Dear Reader: In my last blog post, I began answering a reader who wondered why so many of her relationships were unsuccessful, from a marriage to an emotionally abusive husband to her brother’s stealing from her.
I suggested she write a narrative of her relationships, noting details of when she first noticed problems in each case, and what evasions she had employed to allow her to ignore or minimize the warning signals. And promised more details this week.
I recommended the narrative approach to her because when we experience repeated similar situations in our relationships, it’s usually not only due to others’ characteristics, but to less than healthy patterns of our own. And people mostly avoid looking at, let alone changing, unhealthy patterns of behavior. There are three common reasons for that. 1) We don't want to recognize that we are personally responsible for our decisions, including the ones that create unhappiness. 2) We don't want to expend the effort necessary to make changes. 3) It's a lot easier to blame others.
In fact, however, our own decisions and resulting behaviors are responsible for the majority of our success in life. Luck, of course, also plays a big part. But what decisions we make, and how we make them, tend to fall into certain patterns — which means that most outcomes are predictable.
Therefore, to achieve a higher level of success in relationships and in life, we need to change our behaviors, specifically the ways we make decisions. If your decision-making behavior is typically driven by emotion and distorted thinking, it's an absolute necessity to start analyzing carefully where and how you made that first crooked left turn that ultimately ended up with you in the ditch.
The good news is that changing patterns is (relatively) simple. It's not easy — it can take quite a bit of struggle — but the technique itself is simple. It simply requires rigorous attention to detail.
Let’s take, for instance, the reader’s complaint that her brother had stolen from her and was otherwise financially abusive. The first question she question she would be wise to ask herself is: when was the first event that indicated these abuses? How did she respond to that event?
My guess would be that he asked to borrow money, swore he’d pay it back, and then did not fulfill his promise. His excuses were likely swathed in emotional pleas that justified his lack of responsibility. "It's not my fault. I really tried! Could you help me out just one more time? Please? I'm really hurting."
If she demonstrated, to both her brother and herself, a dysfunctional pattern of behavior, accepting her brother's excuses and overwrought appeals, the abuse would inevitably continue. As it did.
Establishing firm limits about making the decision to help another person, particularly a family member, is complicated by long family history often filled with conflicting emotions. Therefore, in order to break the old patterns of abuse, the reader needs to establish her own set of rules, state her limits –- and then stick to them. Example: "I will do only certain favors for you. I expect you to maintain your word at all times. If you fail to fulfill an agreement, I won’t continue. Period."
Why be this firm, even curt? Because one simple truth of life is that everyone pushes limits in every relationship. We are, after all, territorial beings, and larger territory feels much better to most of us than smaller more cramped territory. So everyone pushes limits. And people quickly learn who tolerates pushing and who doesn't. If you habitually bend your own rules, if you're a pushover, you will be exploited. This truth may sound harsh, but it's still a fundamental truth.
When we examine why some relationships are stressful, enervating and destructive and why some relationships are healthy and fulfilling, we always find in healthy ones all parties have set firm limits and boundaries and both all parties respect them.
So if you keep running into similar bad experiences, do some writing, find the first warning signs you ignored and boundaries you didn’t guard, resolve to pay attention earlier and write out the boundaries you intend to enforce in your next relationships. Taking the time to do this will pay off for the rest of your life.