lifebuoyA couple of days ago I wrote about Florence Nightingale, the woman who chooses her relationships based on the opportunity to fix/heal/help. She needs to be needed and it gives her a sense of control, plus being with someone who in their eyes has issues or is ‘broken’ proves to be the perfect foil to hide behind with her own issues. Often without any ‘malice’ intended, this style of ‘loving’ stems from her own unresolved pain and misguided ideas about what loving someone involves.

Now I want to stress, I’m not suggesting that people should not ‘help’ people that they love and care about, but just like when overgiving and ‘overhelping’ can cross boundaries with friends, family, and even colleagues, it’s even worse in a relationship.

Some people will say ‘What’s wrong with wanting to fix/heal/help someone?’ Er…plenty!

You see, if you can only be with someone on the basis that you perceive them to ‘need’ you and that you then get the opportunity to fix/heal/help them, it creates a very unhealthy balance and dynamic in the relationship.

Many Florence Nightingales make the decision to be interested/invested and the decision to ‘love and stay’ when they get that ‘bingo’ signal that the person ‘needs’ them. Note that the person hasn’t likely said that they need them; Florence Nightingales decide that they need them and imagine the ways that they can change this person.

I have come across so many women who were ambivalent or flat out uninterested in a guy until they determined that he was ‘broken’ or that in their eyes, there was something to pity. Suddenly, someone who five minutes before they’d been pondering whether they were wasting their time, or composing a way to let them down gently, sits up and pays attention.

What other people with healthier love habits would see as sympathy, pity, and in some circumstances empathy, they see it as an opportunity to rescue. In fact, I know some women who are the relationship version of ‘ambulance chasers’, picking up every waif and stray of the dating world, and like an architect, builder, and interior designer combined, stripping the man down to bare basics, and remodelling him mentally and then setting to work through actions and verbal.

Florence Nightingales are buffers, fluffers, gap fillers, nurses and human airbags and so in order for you to fulfil your role and feel that you have a purpose, there needs to be what you perceive to be a gap, a gaping hole, or an outright wreckage.

The whole premise of being a Florence Nightingale means that the relationship only ‘works’ for you if you are needed and are fixing, healing, helping.

It’s a gamble and the idea is that you are rewarded with their love and loyalty, plus on top of this, there is either the quiet, or even not so quiet expectation, that in exchange for your ‘love’ and bringing ‘so much’ to their lives, that they change to show how much they love you. They should be almost ‘grateful’ for your input and for some, being ‘grateful’ also means not creating conflict even when it is warranted, because after all, you ‘could’ be with someone much better.

Being a Florence Nightingale is about making a decision, whether it’s on a conscious level or not, to be involved with someone because you perceive them to need you.

This makes the relationship flawed and on borrowed time, and also quite unhealthy from a co-dependent perspective.

For a start, relationships that have a genuine chance of growing and prospering require acceptance and common values.

You don’t accept the person as they are. It is an inherent expectation that the person must change because they are ‘in need’, based on how you see it – you’re assuming that how you see things is ‘right’ and that your solutions are the ‘right’ and the ‘only’ ones also, after all, if they had other options, you’d let them explore them and not decide that you have to be central to their change.

If that persons issues impact on how they conduct their lives, they have fundamentally different values which means you are trying to impose values upon that they don’t possess, and may have no desire to possess. You look at them and want to shake it up and have them adopt your values because you see them as wrong – they may well be wrong, but it doesn’t give you a right to make them change.

This person would not be attractive to you for a relationship if he didn’t have issues. What does that say about you?

The dangerous element also kicks in with these relationships because it becomes a weighty, passive aggressive struggle in some of the worst instances to get the person to shift to where you want them to be. You’re then met with resistance both passive aggressively and direct aggression – rebellion.

What you don’t consider is what if the person actually does change and they don’t ‘need’ you? What then? Are you going to sabotage them to get them back to needing you? Are you going to create needs that don’t exist which may push them away? How is this going to work?

What if the thing that you take pity on is not an issue per se? So for instance, what if they’re not ‘broken’? What if, yes, they’ve experienced some difficult and painful things but they’re dealing with, or have dealt with them? Let’s even say it is an issue but they’re unaware of it but you’re suddenly telling or conveying to them that they have a problem?

What if there is no problem and the problem only exists in your eyes?

Nobody wants to be pitied, whether you convey it or not, so there are guys out there involved with Florence Nightingales that may not realise that they are pitied.

Readers have emailed me and told me how they fell for their guy when they heard about bereavements that these guys had experienced, problems with an ex, losing children etc. These are all very difficult and sad things, but to your own ears, doesn’t it seem very odd that a person becomes attractive because they have something to be pitied?

In each story, I read about how they immediately saw where they could fit into these guys lives and imagined themselves being loved and people thinking ‘Wow, there goes X. Look at what Y has done for him.’ They thought ‘I can do a lot here’ or ‘Wow, he’s got a lot of problems…OK I think that I could really help this guy’.

Much like when someone gives to receive, this is a screwed up type of giving because the idea is that you improve them and you get back the love and validation that you need. If you genuinely had their best interests at heart and they genuinely needed help, you wouldn’t have to be a part of that help and you wouldn’t be seeking validation from it.

What hasn’t occurred to many Florence Nightingales is that people don’t want to be pitied or slapped down with an IOU or dodgy terms and conditions. They want to be loved and accepted.

Everybody has baggage of some sort. Hell anyone reads this knows that I have baggage, but I have it managed to hand baggage level. I didn’t come into my relationship wanting the boyf to feel sorry for me because my father wasn’t around when I was growing up and I had a fraught, often crazy relationship with my mother. I didn’t want to define myself on my old hurts or experiences and I certainly didn’t want to be pitied or have someone think ‘God, she must be really f*cked up – I’ll make her life better’.

We’ve both had things happen to us in our lives but they’re not reasons to be with one another and they don’t create opportunities for either one of us to fix/heal/help. He has empathised and when needed he’s sympathised and vice versa, but problems or no problems, we have similar values and accept one another – we’re under no illusions and neither one of us is trying to drive change in the other.

How do I know what it’s like for these guys? Because a couple of my exes, in realising certain things about me, my experiences, and seeing some of the drama play out, felt sorry for me. They looked at me with, for instance, what they deemed to be my screwed up family situation and even though they may have been attracted to me because I seemed attractive, smart, independent, outgoing etc, they realised that they could make a difference in my life by seemingly ‘loving’ me because they believed I was broken.

One told me ‘Nobody is going to love you the way that I love you’ and he kept psychoanalysing me and telling me what he thought was wrong with me. The message became ‘Be grateful I’m with you because I could be with someone who I didn’t think needed so much work to them’, so I believed that there were a lot of things wrong with me and that I must do as he expected and found myself being controlled and having someone tell me what I should be thinking, feeling, and doing. I kept saying ‘Sorry’ and ‘Thank you’ all the time…

Eventually, the fog started to clear and I suddenly started thinking ‘Who the f*ck does this person think he is? He’s looking down on me and I’ve been looking up to him like his sh*t doesn’t stink and as if he is the Messiah, who’s come to make my pitiful life so much better. He has issues and in fact, some of these issues are very serious so where the hell does he get off making out like he’s perfect’. And so the rot continued to set in and as I started to be real about myself, and acknowledge that yes I had issues, yes my family seemed to bring drama, and yes I needed to deal with it, that didn’t make this person or the relationship right for me.

I didn’t need another father, least of all someone who consistently conveyed that I wasn’t good enough and that if I didn’t do as he expected that I wouldn’t be accepted. That’s not love.

The proof was that the more I regained my sense of self and strength, is when he started behaving like a true assclown and creating conflict to try to knock me down and have me need him. When it became apparent that I wasn’t going to need him in the way that he wanted me to need him, he created conflict to make sure that I ended it.

One of the things that defines Florence Nightingale with her fixer uppers or The Walking Wounded, is that she doesn’t see her own issues in a realistic light and tends to see other peoples issues as being greater than hers.

It’s not healthy or authentic.

Back in part 2


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28 Responses to Florence Nightingale: Why needing to fix/heal/help in the name of love is unhealthy (P1)

  1. confused says:

    Again very insightfull tekst! thanks.. but i’m wondering this.

    I ‘am the one who’s doing very often helping, fixing… BUT i’m not trying to rescue him and the control him and his life. NO! What i’m doing is working on relationship by giving him insightfull advices how to handel some emotional struggels easer in his own life but in sametime working on myself my own issues and showing him what kind of issues i have. They said that we choose our partners unconsciously to resolve some childhood issues or an “old pain” and often is that what makes the bond between 2 people stronger.

    I can’t imigane being with someone who is not intresting in my past and who’s not willing to help me or stand by me when i have some issuses that has to do with my past. What kind of relatioship is that? Very superficial. Sharing our deepest fears and issues to my opinion create stronger bond and what’s wrong with that?

    • NML says:

      It’s not about having someone who is uninterested in your past and you shouldn’t have to ‘hide’ your past either, but there must be more to the relationship than your pasts plus you must also be careful of codependency. That said, if your situation is working and healthy, and what you’re doing isn’t on the proviso of something else, knock yourself out. There is nothing in any of these posts about hiding yourself or not being able to verbalise your fears, but a woman taking on a project of a ‘broken’ man because of the opportunity to fix/heal/help because she needs to be needed etc is unhealthy. It’s up to you to know which relationship you’re in. Honesty and authenticity helps that. The boyf knows my deepest fears and I his but they’re not defining our relationship nor are they pivotal.

  2. JJ2 says:

    Oh lordy! Been there! 20 years ago. I had sunk really low and got involved with someone really low. Not good! You get involved with these creeps because your self esteem is so low that you feel that this is the only kind of person that will stay with you.

  3. Gina says:

    The bottom line is people who are healthy and ready to provide a relationship aren’t going to tell you about their hurts one the first, second or third date… if they are ready for a relationship, they are happy in the present and as things deepen between you two, you start to share more. Only a person who is living in pain is going to expose those intimate details so soon and because we have issues of our own, we get involved because that’s what we are comfortable with, and then have unrealistic expectations that they can be fully present for a healthy relationship. Every single guy I got involved with presented their baggage very early and I knew inside it was trouble, but I proceeded… it’s a very primal response, but now I am facing my pain head on and determined to be happy and healthy.

    • Juliet says:

      Thanks for your wonderful website, and for this article. I just got out of a relationship with a troubled, emotionally unavailable widower who I desperately tried to heal. It has been very painful to honestly confront my insecurities and to realize how much emotional energy I have invested into someone who was so aloof and detached from anything but his own pain and feelings.

      Also – thanks to Gina for your wise comments. My ex did exactly what you said – laid all of his baggage on the table on the first and second date. Instead of heading for the hills, I sat up straight, paid attention, and dove right in. Looking back on it now (from a distance of almost a month), I realize that the gnawing feeling of serious doubt was there on dates one and two, but so desperate for love, I overlooked all of the warnings. I’m still fighting the urge to call him – because it’s comfortable, it’s what I know, and it’s hard not to repeat those same old patterns. But I have a glimmer of hope that it will get better with time and practice.

      • MaryC says:

        Gina/Juliet…I have a friend who’s bf told her on the 1st date that he wasn’t interested in ever getting married again, he’d been through 2 divorces already. And, my favorite one on date #2, he had cheated on his 2nd wife for 10yrs with a co-worker. Yes 10yrs cheating with the same woman.

        The other woman was married too and as far as she knows still is but my friend thinks he’d leave her if the other woman was free. She has thoughts that they still see each other. Red Flags all over the place but she’s still there 2 1/2 yrs later and wondering why he won’t commit.

        • NML says:

          Jaysus, is she bonkers? That’s way too much hoping going on there! He’s told her exactly why he won’t commit on the first date! I hope she finds her way out of the fog!

      • NML says:

        I’m sorry to hear of what you’ve experienced. It’s a real blow to your self-esteem and it’s like throwing your energy into the abyss. He was trying to warn you and you misread it but at least you’ll work to make a different choice next time. You need to be with someone who can put their feet in and be *there*.

    • NML says:

      Amen Gina! I know people who walk around with their pain like a badge of honour. They think they’re being ‘real’ and in some respects they are, but they’re also not ready or able for a healthy relationship, plus part of the reason why people present baggage early is to start lining up the excuses or to attempt to convey the message – ‘I’ve been hurt before so treat me with care’. They then end up with someone who hears that message and creates more pain. Keep facing the pain head on and you will be happy and healthy. I learned that the pain is still there even when you ignore it so better to face it.

  4. Cathy J says:

    Natalie, every day this blog enlightens me!

    One reason I believe we do choose men who do have problems is to see they are real people and not just showing their fascade or mask. When we get through the outer exterior we begin to get to know the real person…. or do we??

    I am in the middle of a fantastic conference with a large focus on emotions and on blasting out blockages so we can move forward. I saw a great graphic yesterday – when we get past the outer buffer of the person, we get to the mask (their developed personality and traits) which is where they have become funny or intelligent or analytical – all in the search for true love to make sure they are not hurt, abandoned again… It is when we can break through this one (the second layer) that we can get to know the real person.

    What do you want in a relationship? Be very clear as you just might get what you want. eg A good friend in her last relationship, actually asked God for someone who needed her and who didn’t need to have much financially or materially as she thought that someone who had been through the ups and downs of life would be more grateful for blessings (right now I am also thinking this could have also included blessings from her – which could be a little revealing for all of us – me as well) and understand that all gifts need to be stewarded well. She also felt she had so much to give – love, material possessions, support, finances…. She did get this and more – right now the status seems to be he is Mr Unavailable – at least to her!

    Wow – Natalie- your gift is being shared every day. Thank you.
    .-= Cathy J´s last blog ..Cost of Dating: Part 1 Power Positive Thinking =-.

    • NML says:

      Your comment is so right on. Be very careful what you wish for – it’ll bite you in the ass! I know too many people like that woman who don’t think out what they’re asking for and end up in a heap of trouble. I think your description about the layers is very correct and those who have carefully honed their persona and disguised their hurt will let you in but only so far. I should know – I used to be like this myself using humour, wit etc to distract and give off an ‘I don’t give a ****’ persona when really, I did. It’s very tiresome pretending, but some can pretend for a very long time and they are so distanced from themselves and have built up a wall, they wouldn’t know how to find their way back. Thanks for another inspiring comment x

  5. Columbia says:

    I have been attracted to the Walking Wounded but not so I can fix them…it’s because in some screwed up way…I want to make them happy (instead of angry), I think i want to be loved when they can love no other….something along those lines.
    i’m more of a Miss Self Sufficient in every other way I think.
    another great post natalie :)

    • NML says:

      Hi Columbia. I will definitely write some more on Miss Independent Miss Self Sufficient. It’s the ultimate power to have someone make you the exception, it’s just that it’s a very big bet to take and you’re actually giving yourself more reason to stay alone and ‘independent’.

  6. Gina says:

    We need to discover who we truly are, make sure the people, places and things in our lives are matching up with our principles and values based on the identity we are building. No one can ever give you true happiness, it needs to come within you… we just have been lazy!! LOL

  7. Vanna says:

    Most people are not aware of the forest. they are just aware of the trees and that is why they are having a hard time with what you’re saying about Florence Nightingales and their “maternal” tendencies.

    • NML says:

      It’s overnurturing and if only we saw the big picture instead of looking at the wood, we’d connect the dots of our actions and results.

  8. Kathy says:

    NML — I adore your posts sooo much. But I have to say I disagree with you on one point here. In my life, I have in fact met MANY people who want to be pitied. It is a form of manipulation, of guilting someone into rescuing them, enabling them, taking care of them. I have been sucked into the Florence Nightingale role a couple of times, not willingly, but all of a sudden “waking up” and saying “How did I get here? This was not anything I thought I was agreeing to at the beginning. Instead it has been a slippery slope.” I do, however, take responsibility for my part in not having good boundaries and in not realizing when it first started happening that I was playing into an unhealthy pattern. My philosophy now is to be wary of anyone who wants me to feel sorry for them because it is a trap. And I do not intend to get snared again,

    • NML says:

      You’re totally right Kathy that there are some people that do want to be pitied and we can be sucked in but we also don’t have to pity them, plus the fact that someone plays the victim status is actually a red flag in itself. Someone doesn’t have to be an ‘assclown’ to be chosen for a fixer upper and not everyone plays the pity card plus on top of it, FN’s take all sorts of information and believe them to be signals to fix/heal/help. Someone can look for pity but we don’t have to give it. While there are some very dangerous people who are very manipulative, this would be a distorted representation of society as a whole if we were to say everyone or most people are like this. The fact is, if you get caught out a couple of times it’s different, but I know of many people who ONLY do relationships where they can be rescued. If you (not you but people in general) find yourself habitually in the same situation with different guys, you are the common denominator so you must ask what you are doing to contribute. Like you said, lack of boundaries and not recognising the red flag of pity hunting were a couple of things that drew you into that dynamic

  9. Cathy J says:

    an idea…. for those women who perhaps have not been blessed with children yet and really want to mother – why not consider foster parenting for children and teens in need – even as a single….

    food for thought!
    .-= Cathy J´s last blog ..Cost of Dating: Part 1 Power Positive Thinking =-.

  10. Pushing.Thru says:

    @ Kathy –
    I agree with you completely. I have been Florence Nightingale for many many years with 2 different people… and the the sob stories got the best of me.,.. it’s simply how they reel you in.
    NML – correct me if i’m wrong, in this post, you are not exactly speaking of AC’s but rather being a “fixer upper” with an A typical man?
    Otherwise… i don’t think i agree

    • NML says:

      Yes he doesn’t have to be an ‘AC’ and it’s more the point that however you got to this point, you made choices to get to this point. Unless someone was a con artist and totally played one role and then revealed himself, using sob stories is actually a major red flag, which means it’s a red flag ignored in a situation like this. And yes, they do reel you in, but you also allow yourself to be reeled in.

  11. Pushing.Thru says:

    Just read your post to Kathy, thanks for clearing that up Natalie

  12. Pushing.Thru says:

    OK.. definitely.. a little hard to hear and swallow. But true :(

  13. Maria says:

    Question to NML:
    Is there any fundamental difference between FNs and guys with the so-called Knight in a Shining Armour Syndrome?

  14. Hugh says:

    Great piece Natalie.
    @Maria yes there is a connection and it goes beyond ‘rescuing’ behaviour in romance to all kinds of areas of life. It’s a classic element in what Transactional Analysts call a ‘Game’. There’s a good outline of the underlying psychology here:

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30-Day Project: Dealing With Tricky Family Members

Tired of dealing with family drama or waiting for them to spontaneously combust in to changed people? Need to find ways to step back and take proactive steps to redefine the relationship from your end? This 30-Day project will help you do just that.