Being Healthy in Unhealthy Relationships

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It’s absolutely possible to continue to have relationships with dysfunctional family members. Absolutely. But it’s tricky.

One of the defining characteristics of dysfunctional families is that they do not change. Or at least they work very hard not to. The inertia of dysfunction is compelling, which means it’s very easy to get sucked back into it. Dysfunction is the default so you will need to remain vigilant and actively work not to get pulled back into the whirlpool.

An example of this would be going to your parent’s house where your mom asks you what you think of your brother’s new house.

“It’s nice,” you say.

“Big, right?” Mom prompts.

“Yeah, it’s really big.”

“I don’t know how he affords it!” Your mom grumbles. “I swear he’s the most irresponsible person when it comes to money!”

You murmur something and change the subject.

Later your brother calls angrily, “I hear you and mom were talking about how bad I am with money! Quit talking behind my back!”

See, your murmuring was enough for mom to decide you agree with her and she called your brother as soon as you left to tell him all about it.

My point is, you don’t have to do ANYTHING and there you are, sucked back in. Which is why you have to actively do something. Next time you’ll need to remember to say, “Mom, how he manages his money is his business; I’m not discussing it.” Even though it might start an argument and it might ruin the visit. Passively choosing not to engage is often not enough; you’ll need to speak up to ensure your boundaries are respected.

The constant vigilance is exhausting, which is why being clear on your own limits is so important. It might mean visiting mom less or not visiting her at all. It might mean only visiting her on days when you know for certain that you have the bandwidth to stay alert. It might mean cutting visits short so you won’t get tired and drop your guard.

You might be reading this and saying, “Seriously? It’s all up to me?”

Well, yes. Generally speaking it’s always up to us to manage our expectations, communicate our needs, set our boundaries. In healthy relationships it’s not as much work because there’s an agreement to respect and support each other; you can relax into a healthy relationship knowing that the other person is — more or less — in harmony with you. They also want to be respected and supported and you both — more or less — have the skills to do this. Yes, the two of you may need to negotiate now and then, and you both might need to make allowances. No relationship is perfect but a healthy relationship is not deliberately harmful. A healthy relationship is not jostling to one-up you or trying to control your behavior or using you as a weapon against someone else. A functional person is not trying to manipulate you for their own benefit.

In a dysfunctional relationship the rules are ever changing and sometimes secret. The person might be unpredictable, agreeing to your limits and then trying to over ride them overtly or covertly. You will need to stay on your toes. In those kinds of dysfunctional relationships the goals are not collaboration and consensus; it’s to win at any cost.

Even if you’re not playing, in dysfunctional relationships the other person always thinks you are; they’re still keeping score.

So what do you do? Expect the dysfunction. Bring your healthiest self to the relationship and stay focused on what you do, what you say, how you react. You cannot control their behavior, you can only control yours. Accept that and expect to be pressed to go along to get along. Stay firm, don’t assume that people will understand or like it, and don’t get roped into arguments or give in to their demands that you defend or explain yourself. Finally be honest with yourself about your limits. Just like you wouldn’t stay in a room with toxic fumes, it’s healthy to limit your time with toxic family.

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