Last week we talked about 3 warning signs that it might be time to leave a toxic relationship.
This week, we are going to focus on three common personal growth work we may need to do as we figure out whether or not a relationship can be revived, saved or rebuilt.
If you are repeating patterns in an unhappy relationship, here are three things many of us need to practice before we get the clarity we need to either get out, or to create the kind of relationship in which we can thrive:
1. Setting healthy boundaries.
You cannot control other people. You cannot make them grow, change or become more aware. You cannot make someone care about you.
However, you can let people know in soft, gentle ways how things are landing and what you want. Your job is to honestly and clearly convey your feelings, your needs, what you want and what you are/not available for.
It might sound like this:
“I am not comfortable with shouting or criticism. If I hear these, I will leave. I would like to talk to you and connect with you and it is up to you whether or not I stay in the conversation with you.”
Or like this:
“I would like to talk about the co-parenting schedule and how to make changes for the next month. If our conversation turns into another laundry list of everything that is wrong with me, that will show me that you aren’t ready to have the conversation yet, and I will set it aside and take it up another time.”
Or like this,
“I want to stay focused on understanding how we are each interpreting things. If I hear blame, criticism, attacks or accusations, I will take that to mean you are unable to have this conversation and I will need to come back to it later.”
2. Letting yourself feel disappointed. Stop using self-blame to maintain hope.
Sometimes, we stay in relationships far longer than is helpful for either person because we are avoiding feelings of loss and disappointment, or are afraid of how our lives will change when we leave the relationship.
Instead of just feeling the disappointment or grief, and facing the change in identity and lifestyle that might be coming, we habitually make ourselves “wrong” and blame ourselves. Instead of sitting with the disappointment and recognizing the limitations of the relationship, we often turn on ourselves and make ourselves “wrong” in some way.
At least then, (we often unconsciously tell ourselves), there is hope. Thinking things like, “If it’s me, I can change it,” can offer hope and provide us with a misguided sense of control and agency.
If sharing your feelings and needs with another person upsets them, angers them or drives them away, it will be challenging to find connection, intimacy and happiness in this relationship.
When your needs don’t get met in a relationship, let yourself just feel the disappointment without turning it into judgment.
Remember, you can invite someone to care about your feelings and needs. You can ask for more attention, understanding or empathy from them. But, it’s not your fault if they are unable or unwilling to give it to you.
3. Knowing the difference between empathy and responsibility.
Recognize the difference between caring about how someone feels, and being responsible for how someone feels.
Even if you say something that brings up strong feelings, you are not responsible for their choosing to lash out at you, blame you, stonewall you, ignore you or override you in retaliation.
Their reaction is not your responsibility.
Each person remains responsible for how they are taking it, interpreting it, the feelings that are stirring in themselves and how they are treating each other as a result of it.
Other people’s reactions remain firmly their responsibility, not yours. You can be empathic and caring, but don’t take on all the responsibility.
If you say something critical or judgmental to someone else, and they bristle and let you know it hurt, or upset them, express empathy and care for the impact you had on them. Stay open-hearted. Take their perspective; care about how something landed, especially since we often do unconscious or unintended things. Offer a sincere apology and offer a “re-do” of what you meant.
Caring about the impact you have on others, and learning from this, however, is not the same thing as being responsible for others’ responses, defensiveness or hostility when they are hurt or upset.
Staying relational in our relationships is one of the great challenges of our time.
We know how to be defensive in our relationships, we know how to go on the offense in our relationships.
But, staying in dialogue, staying engaged when things get hard, staying firm and gentle, taking self-responsibility without over-functioning … these are the worthwhile and transformative skills that many of us are still learning, developing and practicing.
I’d love to hear from you –
Which of these skills is most “up” for you?
What personal growth tasks are you working on as you figure out whether a relationship or situation is worth working through, or leaving?
How do you know when it’s just time to leave?
Leave a comment below.
I am currently working on each one of these skills for the reason of deciding if my 15 year relationship should continue. The one that hits me the most is number 2. I regularly blame myself, which only covers up my needs and gives me something to do to ignore my feelings of disappointment or unease with the relationship. Something that has been helpful in this area for me has been Thich Nhat Hanh’s six mantras of communicating. The skills you have stated go hand in hand with his teaching. Thanks for your thoughts and work.
Reading this feels like a sigh if relief! After experiencing a challenging interaction with my sister on our family vacation last week, I had just wrote something to her owning my part of it, naming my boundaries, its impact on me and those around us, and inviting further discussion. Without the past 3+ yrs of attending NVC, and doing inner work using other formats, I do not think I’d have been able to eloquently write to her in the spirit of what you shared in this newsletter!
Thank you SO much for all that you do! Next, I’ll be working to be able to do all this as it’s coming up in the moment, but for now I’m feeling pleased just to know I’m on the right track!
I’m not sure whether saying "that will show me that you aren’t ready" or "I will take that to mean you are unable to have this conversation" make sense because it is putting an interpretation on the other person’s actions. Wouldn’t leaving those out and making it only about myself make more sense? …maybe, "If this turns into another laundry list of what is wrong with me, I will say goodbye and ask that we reschedule the conversation for a time when you can refrain from criticizing." I’m not sure that this would get as good a result, but I like the feel of it better. What do you think?