Let’s talk about the toxic relationships in our lives. We’ve all got them, but “toxic” is subjective and varies from one relationship to the next. It can be someone who literally puts lives at risk, or it can be your passive aggressive coworker.
I’ve watched three generations of my family cycle through the effects of addiction and codependency, though it goes back many generations further. This should tell us that these patterns are hard to break, that if setting boundaries were easy, problematic reactions to the addict would stop at Generation One. I use this as a frame of reference, but really the need for boundaries expands to plenty of other relationships, too (anyone who is detrimental, but sober can be just as sick as an addict).
As ugly as it is, let’s be honest: these are conditions. I’m asserting here and now that we drop the often self-imposed guilt associated with the notion of unconditional love because sometimes love requires conditions.
I’ll use myself as an example. I had to draw a line in the sand with my now-adult daughter back when she was a teen living with her father. It felt like she was setting herself up for failure at every turn, and there was nothing I could do to stop her. There comes a point when losing sleep, making ourselves sick, and analyzing every angle repeatedly becomes worse than the reckless choices of the person in question. Guilt is the driving factor. We tell ourselves that if XYZ happens to this person, it will be our fault. Because we’re rational individuals, we know that we are responsible for our own actions and that they do affect the situation. We’ll say there must have been something we could have done to alter the outcome, but there are cases where no matter what we do, it won’t be good enough. When we find ourselves in a can’t-win situation, it’s important to consider the source. Likely our loved one is looking for someone to blame and will do so with or without our interference.
It’s at this point that we have to say in so many words, “I love you, but there are certain behaviors and choices that are intolerable.”
Self-preservation is not always selfish, since in order to have all of our faculties about us to make rational decisions in other areas of our lives, we have to establish boundaries to protect ourselves from people who would take advantage of us (financially, emotionally, and otherwise). Think of the oxygen mask on the airplane instructions: secure your mask before assisting others. When I was stressing non-stop over my daughter, for example, I couldn’t possibly be present for my son, my husband, or my business. Had I stressed to reach a goal, this would be a different discussion, but there was no end in sight. It’s also important that we show, rather than tell, the people in our lives what healthy love looks like, and what we will and will not settle for.
Let me be clear: Cutting someone off entirely is not usually the answer, and I’m not advocating callousness of any kind (though, be warned, the person on the receiving end will take any boundaries or conditions as cruelty). Expecting anyone to read our minds, whether it be our boss, our spouse, or a friend, is a sign that we are in need of some personal growth. Mature communication on our part and not bending to the other person’s will if it hurts us is key. While some people never fully correct their unhealthy habits, relationships do evolve over time.
Decide what it is that you need to do to give yourself a sense of security, instead of relying on someone who isn’t functioning at his or her highest ability to dictate how you feel. There’s no shame in recruiting a coach or therapist to help you navigate this sticky situation.
When was your moment of awakening from a problematic relationship? What helps you shape and enforce your boundaries? How do you ditch guilt over sticking to your guns?