“I can’t imagine what it feels like to be content and grateful. I have spent so many years in bad relationships, I wouldn’t know a healthy one if walked up and introduced itself to me. My spirit feels dead and my soul feels destroyed.”
Those devastating words were said to me by a patient of mine who had spent most of her life in a series of destructive relationships. The cumulative effect from her critical parents, unkind spouse, unappreciative children, demanding boss, back-stabbing coworkers, and gossipy friends had left her emotionally and spiritually depleted. In addition, she was deeply depressed, anxious, frequently ill, had low self-esteem, and felt hopeless and abandoned.
You may relate to my patient. Destructive relationships are so common as to be the rule rather than the exception in many women’s lives today. I have foundin my experience as a psychotherapistthe if a woman recognizes one unhealthy relationship in her life, there are usually a whole host of toxic relationships standing in line to take a shot at her.
Let’s take a look at some common examples that may exemplify what is happening in your own life: Judy has a mother who makes little “suggestions” everytime she visits: Judy’s house isn’t clean enough, her children aren’t dressed warmly enough, she doesn’t brown her chicken well enough, she isn’t a good enough wife, andoh, by the waydid she gain a few pounds recently? Judy tries to ignore her mother’s comments; she’s used to them, having grown up with criticism all her life and besides, her mother is getting oldershe doesn’t want to hurt her feelings. Judy 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 aren’t quite up-to-snuff, and she doesn’t take enough initiative. Judy rationalizes that her boss is a creative genius and like all geniuses, he’s a bit eccentric. Last week, Judy had a terrific idea about improving productivity and excitedly told one of her male coworkers at lunch. The next thing she knew, he was being congratulated by the their boss for his wonderful idea about improving productivity at a staff meeting. Well, OK, so what? As long as productivity is improved, that’s the real issue, isn’t it? Judy has kids who treat her like a maid, taxi driver, and ATM but you know kids these daysthey all have an attitude; it’s just part of growing up. She also has girlfriends who betray confidences she shares with them and is the first and only person called upon when five dozen cupcakes are needed for the school party the next day. But, isn’t it great that everyone knows how organized and dependable she is? He husband often “kids around” with her by making caustic remarks about her appearance and libido. Mencan’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em!
Most women’s lives may not be as dramatically unhealthy as Judy’s, but many admit to at least two destructive relationships going on at the same time, or recognize a pattern of soul-draining relationships.
So, how can you get out of them and find new, healthier ways of being? The first step is to recognize the signs of a destructive relationship. They can be verbally abusive, which may include name-calling, critical comments, threats, or lies. They may be emotionally abusive, which include such behaviors as humiliation in public or private; demeaning one in order to make them feel small and weak or “less than;” being jealous, possessive, or controlling; intimidation; demanding to know where one is at all times or using interrogation techniques; blaming someone else for difficulties or disappointments; being a “user.” Sexually abusive behaviors include sexual harassment or discrimination (on the job, for example); sexual coercion or assault; or being sexually demanding. Physical abuse involves such behaviors as pushing, striking, choking, restraining, or not letting one leave a room.
The next step in ridding yourself of destructive relationships is to figure out what brought you to them and why you remain. I believe that people act the way they do because they get a “payoff” for their behavior. It may be a monetary payoff, but it may also 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 have these relationships cost you? Your self-respect, your happiness, your integrity, your sense of gratitude, your spirit?
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 the process of removing yourself from harmful relationships and find your place in the world. Certainly, you were not created to have a life of suffering and misery.
Learning to stand up for yourself is a critical part of creating healthy relationships. Many women are fearful of speaking their minds or stating that they are valuable. I can guarantee you that if you do not do this for yourself, no one else will do it for you. 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,” why not answer, “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 or energy one whose opinions you value or want to be friends with? Are her feelings more important than your own?
The point to realize is that you deserve to be happy. You deserve to set and maintain boundaries with those around you. Will the destructive people in your life find this new you charming? Probably not in the beginning, 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.