How to Stop Being the Fixer in Relationships
Fixing might feel good, but it’s the toxic kiss of death to a relationship.
Being a fixer sounds like a good thing, doesn’t it? Who doesn’t want a fixer in their life — someone to rescue them from their problems? As a recovering fixer, I’ve learned that while fixing problems for other people feels good, it is actually the toxic kiss of death to a relationship.
The scary truth is many people don’t even realize that they’re the fixer in a relationship. That’s because being the fixer feels good, and having someone else fix your problems feels good. It can take a while before anyone realizes there’s an issue.
So how do you know if you’re caught in that toxic trap?
Subtle clues you might have fixer tendencies:
You might be a fixer if…
- You feel deeply responsible for other people’s emotional stability, satisfaction, or happiness.
- You can’t bear to watch a loved one experience discomfort — even if the uncomfortable circumstance is a natural consequence of their choices.
- You’re quick to step in to solve problems or create solutions for people you care about, and doing so makes you feel happiness or relief.
- You like to be the giver in the relationship.
But… caring about people’s happiness and well-being doesn’t automatically make you a fixer.
Caring for people and wanting to see them succeed in life doesn’t always mean you have fixer tendencies. Neither does living generously and helping people in need.
A fixer doesn’t just solve someone else’s problem, they actually become the solution.
You see, at the core, being a fixer comes from a good — if slightly misguided — heart.
Fixers don’t want to see people they care about experience problems or painful consequences, so they take on the pain and frustration of the problem as their own, and they step in to become the solution to the problem.
While this can feel good — we all love to play the hero — stepping into that fixer role is one of the worst things we can do to a relationship.
Why fixing is so unhelpful
While it is noble to alleviate suffering, many times that pain is the result of someone’s own life choices. When we fix that person’s uncomfortable consequences, it can actually block that person’s access to one of life’s greatest teachers — pain.
Even more, when we step in to become the solution, we keep our loved ones from the motivation, joy, and confidence that come from overcoming life’s challenges.
When one person becomes the fixer in the relationship, it causes an unhealthy level of dependence. Healthy relationships are interdependent — a two-way street where there’s a good balance of mutual give-and-take, along with respect. When we start solving other people’s problems for them, or even just feeling responsible for the emotional balance in the relationship, we create an unhealthy sense of dependency and usually, a lack of respect.
Side note: If fixing sounds suspiciously like enabling — you’re right — it absolutely can be. Not every fixer is an enabler, but it’s an easy slope to slide down!
Now, there are situations where someone you care about experiences a personal crisis or catastrophe that isn’t a direct result of their choices. We live in a crazy world, and life can inflict some pretty terrible things to the undeserving. But even in those situations, fixing isn’t ideal. It’s important to be mindful of the the big picture, what the person actually needs, and how we can best support them through the process of getting there.
There’s another ugly truth behind the “kindness” of fixing:
Often, when we step into the fixer role, we unconsciously communicate our belief that the recipient of our help isn’t strong or smart enough to solve their own problems.
Even if we don’t believe that, and are just trying to avoid our own emotional pain at seeing a loved one suffer, we’re still reinforcing the idea for ourselves that we are the solution to their problems. (We’re not.)
Fixing may feel good, but it’s a situation where everyone loses.
How to stop being a fixer
Assess the situation
Before you jump in to help or even fall into great distress over a loved one's situation, stop and assess the situation.
- What events or choices led up to this problem?
- Is this part of a larger pattern of behavior — like addiction, carelessness, or toxic relationships?
- Is my loved one acknowledging their role in the problem?
- Is this a problem they could resolve on their own with encouragement, guidance, or emotional support?
- Who is most motivated to solve this problem — your loved one, or you?
- Who can offer the best wisdom or support in this situation?
Answering these questions should help give you a better picture of what is really going on. Remember, taking ownership of another person’s problem or emotions is depriving them of the chance to learn and grow.
Know your own motives
Along with finding the lay of the situational land, you also need to check the landscape of your own heart.
- Are you fixing their problem to solve your own emotional distress over their life choices?
- Is your desire to help motivated by feelings of guilt, shame, or concerns of what other people might think?
- Do you need to be the hero or savior on order to feel valued?
- Is this part of a greater pattern of “they fail, you fix.”
- Are you feeling responsible for things you have no control over, like other people’s choices or emotions?
- Are you taking responsibility for the things you do control, like your actions, thought patterns, and responses?
Knowing your own heart and motivations can be tricky. At the end of the day, however, what really matters is if you’re truly empowering someone to overcome their own challenges or helping them to stay stuck by trying to fix their problem for them.
Choose to empower
Empowering is the choice to give the proverbial hand up instead of a hand out, (or bail out, if the situation fits).
Empowering is always the best choice, but it isn’t always the easiest.
Sometimes the most empowering thing you can do is to step away and give the person space to experience the pain of their circumstances. Other times it might look like asking them what they think the solution is and offering encouragement and emotional support on their way there.
- Empowering is always safeguarded with healthy boundaries.
- Empowering seeks the healthy independence of the other party.
- Empowering seeks to connect the other person with a network of resources to help them along their way.
Choosing to empower instead of fix, might be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. But if fixing is the toxic kiss of death to a relationship — and it is — empowering is the absolute most life-giving thing you can do for someone you care about.
Fixer tendencies can be hard to shake — but you can make them work in your favor.
Invest in your own relational toolkit
There have been a handful of resources that have made me aware of my own fixer tendencies — and given me the tools to become more empowering in relationships.
- The wealth of books by authors Dr. Henry Cloud and John Townsend.
- Love and Logic books and resources, especially the concepts behind enforceable statements — these work for all ages, not just kids!
- Journaling about situations to clarify my own thoughts and intentions.
- Honest conversations with trusted advisers in my life.
Continually surrounding myself with resources that remind me I’m valuable, strong, and resourceful help me to help others in a way that honors these same truths for everyone involved.
You really are the only person in any relationship that you can fix. If you’re going to spend time trying to fix someone, start here:
Invest in your own mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being.
Cultivate your own network of resources and support through healthy friendships, empowering classes and activities, counseling or therapy, and spiritual community.
Look for truly empowering ways to contribute, and create healthy guidelines and a plan for how you’ll implement generosity.
Give yourself time to reflect so you can respond, not react.
It starts with you.
When you choose to empower, rather than fix, you’re helping your loved ones in the best possible way. The people you care about deserve to be treated in a way that honors their autonomy, resilience, and personal strength. You deserve this too. The only way to enforce this is to start with yourself.
Learn what fixing looks like. Invest in your own well-being and relational skill set. Decide today that you’re going to fight for healthy independence and personal responsibility for each person in your relationships.
Treat yourself with extraordinary grace and compassion.
Unlearning these unhealthy relational patterns takes effort, intention, consistency, and most importantly, time. Learning not to be the fixer in a relationship is hard work — treat yourself with extraordinary grace and compassion in the process.
It will be painful.
Sometimes the people we care about are trapped in addictive behaviors or toxic relationships, or they are simply dead-set on making poor choices. We can’t fix their problems for them, and realizing this can be extraordinarily painful. At times, we may even have to lovingly step back or even cut off contact entirely, in order to restore balance and honor their autonomy.
Even in situations where our loved ones didn’t cause their own suffering, they might not need or want our help in the way we want to give it. It can be quite uncomfortable to watch someone struggle when it seems so easy to jump in and set things right, even when we know that’s not the best choice. It takes determination and a boatload of vulnerability to truly empower our loved ones in life’s difficulties.
There is hope.
Yes, it takes a lot of work, but as you do the work you’ll see a powerful shift in how you experience relationships. People who create and maintain healthy boundaries in their relationships actually attract others with the same core values.
As you surround yourself with healthy relationships, it will become easier and easier to stop being the fixer, and start truly empowering the ones you love.