Crossing the Line in Caregiving: 10 Ways to Prevent It

Close up of caretaker helping older woman walk
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There may come a time when either you as a caregiver or the person you are caring for has “crossed” a line for something considered unforgivable. While a non-caregiving relationship offers various options—including total disengagement—a caregiver/loved one relationship may prevent one person from leaving.

Caregivers and those they care for may feel “stuck” in a relationship. There may not be sufficient money to hire paid caregivers, the logistics involving care may rule out escape routes, or the guilt one expects to experience following a withdrawal may be too compelling to ignore.

History and Context

In any caregiving conflict, is important to understand both the context in which actions occur, (e.g. hurtful words said during arguments) and the action's history (e.g., hurtful words about the present based on past interactions).

Although much of the conflict experienced by a caregiver and the person they are caring for can be understood by examining context and history, sometimes understanding isn’t enough, especially in the midst of conflict.

When emotions are uncontrolled, rationality is often sacrificed. The longer the caregiving experience, the more likely emotions will unravel—both for the caregiver and the person for whom care is provided. The more dependent a loved one is on her caregiver, the more likely resentment will occur. The more isolating the condition, the greater the animosity that may develop despite the love each person feels for the other.

Taking It Personally

Instead of objectively looking at points of conflict arising from the situation, combatants take criticism personally and use defensive means to protect positions or actions that are central to their personality.

The uglier it gets, the greater the toll on each person. The Tibetans have a saying, “You can throw hot coals at your enemy, but you’ll burn your hands in the process.

Choosing Between Two Bad Options

We would like to think that choices in caregiving always involve choosing between “the best” and those that are “less than perfect.” Unfortunately, sometimes we are forced to choose between the lesser of two bad options.

For example, a wife was faced with two options: spending four hours at a painting workshop to satisfy a basic need and thereby angering her husband who, while not needing constant care, was afraid to be left alone. The second was to cancel her attendance—something she looked forward to for the past year—but would generate her resentment of him. Both choices involved negative consequences.  While she chose not to go to the workshop, her resentment spilled over into most the interactions they had, creating situations where both crossed the line.

10 Suggestions To Prevent No-Returns

Think of the following ten suggestions as strategies for making a toxic situation less negative. It’s unlikely that you’ll need all of them in any one situation. It’s very likely that using one or a few can bring you or your loved one back from a threshold of no return.

1. Don’t say anything you could look back on and regret.

We want to win battles, whether they are physical or emotional. Sometimes that need is unequivocal and results in a “take no prisoners” approach where the maximum amount of damage is inflicted.

A husband was angered by his wife’s constant criticism of him for not providing the level of care she demanded. He felt he was doing the best he could given the additional responsibilities related to caring for his wife. During one argument, instead of rationally explaining his continuous exhaustion, he inferred that she was “making up,” much of her needs. From that point on until she died, his comments arising from anger poisoned their relationship. 

The angrier you are, the less likely you will be able to realistically assess what you are saying and what is being said to you. Always leave a backdoor in your arguments; a position from which you can retreat. Absolute positions usually result in the inability to compromise.

2. Argue against the behavior, not against the personality

When you criticize a behavior, you can always backtrack. You weren’t attacking the person, but rather what they did or said. But when the attack is personal, you are going against something that is fundamental.

If someone says they were hurt by a behavior or string of words, the offender can apologize and accept the unskillfulness of what she did. If the person who was offended suggests the offense came from a personality defect, the door to reconciliation may be closed.

3. Understand the more vehement the attack, the more it’s about the attacker.

We’ve all been in situations where we can’t understand the ferociousness of an attack, and neither can anyone else. In your mind, the offense was unintentional or minor. Nothing you did should have warranted that level of viciousness. Many times, attacks of this type are a reflection of the attacker’s needs and history; it’s not about you.

The more vicious the attack, the more it’s a reflection on the attacker’s needs. It may be difficult not to take it personally, but the more objective you can be, the greater the possibility for reconciliation.

4. Ask for forgiveness

In the heat of a conflict, we often say and do things we wish we could take back. When you realize that you have erred, you can either offer rationalizations for your actions or ask for forgiveness. Rationalizations can work if they are accepted, but often, offering a reason for your unskillful acts only escalates the anger. A better approach is to ask for forgiveness.

Ask the person to forgive your unskillful words or actions. You may believe they were justified, but referring to why you did something hurtful clouds the regret you are expressing for the action. Just indicate that you are sorry for hurting them.

5. Forgive

You might find it difficult to forgive a particularly onerous insult, despite pleas for forgiveness from the person who offended you. Some people have a propensity for withholding forgiveness, believing that the offender hasn’t been sufficiently punished or is insincere. “He hasn’t suffered enough,” is a reason come clients state for not offering forgiveness when it is requested. “I’ll forgive him after he has suffered as much as me.” While this may satisfy one’s sense of justice, the “eventual” time for forgiveness may be so unacceptable to the offender, he gives up. 

There is a tendency to “rub in salt” when you don’t think a person has suffered enough for their infraction. “I’m sorry,” or “I apologize” is sometimes followed by an endless reiteration of the offense. Nobody wants to be told how terrible they are AFTER apologizing. If you perseverate on the offense, the offender may withdraw.

6. Focus on the present or future, not the past

Research has shown that memories almost always involve distortions. It may have to do with the basic neurology involved in storing and retrieving memories.  It also can be related to how we perceive information. For example, a healthy person might not give too much credence to an off-handed comment about disability, while the person who is losing abilities because of an illness may take offense.

The greater the focus on rehashing past events, the more likely it will be filled with distortions. Focus on what can be done to prevent future problems.

7. Don’t forget the purpose

Sometimes we are so consumed by “winning” we don’t realize the cost. That’s the nature of conflict. The heat of the moment pushes people to overkill. Winning can become hollow if the price you pay for the win is overshadowed by its cost.

Never go for the throat in an argument. If possible, take a kinder gentler approach in explaining or defending your position. You can always increase the forcefulness of a position, but once an overkill is used, you’ll have problems backing off.

8. Don’t heap on guilt

We often have a tendency go for the jugular. A loved one asks for forgiveness or admits he was wrong, and instead of accepting it, you rehash the event, repeatedly emphasizing how wrong he was. Nobody likes to feel they have been beaten up. After admitting they did an unskillful act or said hurtful words, if you don’t accept their apology, expect it to be rescinded when you persist in telling a person what a terrible person they are despite their taking responsibility for what they did.

Once a person admits doing or saying something hurtful, accept the apology and stop rehashing what a terrible thing they did.

9. The more you react, the greater the conflict

A guiding principle of the martial art, Aikido, is not to actively fight against an attacker. Rather, Aikido techniques consist of redirecting the momentum of an opponent's attack. Apply this principle to conflict.

Instead of becoming defensive, use the affront in a way that will deescalate the anger.

10. Learn for the future

There will be times when the perceived affront to your loved one or friend is so great, she can’t or won’t forgive you. As painful as it may be to accept it, sometimes we don’t have any other choices. The only thing you can do is learn from the experience.

We often learn more from adversity than we do from pleasant interactions. Take the painful lessons you learned from a less than successful interaction and use them to prevent future problems.


Don’t give up. Despite your attempts to correct a terrible situation, keep trying. ​The outcome of your problem may not always be positive. But you’ll walk away knowing you did everything you could to heal the relationship.

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