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Managing Your Life in a Dysfunctional Relationship

6 key steps to staying sane when it's hard to do.

Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

You may have a bullying boss, a drug-addicted or alcoholic parent or sibling, or a mentally ill yet undiagnosed or untreated partner. You may feel trapped where you are, economically dependent on a boss or partner, or simply torn apart with mixed emotions. These are all difficult relationships to navigate, in terms of your own mental health as well as being able to care for the other.

Here are some suggestions to help you move forward:

1. Don’t feed the dragon.

The core issue is most often that the afflicted person does not see his affliction, but instead has tunnel vision and rationalizes and blames others for the state of their affairs. Jack drinks, says Jack, because his wife is always nagging him — especially about his drinking. The bullying boss or angry teen feels justified in bullying or being angry because of what those around them are doing or not doing that “makes me mad.” If only others wouldn’t do whatever they are doing, these people think to themselves, they wouldn't get angry.

What you want to do when they get into these states of emotion is not feed the dragon. Don’t argue back because you're hoping to get them to see the error of their thinking: When they are emotional, they literally can’t; their rational brains are offline, and anything you say is only going to be misinterpreted and used as fuel for feeding the emotional fire. You need to stay calm and sane, and only talk or problem-solve when the waters are calmer. (The reality, I realize, is those times may rarely come.)

2. Tap into their problems.

But if they do seem somewhat receptive, a safe starting point for reasonable conversation is talking about what they see as their problems, not what you see them doing wrong. Why? Because it is often only one's own problems that motivate an individual to change. The bully-boss may be a bully, but he also may be worried about his company going under. The angry teen may feel overly micromanaged and resentful, or the partner drinking too much may feel worried about his job and fear losing his family.

Don't issue ultimatums, or try to deny their reality, but instead try focusing on their concerns, talking in the language of their goals and how to reach them. See if some opportunity exists for compromise and change. Do the best you can.

3. Don’t enable.

At Al-Anon meetings, the focus is on helping members navigate a relationship without fueling the problem. For family members dealing with drug or alcohol-addicted behaviors, it is about not covering for your partner and calling her boss on Monday saying she is sick when she is actually hungover. It's about not giving money when you know in your heart it is going straight to fueling the addiction.

The problem is that what you feel to be caring, and what you actually do feel, gets lost in the other’s psychology; through your enabling, you ultimately keep them from seeing the consequences of their behaviors and the power of their affliction. You feel better in the moment, you rationalize that this is "the last time," you struggle inside that not helping will only make matters worse, and that thought is agonizing.

The reality is that not helping may make matters worse, but in reality, sometimes that may need to happen.

4. Don’t engage in magical thinking.

This often goes hand-in-hand with enabling. Your brain is trying to break the code and figure out exactly what you need to do or not do and determine how to say in exactly the right way what the other person needs to hear. You just have to get it right — come up with the right combination of moves (think Groundhog Day), and they will have a shattering insight, they will turn their behaviors around, they will stop what they are doing. This can be rapidly crazy-making, because it's so easy to get caught up in this type of obsessive thinking, so easy to make irrational connections that aren’t there (my boss was in a better mood today — maybe it was because I wore this blue outfit; my partner drank less last night — maybe it was because I made chicken). This is you struggling to make sense, have some control, and reduce your constant anxiety. But you’ll never figure it out, because you are operating out of your own irrational brain, where your anxiety, and that little-kid part of you, lives. Give it up.

5. Empathize with emotions, not behaviors.

If you care for someone, you want to be empathetic and supportive and show compassion for their inner struggle and pain, even as it explodes in the moment. But such empathy needs to be separated from behaviors, and behaviors are the bottom line. This is where you hold others accountable for what they do, whether it is mistreating you or simply being irresponsible. Again, you don’t need to feed the dragon and fuel the emotion, but neither should you rationalize and make excuses for what is happening: That is the road to enabling and magical thinking.

6. Don’t be a victim.

This may be the most important aspect of such relationships to keep clear in your own mind — and the most difficult. It means not taking on the blame they are dishing out, not falling into guilt or self-criticism, and holding others accountable. Don’t be the victim: Push back when they try and make you one; plot your own course, and be proactive to counter those helpless feelings that come from walking on eggshells or always being in a reactive mode. Set your own bottom lines so you don't feel trapped.

And if it all gets too frightening, overwhelming, or hopeless — if that bottom line has finally been reached and you feel you are beginning to lose or are being forced to give up too much of yourself — have the courage to seek the support you need to leave, and take a different path.