Relationship Connection: What is the difference between helping and being used?

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Question

Is there a dividing line between loving or helping our neighbor and being taken advantage of? Our neighbor drives old cars and calls us whenever he breaks down, even in the middle of the night. My husband always goes and helps him, but I’m starting to feel we are being used.

Answer

You’re asking an important question that confronts all of us as we interact with those around us. We all have varying needs, temperaments, resources, awareness, limitations and opportunities. It’s also challenging to decide as a couple the best way to help our children, family members, friends and neighbors. For example, you may feel more used up long before your husband does.

It’s not easy to know how to respond to someone who continues to have the same need over and over. Our hearts are tugged toward helping even though our common sense causes us to wonder if they should be more self-sufficient. We wonder when it’s appropriate to just “give a man a fish” or invest the time and resources to “teach him how to fish.” This dilemma can prompt some important introspection that can help you find the right response for your specific situation.

I don’t know how many times your husband has been called out to repair this man’s car, but I’m guessing that the first few times it wasn’t hard to respond to the very real need of rescuing a stranded neighbor. Helping someone once or twice isn’t challenging for most of us, but we worry about enabling them, using up our own resources or creating dependency.

I think it’s always wise to first consider our own capacity to give. It’s wise to manage our resources and not overdo it, as it will build burnout and resentment, especially when there are chronic issues. If these distress calls are burdening your limited resources, it doesn’t automatically mean that you need to be done helping. Of course, it could mean that you need to pull back, but in my experience, it’s usually an indicator that there is a wiser way to do it.

Just because we recognize a need or are called on to respond to a need, it doesn’t mean we always have to be the only ones involved. I believe that when we have clarity, creativity and collaboration, most problems can be handled in a balanced and sensible way. This is especially true when the needs are chronic and deeply rooted. Plus, I’m regularly reminded how many people are willing to help.

For example, you can acknowledge the real needs of your neighbor while also working to proactively search for better solutions to his issues. If he’s involving you on a regular basis with his car needs, then I believe you have a right to expand the discussion with some additional questions to see if there is a way to help him become more self-reliant.

There might be opportunities to help him improve his income potential, you might be able to help him find a more reliable car and you could even contact other neighbors to help spread out the rescue calls.

We do have to make judgment calls in our own life to determine if we’re making a situation worse for ourselves or someone else. Patterns of enabling, rescuing others from the consequences of their choices and other unhealthy reactions to others can keep us stuck and make life miserable for everyone. However, if you and your husband do recognize a need and you want to find a better way to help your neighbor, I encourage you to stay with it in a way that is sustainable.

We all certainly need help from time to time, and there are also seasons of life where we may deeply rely on the goodness and generosity of others. Connecting to our own dependency and vulnerability can help us have compassion for those who are in tough situations. I want to offer those around me that same willingness to help to the best of my ability, but in a way that protects the mental health of everyone involved.

In your case, it sounds like the willingness to help is there, but you feel that perhaps it’s not going in the right direction. Your sense that this isn’t working is important to note. Thinking that doesn’t mean you’re petty and selfish. It might simply mean there needs to be some adjustments and other reinforcements in place. Your husband is clearly a kind man who wants to help, but you can work closely with him to direct that help in a more effective way. 

Have a relationship question for Geoff to answer? Submit to:

Email: geoff@lovingmarriage.com

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