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Why You Don’t Have to Abandon Difficult Relationships

7 steps to greater emotional balance.

Key points

  • You can maintain relationships with difficult family members or friends without cutting them off.
  • Having your own dreams and purpose will keep you from being dragged down by others.
  • You can keep your own sense of balance and peace even if the people around you are in turmoil.
You don't have to leave
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“Before you leave him, leave him alone!”

That is what I used to hear the older women in Al-Anon meetings say to those who were dealing with their partners’ addictive behaviors. It took some years of pondering but I finally understood the meaning of this simple statement.

If you cannot tolerate a loved one’s behavior, you might become so exasperated that you see no way out other than to leave. But there is another way. You can practice loving detachment.

It can be hard to see a loved one suffer. Perhaps you have a family member who is struggling with an opiate addiction. You may live in fear for this person’s well-being. You might offer advice. You might try to argue, or control, or fix them…and none of it works. You end up feeling hopeless, sad, and angry.

Or, imagine an aging mother whose adult daughter is in an abusive relationship. The mother might cajole, make accusations, and insist that her daughter leave or the mother will cut the daughter off from their relationship. The mother might say, “I just can’t stand by and watch her go through this.”

Alternately, you might consider the spouse of an avoidant man who insists on doing his own thing: staying out too late, being grumpy, argumentative, inconsiderate. The spouse might get depressed and needy in an effort to elicit care. She might get mad and attack the offending behavior. Or maybe she threatens to leave but it still doesn’t work and she is left sitting there with her awful feelings and nothing changes.

Don’t mistake my examples as suggesting that you should not leave a bad situation or keep people who could harm you away. I am, however, suggesting this approach as an intermediary step before taking the nuclear option. By doing these things, you may be able to stay open to your loved one while also maintaining your own peace of mind and serenity.

Step 1. Don’t make the other person’s problem your problem. Accept that every person has their own journey through life, their own trials and tribulations. Sometimes, difficult experiences and pain can be the best teachers, and sometimes they are faster than any amount of convincing. I look back on my own painful experiences. There were older and wiser people warning me of the darkness I was headed into, but like many young people, I could not hear them. I had to learn for myself. And I certainly would not be a psychologist writing this post if I had not gone through them. So, before you spend too much time trying to fix another person, just ask yourself, “Who am I to take their pain away or rob them of their experience?”

Step 2. Learn to separate your emotions from those of your loved one. Know yourself well enough to be able to see if you are reacting to your own unmet needs for acceptance and success in life when you see a loved one going in the wrong direction. Also, be aware of when your person is projecting their own feelings onto you (e.g., they are angry and so they come at you until you get angry; now you are holding their feelings).

Step 3. Accept that no relationship is permanent. Everyone is on loan and all relationships will one day end. Embrace the shared experience for what it is and then release the other person in your mind (this doesn’t mean physically leaving). Depending on your beliefs you might “give them to God,” or surrender them to the spirit of the Universe, or let nature take its course. The key is that you don’t get to control the outcome.

Step 4. No fixing or giving unsolicited advice. Understand that you can give someone advice, but the truth is that you are not the one who will have to suffer the consequences of taking that advice. If your person has a habit of asking for advice and then spending the next half hour complaining about how nothing you are suggesting will work then you might hold back advice even when they ask for it. You might ask, “Do you really want my advice? It doesn’t seem like you are in a space where you can really receive it.”

Step 5. Stop trying to get your needs met by this person. Take what they have to offer, but don’t ask for more, or you will just end up feeling empty and bitter. Some friends and loved ones are just at a point in life where they do not have that much to offer us. If we think we are owed a certain affection and keep trying to get it from them, we will end up feeling sad and hurt. The truth is that it “just sucks” that you aren’t getting your needs met. Accept it and try to move on to the next step.

Step 6. Set clear boundaries and stand by them. Love might be unconditional, but it is not reasonable to accept someone else’s behavior unconditionally. Remember, a boundary is what you are willing to accept or not in relation to you and your space. A boundary is not controlling or telling the other person what to do when they are away from you and not impacting your space. Once you set a boundary, there is no need to get angry trying to defend it. If a person violates your boundary then they have chosen the consequence (like they can’t come over or they have to leave your house).

Step 7. Nurture your own life purpose and meaning in life independent of your loved one. You are a worthy person who needs love and purpose. If you sacrifice your own spirit in trying to rescue another, then in the end you will not have anything left to give. If you are spending all of your time thinking about the other person and their issue and impact on you, then you are not thinking about your own aspirations and dreams in life.

If you try these steps and you are still consumed and cannot find emotional balance or peace in your own mind, then it might be time for you to lovingly let go.

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