REVERSING UNHEALTHY RELATIONSHIPS
It seems to me that most Americans have one or more people somewhere in their family or friends that they just can’t get along with. The way it feels is like, “I just don’t feel comfortable around them. I can’t be myself. They make me feel and act crazy, so I prefer to avoid them.”
To create and maintain healthy relationships with our friends and family members, we all need four skills. The first two are simple to define mentally, but they aren’t always easy to do emotionally.
First we need to be able to show love. That includes showing behaviors like smiling, laughing, saying hello and goodbye, please and thank you, giving compliments, making time to be together, sharing what’s going on in your life, accepting their right to make the choices they make, confronting them with truth that hurts but helps to set them free (like, “You’re acting a lot like an addict there”), believing the other is basically a good person, helping the other out, and asking for their help.
Second, we need to be able to disengage, to let go, to stop showing love. We need to have our own life to live, things that we can enjoy doing quite independent of whether the other person approves, helps or funds us, or comes along with us. This requires us to believe that the other person likewise has their own life they at times need to live quite independently of us.
The third behavior, unlike the first two, is not really developed in childhood. It is the ability to recognize what ways of relating we will and will not engage in. It means knowing when to love and when to let go, to fish or cut bait. This is called setting boundaries. Most people never learn to feel comfortable enough to do this with loved ones. They allow themselves all kinds of ways to relate that aren’t healthy, and therefore they can’t in good conscience detach when others are doing the same things.
The final skill is soothing yourself, not only privately, but also socially and spiritually. Privately, you learn to tell yourself positive, true affirmations, and back them up with ways of relaxing such as positive visualization, deep breathing, meditation, yoga, exercise, reading, music, and systematic muscle relaxation. Socially, you call and connect with supportive, understanding loved ones, telling them what you are going through, and what you need from them to help you show your new ways. Finally, and firstly, and pray and meditate, asking God for guidance and supportive strength, and then listening and waiting to give the answers time to sink in.
Professional counselors refer to the more common relationship mistakes as “dysfunctional behaviors.” If this sounds too much like psycho-babble, you can call them “things that just don’t work” to bring peace in a relationship long term. They may bring a short-term relief of tension between people, but they produce distress in the more responsible people, and they enable (help to maintain) irresponsible behaviors in others. The peace is always short-lived, because the overly responsible people soon get worn out and have to complain or change.
Here’s a good starter list of dysfunctional behaviors, actions that create bad (not peaceful) relationships. These are actions that people use to take their responsibilities off their shoulders and place them onto yours. Because these actions indulge irresponsible people and exhaust responsible ones, all your loved ones need to know that you don’t go along with:
mind-reading/judging another’s thoughts or feelings,
threatening or hitting,
breaking promises/spilling secrets,
no-showing/avoiding time together,
resenting/getting even/not forgiving,
sexual abuse, privately viewed pornography, online flirtations, or immodesty, and
refusal to apologize for any of the above.
When someone wants you to excuse one of these bad habits, you need to be prepared to use all three relationship skills at once and say something to this effect:
“You know I love you. You’re a wonderful person. I love doing things for you, and doing things with you [this is skill # 1]. It isn’t really like you to (lie, cheat, hit, whatever). I don’t go along with behaviors like that in any of my relationships [skill #3]. No matter what you say or do, or don’t say and don’t do, I am going to be alright. With the help of God and those who love and support me, I am going to grow up, heal, and get stronger through this time of transition for me [skill #4].
“I need you to apologize to me for the mistakes you have made, figure out what inside you caused you to act that way, and convince me that if you ever do this again to me or my loved ones, you will do what I would do: immediately apologize and start making it up to the people you’ve hurt to teach yourself not to do these things anymore. So until you choose to clean up your mess like this, I am going to keep my distance from you emotionally. I won’t be sharing much of my heart, my calendar, my wallet, my body, or my good times with you [skill #2, the teeth of disengagement that are needed to make any deal stick.] We can resume our usual closer ways of relating as soon as one of us changes our standards to fit the other. We’ll see how it goes, and in the meantime, I’m keeping my distance from you, unplugging myself, and going on with the parts of my life that don’t make me violate the rules I live by, so I can keep showing love and respect for others and myself. Have a good day.”
One final warning: don’t try doing this until you can feel good about it regardless of your loved one’s response. If there’s a way they can make you feel bad, they’ll find it, and you’ll be the one to change your standards back down to theirs. That’s the bad news. So don’t let them see you sweat, or frown, or tear up, or raise your voice, or get nervous. Before you let any of that show, excuse yourself to the bathroom and get your game face back on. It is the only way for your message to be heard or respected. Leave them with the pain, because they need it to guide and motivate their positive changes. Don’t et them see you carrying their pain out like a scapegoat. They bought and paid for that pain — don’t take it from them.
The good news is on the flip side of that coin. When you not only act better but feel better about yourself, it will show, and your friend or family member will feel worse until they change. Remember you don’t have the power or responsibility for changing your mate, but you can change your dance, your response pattern. Sure they may change for the worse in the short run, but if you hold your ground with peace of mind, it will make them feel worse than ever, until they finally either love you or leave you. And they will, as they won’t be able to bear the pain you are no longer taking from them. Either way they go, think about it: in the long run, you’re better off, and so is the world.
Dr. Schmidt is a psychologist and life coach you can reach at firstname.lastname@example.org