From time to time, we all have them — difficult relationships. Sometimes, they seem forced upon us. Other times, what started off as a good or great relationship goes south and becomes difficult. Sometimes, well, it can seem like we’ve become a magnet for them for some time period of our lives. And sometimes they appear as a recurring theme or challenge over the arc of our lives.
After writing last week’s article — Even an Imperfect Intervention — I heard from a subscriber who had some questions. Clearly, from the questions they asked, they are as sharp as a tack. While they asked several questions, this one captures the gist of it:
“As I was reading, you point out that the idea is to cooperate, to make the person you are having a conversation with feel safe. I am wondering how this works when you are talking with a person who does not care about your safety, does not care about hurting you, yet it is someone with whom you have to find a way to cooperate or at minimum communicate with.”
It’s an excellent question! I will share with you an expanded version of my response. Difficult relationships? Here goes.
Difficult Relationship or Relationship Difficulty
You may or may not have what you would consider “difficult” relationships in your life. That’s where I am at this point in my life. I have some challenging relationships that need a little less occasional dysfunction and a little more health. But I don’t have any difficult relationships. So does this article pertain to you if you, like me, don’t have any downright difficult relationships in your life? Ones like our fellow traveler above asks about? I think it may pertain to you. Here’s why.
Even good relationships become difficult at times. Even in “healthy” relationships — and especially in them — the people involved are growing and evolving. That means changing. Changing is disruptive. It affects the balance and flow in the relationship. Even if it is only temporary, things become difficult in all relationships. And it can sure help to have some skills to actively work through these times.
With no further adieu, here’s my response to this reader’s excellent question...
My [Expanded] Response
Relational vs. Transactional vs. Toxic vs. Dangerous
- Dangerous –– Relationships where your actual physical well-being is in danger… and perhaps your mental/emotional well-being. I have no real experience or expertise in dangerous relationships. So let’s take dangerous relationships off the table for our conversation here. Get out of them, and if you can’t, get the help you need to do so. Get out. Get to safety.
- Toxic — Relationships where you are not in danger, but it isn’t healthy for you. Very often, people in toxic relationships will complain about them, even hate them, but will for some reason persist in them (see Life Patterns, below). The old adage, “We can’t get enough of what we don’t want” seems to especially apply here. I have minor experience in these and no real expertise in them. My area of expertise is more in the latter two buckets, which are…
- Transactional — Relationships where the other person doesn’t care one way or the other about your well-being, yet for some reason, you are needing something from one another. These situations aren’t a well-being threat. The other person cares most about their best interests. They may take advantage of you financially, energetically, etc., but physical, emotional, or mental well-being isn’t being truly threatened. We may perceive it this way, but that isn’t the reality of this category of relationship.
- Relational — Here, the other person cares about us, and vice-versa. This doesn’t mean we don’t get upset with one another and forget we care. This doesn’t mean these are actually healthy, either. When things do flare up, one or the other of us remember we care before things get too far out of hand. And when we cool off, we know in our heart-of-hearts that whilst there may be dysfunction, there is no ill-will and there is no real threat to our safety.
- How can they use this situation to grow?
- How might they approach it skillfully?
- What can they learn about themselves?
- What might be their contribution to the problem?
- What do they think the other person should be doing that they aren’t, or shouldn’t be doing that they are?
- How might the other person be seeing them in this situation? (Run through the above questions from their perspective, looking at you).
- Are situations like this a pattern in their life? If so, how can they solve for the riddle underneath the pattern? What would they need to learn to break the pattern from the inside, out?
- Are there other options to not be in these transactional or toxic relationships? If they can change jobs, type of work, estrange from this family member, end the “friendship”, etc., why don’t they choose that? What might that be saying about them that they don’t? What justifications do they tell themselves that justifies staying in these situations?
- Does staying in these situations make them feel more _______? More alive? More vital? More relevant? More righteous? Etc.? Is there one part of them that hates this, but another part of them that might possibly be kind of addicted to it?
- If they walked away from this situation, or if this situation were all of a sudden to come to an end, who would they be? Would they have an identity? A way of orienting to the world? And what would the likelihood be that they would — consciously or unconsciously — reassemble a new reality that looks like the old one they say they dislike, bemoan, or hate?