Dealing with difficult relationships, Part II

Dealing with difficult relationships, Part II March 27, 2012

This is part of a series I’m doing on dealing with difficult relationships, and most specifically dealing with strained relationships with highly religious relatives. Most of what I have to offer here are tips I’ve learned along the way as I’ve sought to work through my relationship with my parents.

If you’d like to add additional tips you’ve learned along the way, either in a comment or by emailing me (see my “about” tab for my email address), I may incorporate additional ideas (giving credit where credit is due, of course) in future posts on this topic.

In Part I my focus was on ways to make interaction and communication less stressful – namely, by using the “three sentence rule” or setting boundaries that involve putting certain topics of limits. The tips I’m going to mention here, though, focus more on finding your own peace as you deal with difficult relationships.

3. You can only control your own actions

This one seems obvious, but I’ve found it very helpful to remember. I can’t control how my parents will act or how they will react to me, and I can’t control what they do. All I can control is myself, what I say and what I do. Realizing this has allowed me to let go, allowed me to stop feeling responsible for what others do, and allowed me to focus on what I can control – myself.

Now of course, this could be taken to an unhealthy place as well, namely, to obsessing over my every move or word. That’s not any healthier than obsessing over how others will respond or react to what you say or do. But obsessing over your own actions or words is not what I’m suggesting. It’s just that obsessing over what others might say or do takes agency out of your own hands while remembering that you can only control your own actions and words restores agency to you.

For me, focusing on myself and my actions rather than obsessing over how others will act or react has been a healthy change. I try to always act with love and speak with grace, and to realize that how others respond is not my concern. And there is something extremely freeing about this.

4. Negativity only drags you down

This point really needs to be added in tandem with the other, because realizing that you can only control your own actions does not mean that everything will be butterflies and sunshine. It does not mean that manipulation will end or that relationships will magically improve. It may be the case that regardless of what you do things will continue to suck.

If your relationship, no matter how well you try to handle it, only continuously contributes negativity to your life, you have a problem on your hands. Tactics like the “three sentence rule” or setting boundaries that put certain topics off limits won’t necessarily end the negativity you may experience from your relationship, and life is too short to spend it being dragged down by negativity.

Am I suggesting that you  simply end a relationship that only brings negativity into your life? Not necessarily. Maybe, though. In some cases it may be best to simply end a relationship with someone who is only dragging you down. This is a lot easier to do with a friend or acquaintance than with a relative, though.

I’ve found another way to deal with the negativity, though, and that is creating some amount of emotional distance. My goal is to reach a point where anything negative my parents or any other relative or friend from growing up might say to me doesn’t actually affect me – a point where I see the negativity for what it is and am able to shrug it off. To reach this point, though, you have to achieve a certain level of detachment, and that’s not always easy.

When my therapist pointed out that I don’t need negativity added to my life, it was like a light bulb turned on in my head. It was at that point that I started working to achieve the amount of emotional distance needed to shrug off hurtful words or painful actions and realized that rather than trying to fix my relationship with my parents at all costs I needed to focus on my own well-being and that of my new little family. I needed to let the negativity slip off my back, to let go of it and throw it to the winds. And I’ve been surprised by how successful even a small change in thinking like this can be.


Dealing with difficult relationships is not only about finding ways to handle communication and set boundaries around what topics are appropriate for conversation, it’s also about dealing with yourself. After all, you can only control your own actions, and your life is too short to be filled with constant negativity. Realizing these things has been amazingly beneficial in helping me reach a sort of internal peace, something I didn’t have enough of before.

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