By Bruce Fisher, Ed.D.
A rescuer is a person who creates relationships with someone who needs rescuing. It feels so good for the rescuer to find someone to rescue, and it feels so good for the person needing rescuing, that often the two people end up being in a committed relationship with each other; an over-responsible person in relationship with an under-responsible person. I taught about 2,000 people ending a relationship in the Rebuilding class and the majority of them described their last relationship as an over-and-under-responsible relationship.
You rescuers can easily believe you are "superior" to those who need rescuing. You believe you are doing all of these wonderful things that will get you brownie points in Heaven. It's true the things you get done are impressive. You are doing many kind deeds to and for others. Many times you provided an environment that allowed the other person to make tremendous personal growth. However, it is helpful to realize that your rescuing is often controlling others, keeping them smaller, weaker, dependent, and unable to do things for themselves. Your need to rescue someone means you will have to keep them in a need of rescuing.
How did you become a rescuer? During your formative years, your emotional development became stunted. You stopped getting all of your needs met. You compensated by finding another little child in someone else who had also stopped growing. You began to give to them the things you were wishing someone would give to you. It made you feel better but it set up a dangerous precedent. You began being so involved in helping another that you were able to avoid looking at how much you needed to take care of yourself. You began the development of an adaptive-survivor part in order to feel better and get more of your needs met.
There are a wide variety of situations that could have encouraged you to develop a rescuer pattern of behavior. Sometimes you felt frustrated because you weren't getting enough attention or love. Sometimes you learned you could manipulate your environment by developing adaptive behaviors. Sometimes you felt very criticized and became adaptive to feel better instead of feeling not okay. Sometimes you suffered from a lack of parenting because your parents were not around or were especially weak in parenting skills. Sometimes everyone around you were under-responsible, perhaps even in an altered state due to drugs of some sort. You learned to be an over-responsible, rescuer in order to keep your family functioning.
If you were to make a list of the many adaptive/survivor behaviors you could have chosen, being a rescuer was probably the best choice you could have made. It helped you make the most of your situation. It not only helped you to get more needs met, it often was very helpful to the people around you. It worked well in your formative years. It doesn't work as well in your adult relationships.
Relationships that are over/under often become stressful and sometimes end. Rescuers often become emotionally drained. The last stage of the relationship usually includes anger because you have given so much and received so little. You aren't able to see your contribution to the problem. You have difficulty taking, so even if they tried to give to you, you would have trouble receiving. For you, it is easier to give than to receive.
The system of interaction between the two people can become upset. Here are some examples. The couple have a baby and the rescuer is too busy with the baby to continue rescuing the partner. The rescuer finds a stronger identity by doing self-care. (This always feels selfish to rescuers when they start becoming responsible to self instead of over-responsible.) The person who is under-responsible becomes tired of being controlled and either leaves the relationship. Any one of these "upsetting-the-system behaviors" can contribute to the ending of the relationship. If asked, you can usually identify when the system began to change. This can be the beginning of the end of your relationship. It is possible to change within the relationship without it ending, but both parties have to have awareness plus good communication to do this.
Leaving the relationship will not help rescuers to change. Instead you will probably find another person needing rescuing and create another over/under relationship. The challenge is to change the relationship with yourself by learning to become responsible for self instead of being either over-or under-responsible. It usually includes learning to take emotionally, instead of always emotionally giving to another. It means giving to yourself the things that you didn't get enough of in your formative years.
Think of the wonderful things that could happen if you transformed your well-developed "giving to others part" into a "giving to yourself part." You might find the happiness, contentment, and inner peace that you deserve. Good luck on your journey.
Bruce Fisher (1931-1998) developed the "rebuilding" model of divorce recovery nearly 25 years ago. Founder and director of the Family Relations Learning Center (Boulder, Colorado), he personally trained thousands of individuals and therapists in this approach, enriching the lives of hundreds of thousands worldwide. He was a highly popular divorce therapist, author, and teacher, and a Clinical Member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. His "Fisher Divorce Adjustment Scale" is an internationally recognized measure of adjustment to the ending of a love relationship.
Bruce grew up on a family farm in Iowa, was the first in his family to earn a college degree, and went on to a doctorate from the University of Northern Colorado in human development. His dissertation research focused on the development of the Fisher Divorce Adjustment Scale.
Bruce's widow, Nina Hart, is mother of their son, Robert Hart Fisher, and co-author with Bruce of the popular relationships book, Loving Choices.