Relationships are the one of the most rewarding and challenging parts of our life. There are types of personal development that we are unable to do unless we are in relationship and there are ways that relationships push us to do work that we would not be otherwise motivated to do.
One of the greatest challenges in relationship can be our boundaries – maintaining a connection to our self, being open with another, and caring for the relationship that exists between us. We can run into challenges like losing our self in the relationship, over care taking, shutting down, passive aggressiveness, or saying things that are hurtful and can’t be taken back.
Any of these sound familiar?
In the 1980’s Melody Beattie wrote about co-dependence. This is the pattern of behavior that a person develops when relating to a loved-one who has an addiction. However, Beattie’s writing hit a chord with most people whether they were in a partnership with an addict or not. Chiefly, she focuses on understanding what is ours to deal with and what is another person’s. This level of clarity is essential for other relational skills to develop.
It is impossible to create healthy connectedness if we lack the ability to hold onto our self. Holding onto our self is the ability to stay connected to what we think, feel and want while being in a relationship with another person. This is particularly important when that person is under stress or in a crisis. In intense situations, it is easier to get consumed by another person’s experience. Even sexual intimacy, as positive as it might be, requires not only that we can deeply connect and even merge with another but that we can come back to ourselves as well.
The truth of the matter is, when we do not know or understand something, our ability to be in relationship to it is limited. This means we need to be able to see our self because the less we are aware of ourselves, the harder it is for us to know when something is us and when it is not. So, this is one of the many ways that personal development work serves you. The more that you know the easier it is to navigate relationships.
It is necessary to know our self to be open to a relationship in a healthy way. Being open in a relationship is both about the ability to connect and to disconnect. However, primarily it is about being able to choose when we want to connect and disconnect. This allows us to be consciously open or to consciously choose not put up a boundary when something is not healthy.
What I often hear people struggle with is determining what is healthy or not healthy for them so that they know where to put a boundary in place. Caring for yourself means doing that which is affirming of the entirety of who you are. Determining what is healthy or not healthy is guided by the same concept. Does it affirm or support who you are? If it does then it is healthy for you even if it is difficult. If it is does not, then it is not healthy for you. Your boundaries in relationship should honor what is healthy for you and, as I will get to later, also honor the needs of the relationship.
One of the greatest gifts that we can give in a relationship is our willingness to be as respectful with that other person as we have learned to be with our self. This desire to support another person in honoring and caring for themselves and learning and growing in their capacity to know themselves is a beautiful gift of a relationship that can blossom from our learning to respect our own boundaries.
The relationship, itself, is the third part of the equation. Relationships take care and time to be able to flourish. It is not enough for people to just invest in their own awareness and growth they also need to invest in the relationship. The relationship is another member of the total relationship triad –self, other, relationship- and also requires our attention. What can you give to the relationship? How do you give to the relationship?.
Developmentally, we are not able to give to the relationship until we have learned how to take care of ourselves. We are simply too immature to really be able to give what is required. That is why we need to start by doing our own work and understand what it is that supports us as we go through life. When we have done this work, the act of giving selflessly to a relationship is an additional joy rather than something that creates imbalance.
If you find yourself in a relationship and you are questioning your knowledge of your own needs or understanding of the different aspects of who you are, this is part of the teaching of relationship. We are all in a continual process of growth. As you move forward in your relationship you will be called to focus on different aspects of the relationship: you, the other person, and the relationship itself. There will be a natural tension at time that will challenge you to relate in ways that feel healthy and right to you. This process, if you choose to engage in it will be both challenging and deeply rewarding, ultimately offering you one of the most beautiful experiences that life has to offer.
As common (but not as tasty) as peanut butter and chocolate is the unhealthy bond between narcissists and empaths.
Narcissists are those people who are arrogant, lack empathy, and are ultimately self-serving. They manipulate to get what they want—not necessarily intentionally. Under this thick veil of ego is a very wounded person. However, the nature of the narcissist is to project blame while avoiding responsibility. As a result, they can be extremely destructive to empaths.
Empaths are sensitive people who feel the feelings of others and ultimately want others to feel loved, healthy, and good. They often mistake the feelings of others for their own feelings and struggle to put appropriate boundaries in place. The nature of the empath is to sometimes take too much personal responsibility in conflict situations. As a result, when they are relating to someone with narcissistic traits, they can end up taking responsibility in ways that are unhealthy.
It is challenging for the empath to see the relationship with the narcissist clearly. And the narcissist will be endlessly trying to make themselves look good, as well as to get the endless appreciation and love they so desperately desire.
The result is that the empath will begin to doubt themselves and their intentions. They will become imbalanced, and as a result, they will often act in ways that they are not proud of. The longer this continues, the more the narcissist will blame the empath for what is happening and the more the empath will believe that what they are doing is wrong, losing their center and their health in the process.
The following is from Bill Eddy’s article “How to Spot a Narcissist.” He shows how you can most easily spot a narcissist. While many writers have described the characteristics of a narcissist, he does so in a way that is accessible and clarifying.
The following are several hints you may pick up from a narcissist early on, using the WEB Method.
Watch for both extremely positive and extremely negative words, about you or others.
EXTREMELY POSITIVE (SEDUCTIVE) WORDS include: I love you, you’re so wonderful! I’ve never met someone as great as you are! You’re so much better than all the others. You’re the center of my life! I will give you everything you deserve. No one has treated you as good as I will treat you. The person you were with before was a real loser. I have this great idea that will make me really famous someday. Let me tell you about it. (Notice that much of this is very comparative—that’s a warning sign that you will compare negatively later on.)
EXTREMELY NEGATIVE (DISPARAGING) WORDS include: That person over there is a real loser. Let me tell you about him (or her). The people that rejected my great idea are some of the stupidest people I have ever met. They don’t know brilliance when it’s staring them in the face. My boss is really treating me unfairly. I’m thinking of going over his head and getting him fired. I can’t wait until everyone sees him being walked out of the office for good! He’ll be totally humiliated. (Notice the thrill of superiority and lack of empathy, even if the other person is a lousy boss.)
WORDS THAT SHOW LACK OF EMPATHY OR INTEREST: The following happens a lot with narcissists. If you tell the person about a bad experience or vulnerability that you have, their response will often begin with: Well, let me tell you what happened to me once! There’s often no recognition of your concern—or even your existence, sometimes. They lose interest quickly, once they think they have you.
VICTIM WORDS: Narcissists perpetually see themselves as superior, but also perpetually as victims. When they are exposed as not being so superior after all, they suffer what is often called “a narcissistic injury.” Maybe they were turned down for a job promotion in favor of someone else. After such an “injury,” they will become obsessed with proving how bad the other person is and how wonderful they are. They may go on a long rant: It’s so unfair what they did/said/are. I will show them! They’re punishing me for being better than they will ever be!
Now pay attention to your own emotions. How do you feel around the person?
FEEL TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE? This person is so nice to you, you feel extremely loved and flattered. You may have a euphoric feeling. He/she almost seems too good to be true. That’s a warning sign, because people who intensely and endlessly flatter you are often not who they seem. Their charm for you is a warning sign. Sometimes, they are simply charming and not a narcissist. But sometimes it means you are being seduced in the moment with lovely words by a narcissist, who will say them soon to the next person or organization they meet. They like winning more than having.
FEEL STUPID AND INADEQUATE? Some narcissists are so busy puffing themselves up that they don’t realize that they are putting you down in the process—it’s so automatic for them. You may not even notice it consciously at first, but soon you may be filled with self-doubt. I wonder what he/she thinks of me? I’m not really that smart, talented, attractive after all. I’m certainly not in his/her league, am I?
FEEL LIKE YOU CAN’T BREATHE? It’s common for narcissists to “suck up all the oxygen in the room.” Other people start feeling like they can’t breathe, because they can’t get a word in. Whatever someone else says, the conversation gets steered back to the narcissist somehow.
Notice what they do, more than what they say. Narcissists have lots of words to distract from and make up for their insensitive behavior. People constantly confront narcissists and constantly are frustrated. Rather than reflecting on their past behavior, narcissists defend it and attack you for criticizing them. (“How dare you, after all I’ve done for you!”) So just become aware of their behavior and ignore their words excusing or distracting from it.
For example: Instead of saying: “Why were you late?!” You could say: “I’d prefer if you would let me know ahead of time if you’re going to be late, so I can make other plans.” Then, just leave it at that and notice if they fulfill or ignore your request. If they try to fulfill your request, that’s a good sign. But if there’s an unchanging pattern of disregard for you and your requests, then you may consider ending that relationship, since you’re not going to change that person. If you feel taken for granted, remember that narcissists like winning relationships, not having relationships. He/she may be on to the next conquest.
TARGETS OF BLAME: If a narcissist also has a high-conflict personality, that means that they will look for a Target of Blame when something goes wrong for them. They may intensely blame you for something minor or nonexistent or done by someone else (perhaps even by themselves, which is called “projection”). When they mess up, they often look for someone close by to blame. “It’s all your fault that I didn’t get that promotion! You should have spoken to the boss like I asked you to. Now what are you going to do about it!!”
As with all of the high-conflict personalities, they tend to blame people in close relationships with them (girlfriends, boyfriends, wives, husbands, kids, parents, close friends, close neighbors, etc.) or people in authority positions (supervisors, business owners, police, government agencies, etc.). They often get stuck in a cycle of attacking a Target of Blame and defending themselves, rather than getting any work done or paying attention to their family: such as making angry phone calls, writing long email rants or engaging in social media meltdowns.
Notice if they have ever done something that 90% of people would never do (“The 90% Rule”). Something that you would never do. If so, regardless of their excuses, it usually means there’s a pattern of high-conflict behavior under the surface which would support such extreme behavior. For narcissists, this often includes humiliating a partner or child in public, sabotaging a co-worker or verbally attacking a colleague or employee in a meeting for something the narcissist actually did.
Empaths are particularly prone to getting involved with narcissists due to their failure to spot their games—it is just too different from their own personality. During the initial phase of the relationship (the positive phase), the empath will likely feel positive feelings unlike those received from being with anyone else, and will take this as a sign that this is a special relationship. Because all the empath wants to do is help, and all the narcissist wants to do is take, the empath will end up in a game that cannot end well.
If you suspect that you have a narcissist in your life, you may benefit from distancing yourself. With some people, you may be unable to do this—in which case, you would benefit from a plan that helps you minimize their effect on you while not alerting any of their conflict behaviors. Maintaining objectivity is key to your success. The more perspective you can get, the easier it will be to see what is going on. Make some space for yourself and enroll the support of other people who can help you see things more clearly. You can still empathize with the pain that is the root of the narcissist’s behavior without putting yourself in harm’s way.
Empaths often are exploring self-love within the context of relationships. I invite you to read more here >>> “7 Reasons to Love Yourself First.”
Even if you have spent a significant amount of time on your own healing, you can end up in a relationship so toxic that it takes its toll on your otherwise healthy life. This is particularly true of our romantic relationships or our other closest relationships.
Elucidating contributing factors to our experience of unhealthy relationships been approached in a number of different ways.
One of these is through the discussion of the activation of our defenses in accordance with our attachment styles. There are four different attachment styles: Secure, Anxious, Avoidant, and Anxious-Avoidant. In any relationship that is not securely attached, there is the potential for deep activation of attachment issues that can lead to dysfunction. In the book Attached, Amir Levine discusses the crazy-making downward spiral of unhealthy attachment. This book helps to provide insight into how otherwise healthy people can become very unhealthy when there attachment wounds get triggered.
Another important angle is taken by Harville Hendrix in Getting the Love You Want. In this book, he talks about it as “the turtle and the tiger.” The turtle retreats from conflict and the tiger appears to be the aggressor. While this is not a direct correlation to attachment styles, there is some overlap. Overall, the retreat and attack dynamic can be found in many relationships where two people are struggling.
Codependence literature, on the other hand, can help us clarify unhealthy boundaries and how they affect us. By looking at where we have become immeshed with the people around us and learning new skills, we can learn to untangle ourselves from some challenging relationship dynamics.
No matter how we slice it, once we get into an unhealthy pattern things can go downhill fast. And, as messy as this can be, relationships can actually get worse. When we, for example, add attachment issues, which are a part of many relationships, to some deeper personality issues, we can enter into some very challenging relationship territory that is very difficult to extricate ourselves from. Add in an issue like addiction and things get even worse.
The very nature of the problems that get created in these problematic relationships can cause us to doubt ourselves, and also make it so that we may not know what we should do or where we should focus our efforts to make things better.
There are two parts to getting yourself out of an unhealthy relationship. The first is understanding what got you there. The second is your plan to get free.
Understanding how you got there:
Your Attachment Style: When you understand your attachment style and how it got activated, you can begin taking steps to get back on track. You can lean into healthier attachment bonds, you can more directly ask for what you need, and you can depersonalize the other person’s behavior.
Assessment Skills: When you can assess healthy versus unhealthy behavior and recognize truly pathological behavior, then you can understand how and when to put certain boundaries in place. You will be able to see if the person you are struggling with is a narcissist, sociopath, or some other personality that cannot be safely negotiated with.
Healthy Boundaries: When you are aware of your over-involvement in toxic relationships, you can begin to put healthier boundaries in place. This sometimes includes cutting off all contact with the person who is triggering you in such a deep way or who may simply not be safe.
Your plan to get out:
Once you understand the cause of all the dysfunction, you can build a plan to either work on or leave the relationship. If you need to leave, here are some steps that you can take.
Gather Support: Perhaps the most important part of an exit strategy is getting the support that you need to make it successful. This means establishing people to be on-call with assisting you during the transition. Immediately after leaving the relationship, the emotional volume can get turned up and the other person might escalate their behavior. Planning on this happening can help to make sure you have the right people to see you through these difficult times.
Meet Your Needs: Know that your attachment needs will be activated. Because of this, you will want to establish multiple ways to take care of these needs as part of your plan. If you need to be held, who can do that for you, safely? If you need distraction, how can you divert your attention?
Be Patient: The deeper the activation of your issues or the more pathological the relationship, the more likely it is to take a few tries to get out of the relationship. Be kind to yourself. You will get there, but likely not until you are really certain why this is an unhealthy relationship for you—which is why it makes sense to understand what is going on before you try to separate.
Stay Clear: No matter how bad the relationship, there are usually good parts that can leave you wondering whether you made the right choice. To help you stay the course, it is helpful to clearly remember the reasons for leaving the relationship and the damage that it has caused.
While it is not always essential that we leave a relationship that appears to be unhealthy, there are plenty of times when it is in our best interest. To determine whether or not we need to leave, we will benefit from understanding what contributes to these problematic relationships so that we can see what got us there in the first place. Then we can begin to set up a plan to leave that helps us transition away from the toxic relationship while retaining—or regaining—our sanity.
To explore what self-love has to do with your relationships, check out my post here >>> “7 Reasons to Love Yourself First.”
Great relationships develop not from the absence of conflict, but from determining an agreeable pattern for how to resolve conflict. Defining the rules of engagement for how you “fight” with someone you care about is ultimately much more important than trying to never have a disagreement.
If you care about someone, then consider adopting these 10 rules as part of the way you communicate with them when you are trying to resolve a conflict:
Rule #1: Don’t yell. Adding emotion clouds the clarity of what actually happened. If the other person is yelling, it becomes especially important that you don’t raise your voice so as to prevent a natural escalation of competing interests.
Rule #2: Always start and end the conversation by affirming that you care about the other person. In the midst of a disagreement, you can never underestimate the power and importance of reminding the other person that you care about them and believe in them.
Rule #3: Be open to the idea that you made a mistake even if you are sure you did not. People rarely get upset for no reason, so there is a good chance that there is at least a kernel of truth to what they are saying.
Rule #4: Don’t speak in generalities of another person’s behavior; speak only to direct examples and instances of action. It’s hard for anyone to own up to a generalization and so you’ll likely just see his or her defensiveness activate. By isolating an instance of fact, everyone can quickly see where he or she was right and wrong.
Rule #5: Always work to be the first to apologize when any dispute arises. Although the idea of waiting for the other person to apologize first seems vindicating, it’s actually a guaranteed sign of how you care more about being right than in coming to a reconciliation.
Rule #6: Focus on trying to discover what’s right, not who is right. When thinking about what happened, try to remove yourself from the situation and evaluate right and wrong based solely on the actions that took place regardless of which side you’re on. Treat it as if you are refereeing someone else’s game.
Rule #7: Do not cuss. Exaggerated language is often proof of an exaggerated understanding of what actually happened. If you swear, the other party is likely to only hear the expletives and will stop listening for any validity in what you’re saying.
Rule 8: No name-calling. Belittling a person always shifts the focus off of resolving the actual problem. Verbal abuse is never welcome to a conflict resolution party.
Rule #9: Remind yourself the other person also cares about reconciling the relationship. One of the fundamental causes of many disagreements is feeling hurt that the other person is no longer considering your perspective, but if they didn’t care about a resolution with you they wouldn’t be fighting for one.
Rule #10: Remind yourself to never expect the other person to fill a hole in your life that only they can fill. Sometimes we fall into the trap of placing improper expectations on other people because we are hoping for them to satisfy a need in our life that they are not really capable of satisfying.
If we are fighting with someone, it means we both care about finding the best course of action and we both care about preserving the relationship. If we didn’t care about one another, then we would just ignore each other and leave.
The reason these 10 rules are important is because as long as they are in place, then no disagreement or conflict will ever shake the critical bedrock of knowing that the other person cares about you. As long as we know the other person cares about us, it will give us a common ground to work from as we try to unite two seemingly conflicted views.
It is often the case that the people we love most are those that we have the worst conflicts with. Our most intimate relationships can touch upon our deepest places of hurt, mistrust and wounding often leading to misunderstandings, distance or fighting. Although these bumps along the path of relating may be inevitable, we can smooth the ride (or at least manage to stay on the path!) by remembering to return to a place of love in all situations of conflict.
What does this mean? Well, It means that no matter how you are triggered, how right you feel, how hurt you are there is nothing that will support your relationship (and you) more than being able to stay connected to the deep love that you feel for the person with which you are in conflict.
There are lots of ways to practice this but today I want to give you the step by step of how you actually make the physical, mental and emotional shift from negative emotion to a place of love. So, that you can be more effective at solving the conflict and building trust and intimacy. These are the steps to take when you start to see red while engaging with someone you love. Whenever possible, as soon as you become aware that you are getting agitated, take a breath and a moment to do the following:
Step #1: Recognize where you are. See your desire to hurt, blame or separate from the other person.
Step #2: Switch your perspective. You don’t have to forgive, agree or accept them, anything they say, or what they are doing. Just remember what it feels like to love that person.
Step #3: Think of what you would do or how you would act if you were feeling this love. In other words, if you were to choose loving connection over hurt, blame or disconnection what would you do.
Step #4: Decide what you want. Now that you have seen each of the options, which is the one that you want to choose?
Step#5: Love yourself for making the best choice you can in the moment regardless of what it is.
It is really easy in the heat of the moment to lose sight of everything that we valued and believed when we were not in the conflict. Simply by reconnecting with the memory of being loving towards the other person, it frees us up to find new options for resolution and connection.
Join Dr. Kate Siner with her guest, relationship expert, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and founder of Romantic Alchemy, Tabatha Bird Weaver as they discuss ways to connect with compassion no matter what situation you are in on this weeks hour of Real Answers Radio. Tune in for the tools to reduce conflict and create deeper levels of trust and health in all of your important relationships. Thursday, March 12th at 12pm EST. Learn more here.
Many of us believe that we should “just know how” to relate in ways that bring us happiness. However, creating healthy and fulfilling relationships is an art and a practice. Before we get into some tools for creating more fulfilling relationships take a moment to look at some of the components of a healthy relationship. The following is not an exhaustive list but it will help set the stage:
Open communication: knowing what you think and feel and being willing to share it.
Trust: behaving in a way that is trustworthy, fostering trust, and being more trusting.
Respect: understanding that the other person is an individual and should not be criticized for not being like you or any other person.
Love: I like the expression, “Love is a verb.” Healthy relationships seek to continually work to foster love through behavior.
Integrity: the understanding that each person has his or her own path and it is not loving to take them off their path.
Partnership: the desire to share life ― its struggles and its joys.
Tool #1: The first tool is to figure out what each one of these categories mean to you –and to your partner. By writing down a sentence or two describing each of these components of a fulfilling relationship you will understand better how to create them in your relationship.
Tool #2: To maintain the love inside and outside of ourselves, we need to give it regular and careful attention. If you find yourself feeling frustrated or disconnected with someone close to you, see if you can take a moment to think of three to five positive traits ― things you love about the person. You can do this with your partner or your friend or a parent. You can even take an extra step and tell the person one or more of the things that you really value about them.
Tool #3: Sometimes we block the love coming from another person because of our own inability to feel worthy of love. If you find that you are disconnected or judgmental, check in with yourself to see if you really love yourself. If you are not sure, what is your self-care like? Are you eating, sleeping, attending to responsibilities, and having fun? If not, the problem might not be with the other person ― it might actually be with you.
Tool #4: Do you feel that a person or certain people should be there for you no matter what? No matter how you act, no matter how you treat them, no matter whether they show up for themselves or not? Sometimes we think that a person showing up in this way means that they truly love us. This is more the case in a parent-child relationship. However, in a peer relationship or partnership, expecting this is not about love ― it is about dependency. Check yourself; see if you want someone to take care of you ― whether it is emotionally, financially, or physically instead of creating true adult relationships and deeper love.
This week on Real Answers Radio, Dr. Kate offers simple tools that you can start using immediately. If you are craving more from your relationships – more caring, more connection, more meaning – then this show is for you!
Dr. Kate always welcomes your questions and this week’s show is the perfect opportunity to call in with your most pressing relationships questions and get the real answers you need.