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How to Know If People Are Keepers or Not


It may be difficult to know whether or not to keep someone in your life—significant other, spouse, friend, or relative. Do you want to remain close to them or with them at all? Many clients entertain this dilemma and unwisely rely on self-trust or intuition to make decisions rather than rational thinking. Worse, they decide out of fear and anxiety.

Here are some examples. A client is deciding if he wants to divorce his wife. Another wonders if she can continue to live with her emotionally stunted sister. A third is trying to figure out if an alcoholic friend is worth the trouble. If we live long enough, we’ll all face similar dilemmas, some of which will stress us out enough to trigger emotional eating. 

One way to know whether someone is a keeper or not is to make a list of what they need to do over time to stay or go. That is, to know what behaviors will lead you in one direction or the other. Here are thoughts to consider on both sides of the ledger:

On the positive side, someone may stay in my life if they consistently:

  • make me feel validated, cared about, valued and loved
  • go to and stay in therapy until their/our problems are resolved
  • spend more quality time with me/family
  • share their feelings with me openly, honestly and appropriately
  • do more chores around the house and live up to financial responsibilities
  • take effective care of themselves physically and emotionally

On the negative side, someone may not stay in my life if they:

  • drink/drug/smoke/gamble/watch pornography/addictively engage in an activity
  • express anger at me or those in my care inappropriately
  • don’t hold up their end of the relationship financially or via housekeeping
  • frighten, try to manipulate, shame, or invalidate me intentionally or unintentionally
  • treat me as if their needs are more important than mine (or those of our family)
  • say they will change but not change in permanent, consistent ways

Clients get into the most trouble evaluating these behaviors when the other person changes some but not enough or sometimes but not consistently. As a former clinical supervisor of mine used to advise me about clients changing, “People vote with their feet.” Said another way, “talk is cheap.” Moreover, if you don’t voice and insist on standards, you can’t complain about someone not meeting them. Develop high but reasonable ones and don’t hesitate to insist that people meet them—or let them go.