Psychology for Living

Gwen Randall-Young
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Last week, we began a discussion of the challenges of difficult relationships: relationships in which it seems hard to express who we are and what we need, without the other becoming offended.

Some individuals are what we call ‘co-dependent’, meaning that they hold others responsible for their happiness. If you are not behaving in the ways they want you to, they become upset. You end up spending a lot of time trying to justify your feelings and your actions.

Ultimately, it may seem that no matter how much you give, change or try to accommodate, it is never enough. You end up feeling guilty just for being you. What is the best way to handle this kind of relationship? The most important task for you is to begin to set clear boundaries. You need to pull back a little, separating yourself from the needs of the other person. We are here to live our own lives. Our presence may complement another’s life, but we cannot fulfill what is missing for someone else.

Imagine you and the other person are in the middle of a lake, and you must swim to shore. In a healthy relationship, you swim side-by-side sometimes, and other times one or the other may swim ahead. You each take responsibility yourselves for getting to shore and may choose to keep each other company on the way. In an unhealthy relationship, one is trying to swim, while the other clings to the stronger one, causing both of them to risk drowning. The strong one eventually frees him or herself and begins to swim. The other must then start swimming, too, or else will sink (or tread water until someone else comes long). In an extremely unhealthy relationship, no one swims, both cling and blame the other for getting nowhere, and both drown.

Setting healthy boundaries means giving the clear message that you cannot/will not be responsible for the other person. It means claiming the right to say truthfully how you feel about things, and being honest about what you want to do, and what you do not want to do. It means being able to be honest, without having to deal with the hurt feelings or anger of another, simply because you feel how you feel.

We do not own others, and we cannot tell them how to think, feel or act. It is unfair to be mad at someone because they are who they are, and not who you want them to be. If you try to be who someone else wants you to be, then you are like a dog that is trying to be a cat. It won’t work for long.

If we could all truly be ourselves, then it might be that we find we really do not like the ‘real’ friend or partner we have, or they may not like us. We may even have to part ways. However, everyone would be free to attract those who like them just as they are. That sounds a whole lot easier (and healthier) than struggling to change each other, or spending endless hours negotiating your right to be who you are.

Gwen Randall-Young is an author and award-winning Psychotherapist. For permission to reprint this article, or to obtain books or cds, visit www.gwen.ca

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