During the last week or so, I’ve had several conversations about relationships, covering a broad range of concerns. I suppose it shouldn’t strike me as odd the subject came up as often as it did; it’s likely just the first time I took notice. After all, relationships are part of everyone’s lives. I suspect it’s the first time I stopped to consider the power relationships have in defining the quality of our lives. I’m certain I’ve always felt it intuitively; I just never tried to put it into words.
Growing up, I had a very strained relationship with my mom. We were at odds with each other from the time I was a small child. The challenges between us only became more complicated as I got older, and while she definitely seemed more interested in being connected with me as an adult, the damage – as they say – had already been done.
Several years ago, she admitted to me that she ‘really didn’t like me when I was a kid’, and I got completely bent out of shape. I mean, really, I knew this already from experience… I’d lived it. But, being confronted by her declaration, I felt my anger was justified. What kind of parent, aside from an abusive one, would ever say this to their kid, no matter how old they were? To say I was filled with righteous indignation would be an understatement. I wanted nothing more to do with her. From then on, I went out of my way to avoid interaction with her. And when that was not possible, I made sure she knew I was merely tolerating her company.
Our relationship has improved since then, despite my reluctance. The real problem with strained familial relationships is that the tension spills over and begins to poison everything else. My resentment toward my mother was very hard on my dad, who – despite having divorced her – still loves her dearly. Were it not for his insistence to mend things with her, I doubt I would have. It pained me to see the hurt in his eyes.
That ‘revelatory’ conversation came up earlier this week when my mom’s husband stopped by to catch up. When it did, I felt that same righteous anger flaring inside my chest; the part of me that insists the world be just and fair, promoting me to the status of ‘victim’ once more. But this time, something stopped me. I comprehended that the hurt I experienced as a child was an echo. An echo of the child who became my mom. Raised by an abusive, alcoholic father and a mother who was simply doing what she could to survive, my mom’s experience of ‘normal’ relationships was tainted. She wasn’t being malicious or mean to me, at least not deliberately. She didn’t know any other way of being. No doubt, her father had been a victim in his youth, and the pain and toxicity just kept perpetuating down the line. In that moment, my anger vanished.
I was reminded that we all do the best we can, based on the knowledge and tools we have at the time. I was also reminded that, when confronted by the reality of our own issues, my mom and I both chose to change. It’s not perfect, but it’s progress. And when it comes right down to it, that’s what matters.
It’s true: we all have expectations of the people we connect with, but we have no say in how the other person may choose to relate to us. We may be fortunate that some relationships are overwhelmingly positive, but we may have others rife with frustration. I know. I was ready to write my mom out of my life. It was the changes in her behavior (the very best form of apology) toward me; it was the effort she began putting into the quality of our relationship that changed my attitude toward her.
As I now take a more intentional approach to relationships, the quality of my own life continues to improve. I realized that when I was younger, I was a poor friend to a lot of people because I lacked awareness of my selfish and inconsiderate tendencies. No doubt many of these behaviors were echos of treatment I received as a child, because that is what normal looked like to me at the time. Now that I’m aware of my issues, I feel motivated to change, to be better than I was, and I work hard to consistently choose behaviors that align with my higher values.
It is this willingness to change that establishes a firm boundary in my relationships now, and I believe it to be a very just and equitable threshhold. If someone I cared about continued to demonstrate hurtful behavior toward me after I’ve (respectfully) explained my concern, I would feel justified in stepping back from the relationship, perhaps altogether. Likewise, if I were to behave hurtfully toward another, I believe they’d be justified walking away from me if I failed to change.
I believe we have a fundamental right to pursue those relationships we find most satisfying, uplifting, and healing. When relationships provide these things for us, we become more capable of providing them for others.
I believe we have a right to expect relationships to be a mutual investment. And when that investment is not being made by the other person, we have the right – and the obligation – to walk away. That is to say, if we operate according to principles of justice and fairness, we must either demote or terminate the relationship.
- When we put our energies into healthy relationships, we teach our children how to become healthy adults. We become role models of equanimity, respect, and self-worth; and we teach the value of direct and honest communication. When we remain in unhealthy relationships, (when we choose to stay with someone who hurts us) we are teaching our children to diminish their self-worth. We are, in essence, saying, ‘this is acceptable behavior’. We simply can’t help our kids develop healthy boundaries unless we do it for ourselves.
- Investing oneself in a relationship that is not satisfying, uplifting, or healing, robs a person of emotional energy, thus affecting the quality of all other relationships that person has, and to a lesser degree, all the ‘external’ relationships connected from there.
- Negative feelings associated with the relationship, in the absence of change, will persist indefinitely, or until the relationship is demoted or severed. Anger, frustration, disappointment, betrayal… such emotions place stress on the mind and the body, exacting a measurable, physical toll.
- Our emotions are contagious.
- People seldom change for altruistic reasons. They are, however, motivated to change when doing so helps them avoid a negative consequence, or reap a personal benefit. If failing to change hurtful behaviors causes a person to lose friends, they will be more incentivized to change.
Even when a person has been told numerous times which behaviors others found unpleasant, they may not readily associate their behavior with the loss of friendship. It may take some time, and more lost friendships, before they ask, ‘why?’. And, there will always be a few who never ask. This is the most difficult part of change… acknowledging the parts of ourselves we’re ashamed of. As a person feels more isolated, they may begin to connect their offending behavior with its consequence, and come to understand the need for change. Chances are, if they reach this point, they will change…for the better.
It won’t be perfect, but it will be progress. In the end, that’s what matters most.