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Having a healthy relationship doesn’t mean that both people are poster children for perfect emotional health. It means that how you respond in the relationship is appropriate and functional. So, the good news is that you often can have a healthy relationship with someone who’s still in the process of getting it together—just like you.
In my blog Stages of Relationship Health, I explore how to go from being abused in a relationship to having anger about your mistreatment to leaving the relationship altogether. What I’m blogging about here is a different take on that situation: how to go from being passive about being abused to becoming angry to learning how to detach.
So many of my clients who come from dysfunctional family backgrounds took the mistreatment for far too long because they were dependent on their parents. Although some children do run away from egregious abuse, most remain in the family and are stuck with few ways to reduce suffering: take the blame, believing they’re in the wrong and deserve whatever they get; take the blame to escape worse treatment; or try their darndest to be good, believing that will keep them safe and loved.
In short, they become passive and try to avoid or placate their abusers. You know that nothing good can come from this position other than perhaps avoiding greater harm. The damage to a child’s ego, self-esteem, and sense of empowerment is overwhelming. But passivity is okay when you have no other choice.
Eventually clients become angry at what was done to them. Some get there through a slow boil and for others my saying they were wronged unleashes the fury they’ve tried to sit on for decades. The problem is it’s hard to relinquish that level of fury because the only alternative seems like returning to passivity and that is a place they never, ever want to return to. However, if they don’t set aside their fury, they’ll spend the rest of their lives raging against people who did things to them half-a-lifetime ago, which is (to my chagrin) how many clients spend their therapy sessions.
Once you’ve raged for long enough, it’s time to push aside those feelings and dial them way back. Railing about the past leaves no room to have a relationship in the present. Think about how much healthier you’d feel if you weren’t slighted so easily by a parent, if you didn’t dwell on how they mistreated you and instead focused on making them less important in your life now. What if Mom or Dad was just another struggling person on the planet, limping and bumbling along as we all are? What if you decide you’re both doing the best you can and leave it at that?
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