Updated: May 16
What do you do when you know you have dysfunctional relationships in your life? In that place, people often acknowledge that they feel both obligated to those relationships, but at the same time, there's an awareness that those relationships are holding back their healing.
This is one of the most common struggles I hear about. I've dealt with it. My husband has dealt with it. The majority of my clients have dealt with it. And it can feel terrible.
There's often a push-pull: guilt for wanting that relationship out of your life, but also so much pain because they are in your life. These relationships are often characterized by:
Minimizing your experience - or outright denying it
Invalidating your feelings
Manipulating you with their emotions
Despite the history we have with the relationship, we often keep reaching out, both because we want to and because we’ve all been taught “it’s the right thing to do.” Usually, other people who are not directly involved in the relationship will give us advice. They're not directly involved, though, so they don't have the same consequences we'll have for following their advice. And oftentimes these people may also not believe our experience, think we're being dramatic, or minimize our experience because "it could be worse" (this is called comparative suffering and is not a healthy or productive emotional framework). Sometimes people are well-meaning, but they have their own fears of confrontation or fear of backlash when things get difficult. We'll often hear things like this:
What they say...
What they don't say...
"Family comes first"
- even if it's abusive, manipulative, or unsafe
- it's more important to maintain the relationship than it is to maintain your health and wellbeing
"Be the bigger person"
- Just let them get away with what they're doing. It's bad, but what can you do?
- don't stir the pot or question the status quo
"Just forgive them"
- Just get over it and don't say anything/cause a stink*
"Why are you so sensitive anyway?"
- You're threatening the family system and I'm fine with it the way it is/too scared to deal with the truth.
*Forgiveness is a good and healing pursuit but it takes a lot of emotional work and intention and cannot be done without acknowledging and coming to terms with your own hurt. It's not done by a simple decision to never think or talk about what happened. For more on this, I recommend The Book of Forgiving by Desmond Tutu
As for the part of us that wants to keep reaching back out–the most damaging relationships in our lives are often family members, significant others, or very close friends. So not only do we feel obligated to them because of the status of the relationship in our lives, but we deeply desire to be loved by them in particular.
We want their validation.
We want their love.
We want a relationship with them that is actually fun, happy, and peaceful
Those desires are healthy desires and you cannot make them heal. You cannot make them want healing. You cannot make them want the same things you want.
Because that's their business. And your healing is your business.
Even if we know that intellectually, it's hard to know how to do that practically. It doesn't get modeled for us, and unless you go to therapy or coaching, no one sits down with you and says, "Here is how you do this." A lot of people get stuck in a cycle of trying to set boundaries, it doesn't go nice and easy (because the other person doesn't like it), they reach out again in the name of “seeking closure” or “clearing the air.,” and get sucked right back in.
I offer a different starting place: Your needs and desires are worthy of being met, and you can’t make them heal, therefore you have permission to walk away.
By continually trying to “do the right thing” and “seek closure,” we are re-submitting ourselves to the trauma of those relationships over and over again.
And that is how people stay stuck. Stuck on their journey, stuck in their life, stuck in their ability to feel safe and happy, stuck in their ability to heal.
Here’s the Truth: You are allowed to be done with a relationship that is harming you. You are allowed to leave it without having a nice and tidy “closure.” You are allowed to feel deeply hurt by that. You are allowed to heal and move on.
For me personally, I went through this with my father. He was an alcoholic, abusive, and constantly denied my reality. Eventually, I decided one day that for my own health and wellbeing, I just couldn’t try anymore. Without explanation (because I didn’t owe him one, and he wouldn’t have understood it anyway), I stopped talking to him one-on-one. I wouldn’t even be in a room alone with him. And in mixed company, I had an extremely limited list of “approved” topics I would discuss around him.
One day he asked me, “Why don’t you talk to me anymore?” I told him, “You have hurt me a lot (and I listed the ways), and you’ve never acknowledged or apologized for any of it.”
He told me, “I don’t think I have anything to apologize for.” I said, “I know. So this is how our relationship is.” And that was that. He never sought healing. He never sought reconciliation. And a few years later he passed away.
For whatever reason, it was never safe enough for him to stop changing the narrative to favor himself. It never became safe enough for him to acknowledge things he had done wrong. And that’s okay. It was never mine to hold or force into reality.
That does not mean that we are not allowed to have healing. And what does the other side look like?
It looks like freedom, and joy. Like your whole body relaxes and starts to learn how to rest. You no longer feel jitters or cold sweats or dissociated thinking about having to be around that person. Your body begins to heal. Instead of feeling depleted in energy, you have energy to give to explorations you want to pursue. You begin to have healthier relationships with the other people in your life, and you have more space for them.
I say this because everyone always tells me they’re scared. They tell me they can’t imagine going through with it. But then when they get to the other side, they always tell me they feel relieved, and they wish they’d done it sooner.
If this sounds like something you know you’ve been needing to do, but haven’t known the next step, I encourage you to find a therapist who specializes in healing from relationship trauma. They can help you create the safe space where you can heal even when the people you want closure from refuse to offer it.
You don’t have to be stuck anymore. There is hope. There is wholeness. There is healing. And you have permission to receive that.