A close girlfriend and fellow struggling single mom came to me tonight with yet more proof that while we’ve been thousands of miles away for our entire relationship, our lives are so interconnected it’s ridiculous. Kindred spirits?
But yet again, as we have done so many times before, we find ourselves facing similar issues with “friends.” Yes, that was in quotes. Bear with me, and you will understand why.
We are single mothers. We have left our family and communities’ pervasive faith practices. We are disabled. We are stay-at-home moms. We are, in short, not really people that most others will understand, and we don’t get out much. So meeting people (ANY people) is difficult. Even for me, in the Church, it is difficult, but I think I went into a little detail on that in a previous post. The fact is that there is really not a niche into which we fit. We’re always just far enough outside the box that finding a spot to be is difficult. We have been taught our entire lives that man, humankind, PEOPLE were not created to be alone, but we tend to end up there if by default.
I’m not complaining. Not really. It’s just important for me to say that the way our social interactions are framed is so powerful that, frankly, I really can’t finish this sentence because our social interactions are important enough that I can’t find words to explain it. That’s pretty rare for me.
It’s not just casual social encounters though, difficult though those may be. It is, you see, that those social encounters are supposed to be the way to find other kindred spirits, and if not kindred spirits, at least people who can share some measure of genuine love in this life. What I am finding, though, is that while struggling to find our fit, we do what I know I’ve always done: we fall in with the wrong crowd.
So we’re approaching middle age (yes. I went there. I kind of panicked a little when I did.). Our “wrong crowd” is not the same as it was in adolescence when we went so far astray. It’s the ones who seem on the surface to be kindred spirits, but are something more predatory, whether they intend to be or not. We’re talking about the dreaded TOXIC RELATIONSHIPS. The one-sided, codependent, disordered, dysfunctional relationships that so damage our hearts, but yet we hate to just end them, because our hearts so crave another heart to share our life experiences with.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the last year or so healing good relationships and ending bad ones. I’ve made more progress, sadly, in the latter than the former, but I pray that those needed and healthy relationships will heal and strengthen in time.
My friend and I shared some stories about some of these toxic relationships this evening, and then I was faced with an interesting question online! So I decided I would share that question and my response here, because I can’t respond there, and it sounded like an alright blog to write.
This was posed:
When you have a toxic relationship, how do you create and force the boundaries you must have? Do you keep fighting to make it healthy and stand up for yourself? or do you just walk away? What if you are attached to the kids involved. and you know that if you speak up for yourself and demand respect/kindness, you will be cut off from the children. what then? I obviously have problems with this. when i want to help people that obviously need me, but use and are abusive in speech, what then?
And here was my response:
There’s not a perfect system. There’s a long drawn-out process that can take years.
Here’s the primer: I back away, slowly at first. Less time, less availability, less involvement. Sometimes this is almost passive-aggressive, because I will just AVOID. This is not good. It’s better to say “I need some time to myself right now, but I will call you.” Not only does this give you distance and responsibility, but it sets your first boundary: Please respect my need for time to myself, and don’t bug me about it.
While I am doing this, I am figuring out a way to voice what needs to be said out of love. If I can’t say it out of love, I just go ahead and cut off the relationship. (Note: love is not a desire to force a change to “fix” someone, but the willingness to accept them, warts and all, and love them whether they change or not. My priest once told me sometimes, you can love and respect someone best from a safe distance.)
Once I have had some distance, I make my statement, basically. This is what I am feeling, and this is what I expect will be done on your end in the future, because I value you. I am reasonable. I am accommodating to a fault. I am not your wife, mother, or doormat. We can discuss it then, or we can take some time to think things over before meeting again.
I continue to maintain distance and see what happens. If my boundaries are respected, we can see about developing a new closeness. If they are not, then this is not going to work.
I have to take the children out of the equation. And to do this, I focus on them. It is not healthy for them to see their parent abusing or being abused in a relationship, and my child comes first. I will not allow him to be around someone who is abusing me, and I hope that this will be a wake-up call to the other parent that their child(ren) can be just as damaged by seeing these relationship patterns. I may make a note to discuss this when discussing my boundaries. If there is a strong bong with the other person’s child, we might be able to negotiate a way for that relationship to continue while we maintain distance (let’s get the kids together for a play date. I will watch them at my house on Thursday at three while you go get some coffee or something)
I check myself. Do I want to help them when they obviously need me because I love them or because I need to be needed? Because I need to fix things? Am I giving into some codependent tendencies? How am I going to work on changing this in myself while I have some space and distance? If I am being codependent, I can reasonably expect to be used.
I contemplate the relationship. I can do half the work in healing an unhealthy relationship, but I can do NONE of the work in healing an unhealthy friend. And if they aren’t willing to meet me half-way in the friendship, it’s time to cut anchor.
In time, with distance and clear boundaries, one of two things will happen: there will be progress, or there will come a time to cut ties. I have personally had all three. Yes, I know. One or the other doesn’t give a third choice. But I cut ties in a toxic relationship and six months later got a message with a lengthy and detailed apology. I decided to hear out my friend, and we met for lunch. We’re not FRIENDS, so to speak, again, and I am maintaining a considerable distance, but in time, I think it may be a possibility.
Be willing to walk away. I think that’s the biggest thing. Be willing to just walk away. People can tell when you are willing to continue to put up with the toxicity, even if you don’t realize that you are! But you have to understand what that REALLY means. Learn to accept that walking away can be a more loving act than staying. Walking away stops enabling the disordered behavior pattern. And be clear that if you walk away, it is because you really love them, and you always will, but that you cannot stand by and watch them harm themselves and others, and you cannot be part of harming them with the toxic relationship. That’s probably the hardest realization anyone can come to about a relationship. You’re not walking away because you are putting your desires first. You are willing to walk away because it is genuinely best for everyone involved.
This is not, obviously, complete or authoritative, but I felt it was worth sharing. I wish someone had said these things to me years ago. I’d love to explore this topic further, so please leave me a comment or three if you have something to add (or subtract). I am no expert by any means!