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How do I keep myself safe in a difficult relationship?

Some relationships are more difficult than others. We can all think of someone we know who requires a gargantuan effort to get along with and who leaves us feeling exhausted.

Sometimes we can simply give these relationships up, because perhaps the person isn’t that significant to us and we decide that they’re really not worth it, but sometimes it’s not as easy as all that. What if that person is your boss? Your family member? Your co-worker that you must collaborate with every day? Sometimes the relationship is so unworkable that we change jobs, or estrange ourselves from family members. But if we choose not to do that, how can we keep ourselves safe in a difficult relationship?

Firstly, we can limit the time we spend on them. Just because she’s your sister doesn’t mean you have to see her every weekend: decide on what you can manage, and stick to that. There is no need to feel guilty about it: a smaller amount of time spent together means you’ll be less jaded and more able to get along. Bosses and co-workers may be hard to avoid, but you can say no to anything extra-curricular, and choose to put your focus elsewhere when you leave work. Keeping all of your interactions business-related and strictly professional can help you to feel protected.

Secondly, put someone else in the picture. Choose someone you trust and who ‘gets’ you. Explain to them why you find this person so difficult and that you might need to vent sometimes, then let them be your go-to support when you’ve had a really hard time. They may even be able to be around when you’re dealing with this person: perhaps a supportive partner has an eye on things when your difficult parent visits, or a sympathetic co-worker has your back in the office. Sometimes, just knowing that someone else understands why you find this relationship difficult can be surprisingly bolstering.

Something else that can take the pressure off difficult relationships is to be in the present moment, and only that. Perhaps family members get tangled up in an upsetting shared past, or you’re constantly being reminded of what’s expected of you in the future. Keeping the focus of the relationship in the here and now can take some of the weight off your shoulders. Have a few safe topics up your sleeve that you can navigate to: if this is someone in your personal life this might be as simple as things you’ve seen on television, or steering the conversation to another friend or family member. At work, there may be uncontentious projects or general topics you can rely on to take the temperature down.

You can also look for the positives. They may be very small, but they are there. Notice them for yourself and perhaps even voice them, if it feels appropriate. A simple thanks for helping out with x the other day can remind you (and them) that it’s not all hard work. It’s also a useful way of keeping the relationship focussed on the present.

Finally, if you really need to protect yourself, for example in a relationship where you have been hurt, ensure that you know what is off limits. There may be areas into which it is not safe to venture in a complicated relationship – at least, not without a neutral person present. Decide what those areas are and be prepared to gently but firmly give a reminder that you don’t want to go there. This is where your support person can really come in handy too. They can help reinforce your boundary, and give you courage to keep to it.

Counselling can help to explore a painful relationship and clarify your own position in it. It is a safe space to examine what hurts and why, and to find your own way forward – whether you continue to participate in the relationship or not. Painful relationships are often our most long-standing ones, and the ones we’re most invested in making better – or at least bearable – for the future. It’s not surprising that sometimes we need a little help with that.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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