People who are generous and strong and good at managing emotion often end up in a caretaking habit by default. We know that even at the end of a terrible day, if someone comes to us with a need we can pull energy seemingly out of nothing in order to take care of them. The thing is, we're not pulling that energy out of nothing, we're pulling it from our cognitive/emotional capacity and our future. That's a great skill for an emergency but it is not sustainable; it cannot be a way of life.
When I was married, I spent about 80 percent of my energy on my spouse, who had no coping skills to speak of and worked at a job they hated. Every day I would soothe them and skirt around their sensitivities, thinking I was helping.
However, what I was doing was enabling them to feel okay without having to develop any skills at self-care. Rather than think 'what can I do to help myself feel better?' they simply unloaded all of their stress and bad feelings onto me, and I managed those feelings for them.
After 8 years we parted ways, and later they were in a relationship with someone who was quite selfish and did none of their emotional caretaking -- so by necessity my ex learned self-care skills which made their life better. All my caretaking and compromising my needs for their feelings did not help them to grow emotionally. I'm pretty sure it actually hindered their growth significantly.
Since I was able to be so intensely caretaking for someone for so long, I imagined I had no limits to the help I could give others. Then I ended up in three relationships which all took far more energy than they provided (mutually, I believe, as none of us had compatible needs & abilities at the time), which stripped me so far down that I could not get back out of the hole without medical, chemical help.
Until I experienced being suicidal and reality-broken for months, I did not admit to myself that I could not give to everyone whatever they wanted and still be a whole person. Until it almost killed me, I refused to value my needs above even the desires of others, much less over others' needs. But you know what? I'm no good to anyone if I am dead.
And emotional death is real. I was absolutely useless to the world for at least six months if not a year after I ran out of energy and if I hadn't had access to free doctor visits and cheap meds through my university, it would have been a lot longer of a period. It took me more than five years to recover to a point that felt complete, and it may have permanently reduced my capacity to function.
And you'd think I'd have learned my lesson, but in late 2015 and early 2016, I got in a pattern of caretaking without paying attention to my needs again, and this time it was the fact that Topaz is independent that saved me. They realized that they were relying on me more than was healthy, and they asked to take a break from our relationship. We took about six weeks separate -- reducing our communication to occasional, not being romantic, and not seeing each other in person. This allowed us to break the pattern of me ignoring my needs and focusing too much on Topaz. I can still get that way, but I'm more careful now and I am determined not to fall into that again.
I have found that when I sacrifice my mental health for another person, eventually my survival instincts will kick in -- in ways that I really don't want them to. Either I stop being able to feel empathy for them and develop a dread for their presence or I start escaping constantly in my every spare moment and cease being an actual person, or both. These things are obviously not helpful for the other person and they can destroy a relationship.
So my point in all this is that caretaking another person at the expense of your own needs is not sustainable. It will destroy the relationship if it continues too long, it will destroy the person sacrificing, AND it is ultimately damaging for the person who is being taken care of.
Coming to depend on someone for your needs and then having that suddenly ripped away is profoundly destabilizing and terrifying, but it is inevitable because no one has infinite energy. No one has the ability to give endlessly without being nourished enough to refill. If you love the person you're caretaking and you want to help them the most you can, you MUST take care of yourself. Otherwise you are setting them up for a really, really awful crash (and setting yourself up for the same).
As I said to a friend, you don't actually have the choice of caretaking someone without rest forever -- that's an illusion or maybe a delusion. The only choice you have is in what the end of the pattern looks like. It's literally impossible to continue giving while your needs are not met, while you are not taking in nourishment.
The problem is that caretaking others at one's own expense is not always bad. It's only unhealthy when it is the norm, which usually happens gradually. This is why you need to know what your needs are and pay attention to whether or not they are being met. I am sure everyone's tells are different, but usually there are things people do when they are nourished that they don't do when they are drained. To know if you're nourished it's important to keep some kind of log of those things if your memory is not that great (like mine), or check in with yourself every so often.
I'll give some of my needs and tells as an example. To be okay, I need to
1) spend at least three work nights a week relaxing and doing nothing effortful;
2) have a chunk of at least 12 hours of awake alone time every week;
3) connect with people in a meaningful but soundless way every day, such as through reading each others personal writing, texting, or snapchatting;
4) connect with people in a group setting at least twice a month (during pandemic, this is as a structured group video call);
5) not discuss stressful things close to bedtime;
6) have at least two days a week where I don't have to speak out loud or listen to speech without captions. This means not talking to my partner either, including when we are both in a shared space. Literally saying hi will drain me. It sounds small but is NOT.
I can do without any one of these needs occasionally, and when there is a crisis then it seems time to put those needs aside. But when there are crises often enough that a month goes by without me practicing good self-care, it's time to be conscientious about providing myself with what I need.
The red flags showing that I am not getting my needs met (sleep, food, mental rest, alone time) are 1) if I have not written a post (longer than 1 paragraph) on facebook or livejournal in three days or more, and 2) if my room gets messy enough that it could not be tidied in 30 minutes. My yellow flags include: getting easily irritated, going to bed late on a work night more than twice a week, failing to do basic things like dishes and laundry, or not posting to my snap story every day.
If you tend to give more than is good for you to your partner, I encourage you to think about the things that drain you, the things that nourish you, and the symptoms that show when you are drained or nourished. I encourage you try to distill these needs into concrete actions and ask your partner to help you maintain boundaries around them so that your needs are protected. In my experience it is much easier and it feels less like a slight to the other person when you make boundary maintenance a shared project.