Amy Lewis Bear MS

From Charm to Harm

How to Protect Yourself in a Difficult Relationship

Use compassionate detachment.

Posted Mar 02, 2017, used with permission
Source:, used with permission

You can get a lot of advice on how to leave an unhappy relationship, but what if you can’t leave or want to stay in the relationship?

It’s not so easy to end a troubled relationship with a life partner, sibling, adult child, parent or other family member. Even if you’ve left a former partner, you may still be raising children together.

So how do you protect yourself from someone who is demanding, deceitful, and blaming? What do you do with someone who has no regard for your feelings? How can you put a healthy distance between you and family members who leave you exhausted from their criticism, negativity, or constant need for attention?

The answer is to detach yourself in a way that’s compassionate, but helps to protect you from further harm. Compassionate detachment means claiming your right to defend yourself from controlling, manipulative, or abusive loved ones. It means treating them with love and respect, but not taking responsibility for their emotional immaturity and poor choices.

Being a good spouse, parent, sibling, daughter, son, or friend doesn’t require constantly putting your needs aside or cleaning up messes made by others. Compassionate detachment is not abandonment. It is refusing to get caught up another’s victim mentality or sense of helplessness. There is no shame in distancing yourself from someone who is draining your life forces.

Understand that no matter how much you try to appease controlling loved ones, you will never fill the hole in their emotional buckets. Controlling people often feel a deep sense of inadequacy. They have been conditioned to get their way by dominating others. Feeding their destructive behavior encourages more of it. You can still treat them with love and respect while holding boundaries against their hurtful conduct.

By practicing compassionate detachment, you no longer feel you have to disregard your needs and desires to appease another. You can stop making choices and shaping your life according to how another will react. You can avoid much of the anxiety and stress that comes with being under another’s rule.

Some of the ways to practice compassionate detachment:

  • Refuse to engage in a conversation with someone who is being irrational, disrespectful, or hostile.
  • Don’t allow someone to affect your moods, thoughts, preferences, opinions, or plans.
  • Realize that you are not responsible for the shortcomings, failures, and poor choices of others.
  • Understand that you are not being selfish when you protect yourself from someone who hurts you.  
  • Accept that you can still love someone and need to protect yourself from him or her.
  • Recognize that you deserve to be loved, respected, and treated with kindness.
  • Focus on the opportunities you have for fulfilling your potential and creating the life you want.

Practice tough love by allowing loved ones to suffer the consequences of their choices. You express concern for their predicament, but you are not invested in the outcome. You help them by allowing them to resolve their own issues.

Compassionate detachment can be difficult at first until you learn how to do it. You may feel a great deal of emotional pain and confusion about what to do. Memories of happier times in the relationship keep you stuck in the hope that things will improve. Accepting that you suffer a lot of pain and anguish in the relationship will help you to avoid false hope.

Detaching will be easier to do if you first gain insight into how you got involved with a controlling person. You may have patterns of enabling or submissiveness that were developed in childhood. You may have a hidden need to rescue someone to feel good about yourself. Ask yourself if you are using another person’s emotional issues to feed your own victim mentality. Therapy can help you to uncover what’s holding you in the relationship and overcome old and unproductive patterns and beliefs about yourself and others.

Detaching from a controlling loved one will not solve all the problems in your relationship. It’s not likely that you will be able to change anyone, but there is a greater chance for change if you don’t tolerate bad behavior.

When children are involved, your compassionate detachment from controlling family members will teach them how to handle tough relationships in their own lives. They will learn the valuable lesson that domineering or abusive behavior is not acceptable.

Compassionate detachment will help you focus on taking care of yourself. You will gain the self-respect, self-reliance, and confidence to forgive yourself for past mistakes and move on to a better way of living.