Margalis Fjelstad, Ph.D., LMFT

Margalis Fjelstad Ph.D., LMFT

Stop Caretaking the Borderline or Narcissist

Getting Out of an Addictive Relationship

Being aware of the present interaction helps improve any relationship.

Posted Dec 30, 2013

One of my favorite authors is Eckhart Tolle who wrote The Power of Now. He talks about how to move from addictive relationships to enlightened relationships, and his ideas are worth thinking about deeply.

A relationship that feels addictive is basically one that brings you pain, embodies a love/hate dynamic, and is frequently disrupted by conflicts, dissatisfactions, and emotional or even physical violence. It seems addictive because despite being aware of how dysfunctional the relationship is, you keep buying into the dynamics, you keep participating in the conflict, and you keep being focused on what the other person is doing wrong and what the other person needs to do to make things right.

The only way out of an addictive relationship is to change how you function, what you are willing to put up with, and to develop the courage to make changes. Eckhart Tolle suggests the first thing to do is to be present. I find this to be especially difficult when the present moment is hostile, hurtful, scary and invalidating. I have noticed, however, that one of the main ways we keep ourselves involved in addictive, negative, and hurtful relationships is to pretend that this negative present moment isn’t happening. I hear clients frequently say: “Oh, he really didn’t mean it that way,” “She’s not always so mean,” “He can’t help it,” and “If I just give in, she’ll be nice again.” These are all ways to not be in the present moment.

In addictive relationships, we leave the present moment and flee to the past or to the fantasy of a better future because we don’t want to actually acknowledge that in this moment we are being abused, attacked, and harmed by someone who has said they love us. In this way, we discount and invalidate our very own experience just so we can stay in the addictive relationship, just so we won’t have to make a change in our lifestyle, just so we don’t rock the boat.

What do we learn about our relationship, the person who is acting in an abusive fashion, and our own wants, needs, and feelings by staying present? We can learn who we are, what we think, what we feel, and what we want by tuning into the present moment instead of a delusional fantasy. As a result, we have the opportunity to make better, more effective choices about what to do in the present to make our lives and relationships better. Instead of falling into the fog of helplessness and hopelessness, we can connect with our true selves and take new actions based on reality in the present moment. We can take new actions, follow a new path and make real changes based on what we actually feel and want in the present instead of relying on some unrealistic hope of future change in the other person.

Eckhart Tolle says that “the greatest catalyst for change in a relationship is complete acceptance of your partner as he or she is, without needing to judge or change them in any way.” I also believe that we need to apply this same acceptance to our own feelings, wants, and needs. By accepting yourself and your partner just as you are, you have the basis of accurate information to use to create new solutions in your life. I think what Tolle is getting at with this statement is much the same as Marsha Linehan’s description of radical acceptance. Radical acceptance means that you acknowledge "what is" and at the same time figure out what to do about it to make the situation better—not by changing the other person, but by changing what you are thinking and doing.

Too often we move to solutions before assessing and accepting the real facts of a situation. Avoiding reality through fantasy, denial or delusion does not help you create a more positive relationship. Being present in the moment and paying close attention to what you are thinking and feeling will give you the information you need to make real changes that work.

But if your partner is yelling, screaming names at you, invalidating you, and acting hateful, are you supposed to “accept” that? Well, you can accept the fact that it is happening and start realistically assessing whether this is a relationship that really reflects the best of who you are and what you want in your life.

Ignoring or pretending that what's happening isn’t really happening only leads you to stay stuck in an addictive relationship or interaction. Fleeing the moment in your mind and not accepting the truth of what is happening is a delusion that will often lead you to depression, anxiety, and anger at your partner or yourself.

You are the addict. You are the one who is stopping yourself from making changes that will improve your life, your self-esteem, your options, your reactions and ultimately your future and every present moment in your life. How do you move out of the addiction?

  1. Be present and accept and acknowledge the clearest truth about what you are feeling, what you are thinking, and what you want.
  2. Stop judging your feelings, thoughts, and wants. Just accept them. Then decide what to do about them.
  3. Increase your love for yourself—your own uniqueness, your own views, and your own yearnings. Don’t depend on your partner to do this for you.
  4. Identify the ways you would like to express the greatest and best in yourself, and start doing and being your best self.
  5. Make choices and take actions that reflect your best self. Don’t allow yourself to be treated any less than your best self truly deserves.
  6. Do all this without trying to change or judge or denigrate anyone else.

How can you do all this without demanding that your partner change? You can always ask for the other person to act differently toward you. But what if they won’t? Instead of demanding that your partner be a different person than he or she is, you could accept the fact that he or she doesn’t want to treat you differently, or can’t do so. If you are addicted, you then give up, give in, and collapse in hopelessness.

If you are the best you can be, you figure out what you need to do to make your life better. Maybe you choose to have interactions with other people who treat you in the way you would like. Maybe your partner sees the change in you and treats you better, or maybe not. Maybe you let go of this dysfunctional relationship and find healthier, more positive and productive relationships.

It is really up to you. If you are no longer addicted to pain, anguish, emotional abuse and never getting what you want, there is a world of choices to make your life what you want it to be. But you have to choose it. You have to move toward that reality, even if it means moving out of your comfort zone.

After all, how comfortable is the negative relationship? Is it like the “thorny bush” in the old Buddhist tale? You hate it, but you keep hanging onto it no matter how many thorns? Even though it is painful, it is your bush, so you hold on no matter how many scratches and injuries you sustain? You hold onto it because being the martyr in pain gives you purpose and meaning? You hold on because it is familiar? You may even be afraid someone will take it away from you.

Only you can choose to give up the addiction and the pain and decide that being whole and alive and really who you are in the present moment is worth it. Only you can decide whether your present relationship is working well or you are just addicted. It is only by being present, feeling your own feelings, being aware of your thoughts, and listening to your yearnings that you can find the right answer.