To Be Special

Next, we also see the need to be special. Many insecure partners will remain in a situation they don’t like, because on some level, their partner has managed to make them feel needed and special, even if their personal needs are not being met. Tom’s willingness to confide in Ann, contrasted with his more avoidant tendencies, are likely what made Ann feel empowered and singular in his life. This helps offset the pain she felt in the face of Tom’s rejection of her on a romantic level.

Basically, Ann’s unconscious mind reasons; Well he won’t commit to me romantically, but he still needs me. I know, because he confides in me, and only me. That makes me special. Which means I must still have some power and control over this. And that gives me enough hope to hang on indefinitely.

Hook #7: A Fear Of Growth

Lastly, it’s often when we are standing at the threshold of change, that all our fears come bubbling to the surface. It’s important to recognize that amidst all these other dynamics going on, we still get the sense that Ann is teeter tottering right on the edge of growth and expansion in her life.

Ann says… “Cutting all cords is unambiguously what I want and need at this moment in time.”

First of all, it’s a really good thing that Ann knows what she wants and needs. Not only that, she wants AND needs, the same thing! There’s no conflict there!

This suggests there is actually a good measure of congruency in her inner life; she’s tapped into her own Spirit, and even knows what it has to say. But she is still using Tom’s perceived dependency on her as a reason not to listen.

This makes me think her ego, preoccupied with attachment concerns and threats, is in profound operation, but it is the last hold out to her really stepping into her power and life’s opportunities with true receptivity.

If I had to guess, I would say Ann’s gonna get over this hump in six-months to a year, if that. Maybe even faster, if she can recognize these hooks and learn to reframe these beliefs and the energy caught up in them. This is exactly what I teach my students how to do, using my trademarked method, The MacWilliam Method™.

How To Get Unhooked from Being A Codependent Rescuer

So how do we break free from these seven sneaky hooks? In my work as a creative arts therapist and attachment coach, I’ve developed a trademarked approach that utilizes three core principles in helping folks get “unhooked” in love, and these are 1) cognitive reframing, 2) body activation, and 3) arts-based experientials.

For our purposes here today, let’s focus on cognitive reframing. This is when we are able to apply insight and psycho-education to reframing these nasty hooks into more positive premises and beliefs, in order to open up the possibilities for healthy relationships, as well as increased self-confidence, an self-respect.

For example, Ann believes she is both all powerful, while also powerless. But the truth is no one is all powerful, or completely helpless. There are degrees of emotional influence between human beings, but we do get to decide how much we will allow that influence to continue to impact us, and for how long. We also have the resources to put boundaries in place to mitigate someone’s influence over us.

Reframing Statement: I enjoy the connectedness of relationships with firm but flexible boundaries. This allows me to appreciate intimacy, without losing my personal power and autonomy.

Ann also tends to assume too much responsibility for Tom’s feelings, while making him responsible for her inability to move on. But the truth is, we are all responsible for managing our own feelings, recognizing that feelings are energy moving through the body. And feelings respond to how we choose to express them, and
what we decide to focus upon.

Reframing Statement: I recognize that while my feelings may respond to outside influences, the feelings themselves are still mine, they come from me, and I am responsible for managing them. I do this by acknowledging that they are important information, not to be ignored, nor placed in charge. And I am happy to know that they will grow, or dissolve, based upon my intentional acknowledgement and focus.

Additionally, Ann seems to think that pain and rejected feelings can be avoided if she sacrifices herself on Tom’s behalf. But this only perpetuates more feelings of pain and rejection for her: she’s not getting her needs met. And she’ll be unendingly rejecting herself, if she commits herself to a man that won’t commit to her.

The truth is, our outer realities are a mirror for our inner dialogue. Including our relationships. The more Ann learns to listen to the voice of her inner guidance, in the direction of what she truly wants and needs, the less power the inner critic will have over her. Then, she won’t have to define her worth and value based on a need to feel special, which keeps her stuck in a cycle of fear of rejection, and subject to irrelevant comparisons and judgment.

Reframing Statement: It is a blessing to understand that my outer reality responds to my inner dialogue, because it means the more I connect to and listen to my inner guidance, increasingly, the material world will effortlessly fall into place.

Learning to free yourself of these seven sneaky hooks requires examining your thought processes on an unconscious level, and deconstructing the false premises they suggest about reality. Once you can do that, then you can REPLACE those hooks with open doors (new beliefs) that increase your personal autonomy, and freedom to love and be loved, in relationships, for exactly who you are.

Why The Rescuer Must Become “The Bad Guy”

Overall, for Ann to end this relationship and differentiate herself, for the sake of her own growth and survival (and in order to stop enabling Tom), she needs to disidentify with Tom’s inner child, and start to advocate for her own. She needs to see herself as a separate individual from Tom. She needs to prioritize and advocate for her own inner, hapless vicTim, above his – by shirking off the inner judge and critic. Initially, this will feel “mean” to Ann, and like she is abandoning him, and thus herself, because, unconsciously she believes that she IS him, he IS her.

Ann must learn to embrace her inner “bad guy” by reinforcing her boundaries in order to establish that necessary line between herself and Tom, and get on with her life. Some of the fundamental emotional and energetic states she will go through in order to effect this split, include fear, grief, shame, anxiety, jealousy, envy, and guilt.

And that’s okay, because it’s all part of the journey. The challenge is to lean into those feelings and allow them to run their course, so that it’s possible to move onto the next phase of growth, which will benefit from the wide emotional range she’s just opened up in the process.

By Briana MacWilliam

Briana is an author, educator and licensed and board-certified creative arts therapist with more than 15 years in the field, helping adults struggling with insecure attachment go from self doubting to self sovereign, so they can attract those soul-shaking passionate partnerships that they want. Her trademarked method, The MacWilliam Method, utilizes a psycho spiritual approach to creative arts interventions, within the framework of attachment theory. Her method provides an integrative approach to healing, by activating the mind, body and spirit. To learn more about her offerings, you can visit her website at https://brianamacwilliam.com/.

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