A patient of mine who had spent the better part of her life in soul-sapping, spirit-bending, unhealthy relationships said those devastating words to me. The cumulative effect from her critical parents, demanding boss, unkind spouse, unappreciative children, back-stabbing coworkers, and gossipy fair-weather friends had taken a toll on her emotional, physical and spiritual health. She was depressed, anxious, constantly ill, had low self-esteem and felt hopeless and abandoned.
Beware of Toxic Relationships
This woman is not alone in her misery. Destructive relationships are so common to the rule rather than the exception in many women's lives today. I have foundin my experience as a psychotherapistthat if a woman is involved in one unhealthy relationship, there are usually other toxic people standing in line to take a shot at her.
Let's take a look at some common examples. Sue has a mother who makes little "suggestions" every time she visits. Sue's house isn't clean enough. Her children are not dressed warmly enough. She doesn't brown her chicken well enough, she doesn't kiss her husband as soon as he walks in the door andoh, by the waydidn't she gain a few pounds recently? Sue tries to ignore these comments; she's used to them, having grown up with criticism all her life.
Sue works for a boss who constantly demands more of her than anyone else in the department. She is often asked to work late, her reports are not snappy enough, and she doesn't take initiative. Sue rationalizes that he is a creative genius and like all geniuses, he is a bit eccentric. Last week, she had a terrific idea about improving productivity and excitedly told one of her male coworkers at lunch. The next thing she knew, their boss was congratulating him for his wonderful idea about improving productivity at a staff meeting. Well, all right so what? As long as productivity is improved, that's the real issue, isn't it?
Sue has children who treat her like a maid, taxi driver and ATM but you know kids these daysthey all have an attitude; it's part of growing up.
She also has girlfriends who betray confidences she shares with them.
Sue is the first and only person, her kids' room mom calls, when five dozen cup-cakes need to be baked and delivered to school the next day, for a class party. Hey, everyone knows she's organized and dependable.
Her husband often has unkind words to say about her appearance and takes advantage of her "good nature" by allowing her to do the housework on the weekends while he watches whatever sporting event may be on television that day. Mencan't live with 'em, can't live without 'em!
It's enough to give you a headache just reading about her life. Imagine living it...or maybe you are. Most women's lives may not be as dramatically unhealthy as Sue's but many admit to at least two destructive relationships going on at the same time.
If you are involved in these types of spiritually draining relationships, how can you get out of them and find new, healthier ways of being?
Recognize the Sings of a Destructive Relationship
- Verbally abusive - which may include name-calling, critical comments, threats, or lies.
- Emotionally abusive - which include such behaviors as humiliation in public or private; degrading one to make them feel small and weak or "less than;" being jealous, possessive, or controlling; intimidation; needing to know where one is at all times or using interrogation techniques; blaming someone else for difficulties or disappointments.
- Sexually abusive - behaviors include sexual harassment or discrimination (on the job, for example), sexual coercion or assault, or being sexually demanding.
- Physically abusive - involves such behaviors as pushing, striking, choking, restraining and not letting one leave a room.
The next step is to decide what brought you to these relationships and the reasons why you remain in them. I believe that people act the way they do because they get a payoff for their behavior. It need not be monetary payoff and it may not even be one that can be seen. It may be an intrinsic payoff: you smile at a stranger on the street and he smiles back which makes you feel happy and grateful inside. What has been your payoff for remaining in soul-crunching relationships for so long? Loneliness, fear, money, laziness? Before you extricate yourself from a destructive relationship, you must decide if the cost is dearer than the payoff you have received. What has this relationship cost you? Your self-respect, your happiness, your integrity, your spirit? Only you can evaluate these questions and make the right decision for yourself.
You Deserve More
Now, decide what you feel you deserve in your life: happiness, contentment, a sense of being in the world? These emotions are not possible in an unhealthy relationship. If you feel that you deserve to belong, then keeping those thoughts in the front of your mind will help you overcome the obstacles and hardships that are inherent in removing yourself from harmful relationships. It is not easy or quick, but it is rewarding and in doing so, will allow you to find your place in the world. Certainly, you were not created to have a life of suffering and misery.
Maintain a Positive Mental Attitude
Learning to stand up for you is the next step. Many women are fearful of speaking their minds or stating that they are valuable. I can tell you that if you do not do this for yourself, no one else will do it for you; they are too busy either destroying or enhancing their own lives or others'. It is your turn to stand up and be counted!
When a demand is made on youfor example, "I need you to make five dozen cupcakes and bring them to the class party tomorrow,"your answer may be, "I won't be able to do that, but thank you for asking." Are you afraid that person will think ill of you? Well, she might, but so what? Is a demanding person who has no regard for your time and energy one whose opinions you value or want to be friends with?
If your boss demands that you work late again tonight even though your daughter is in a dance recital, your answer might be, "My daughter is in a dance recital tonight so I won't be able to stay late, but I'd be happy to come in early tomorrow morning to finish that project." Ah-ha, so simple! Your boss really just wants the project completed and may not have the imagination to realize that there are creative options.
You deserve to be happy. You deserve to set and maintain boundaries. Will those around you find this charming? No, but they will either learn to respect you more than they do presently, or they will disappear from your life and find others to abuse. Either way, you will have regained your spirit, sense of place in the world, and your self-respect.
Dr. Jill Murray is a licensed psychotherapist in Southern California. She can be reached online at: www.drjillmurray.com
EXCERPT FROM LIVING IN BALANCE MAGAZINE, September 2002
copyright (c) 2002 Living in Balance Magazine