Surviving a Dysfunctional Relationship: What I Wish I Knew and Did Sooner


“No person is your friend who demands your silence or denies your right to grow.” ~Alice Walker

When I was a child and in my early teenage years, I was a free bird. I laughed easily, loved life, never worried, and dreamed big. I thought the best of others, the glass was always full. I never dreamed others would hurt me, and I had a joyful and playful attitude toward life.

That was a long time ago.

My breakdown started gradually and slowly with judgments from a very close and trusted family member I dare not name. This person, though probably well-intentioned, thought that you make someone stronger by criticizing them. They believed in knocking me down, throwing verbal punches to make me “resilient.”

They believed in “hard love.” They watched while I faltered and sometimes suffered. They stood back and watched from the cheap seats, then critiqued my performance. Their assessment of me was rarely, if ever, encouraging and was full of arrogance and judgment.

Well into my adult life, this trusted person threatened me after an ugly incident where they made a terrible judgment call. Instead of admitting their error, they threatened me and made it my fault by saying, “If you ever tell anyone about this, I will disown you.”

Shuddering under the weight of those words, I decided to sever ties with this person once and for all.

Those words, “If you ever tell anyone about this, I will disown you…” said so much about this person who I have struggled to understand my entire life.

For me, it was about as close to the admittance of wrongdoing I would ever get from them. And as always, there was the signature and ever-present judgmental spin. “I will disown you” because, after all, this is your fault, and you deserve punishment.

I try to come to terms with the aftermath of the ugly side effects that this person has brought to my life.  Someone so blatantly flawed showed me my own weaknesses because I allowed them to erode my confidence and well-being.

I regret not cutting ties sooner—like twenty years ago.

As I sat in the aftermath of this situation, I wondered what good can possibly come from such a disappointing relationship? A lifetime of misunderstanding, jarring actions, harmful words, and hurt feelings—all from a person so close to me—someone I should trust, love and respect.

Perhaps the answer lies in the decisive way I ended it after so many years of abuse. The final decision for me to end this relationship was my first real stand to protect myself. The first time I valued myself more than another person.

The dysfunction of this relationship would not have come this far if I knew how to establish healthy boundaries early on and knew how to deal appropriately with a difficult person. I am nearly sixty years old and have learned my lessons the hard way.

I like to share with you some easy strategies you can employ if you are struggling with a dysfunctional person in your life.

1. Nothing you say or do will ever change them.

Save yourself a lot of time and energy and come to terms with this reality. The only person you can change is yourself, which is the best place to focus your energy. You can control your reactions to this person, your opinions, and how you deal with them, but you can’t control them.

They have to accept you for who you are, and likewise, you have to accept them for who they are.

If you don’t like them or their behavior, you have to decide how you will deal with it. Maybe you only visit once a year or not at all. Perhaps you only call on the phone. Explore all the options that you feel will work for you and keep you safe, and try not to feel guilty about your decision.

2. Set healthy personal boundaries.

Healthy boundaries are essential not only for you in this relationship but within all relationships. Setting healthy boundaries with friends, your boss, your wife or husband, your children, with anyone is key to having healthy and fulfilling relationships.

When you set healthy boundaries, you also allow the other people in your life to know what you expect and what you will or will not tolerate.  They will appreciate you for that.

Setting healthy boundaries starts with knowing what irritates you, what pushes your buttons, what compromises you might make, if any.  Healthy boundaries have a lot to do with knowing your core values. Start with a shortlist of core values important to you. Know them and stick by them, and when someone challenges those values, be ready to protect them because they are there to protect you.

Also, choose your words carefully when setting clear boundaries. For example, saying, “You insulted me, so I am out of here,” is not as effective as saying, “Your words (specify the words you find insulting) are insulting to me, and if you continue to talk to me like that I will have to leave.”

Everyone deserves a chance to change their behavior for the better. However, act decisively and immediately if your boundary is crossed.

3. Whether it is a friend or family member, people who constantly cross your boundaries, and challenge your values, don’t deserve your energy.

Being decisive like this is called standing up for yourself. You can walk away and come back another day—or not.

If you don’t stand up for yourself early, people will chip away at your inner confidence and make you resentful and even potentially volatile. Don’t let things get that bad.

Make yourself strong from the inside out, rely on your judgments. Don’t listen to other people who persuade you to ignore your guidance. Only you can know whether someone is violating your inner self.

4. You are not a bad person for deciding to step back or even end the relationship.

Tell yourself that you are not a bad daughter, son, wife, husband, mother, whatever. You are not bad for deciding to end a volatile relationship that has left you drained, eroded, and empty.

Maybe you could have done things differently or better or sooner, but you didn’t and couldn’t, and you did your best. You had good reasons to step away or even leave the relationship; accept that and don’t beat yourself up over it. Self-preservation will always make you a better person in a relationship, and indeed, it will make you a better person out of it as well.

There is a great deal of wisdom that can be learned from years of perseverance and working your way through challenging lessons. It was my choice to stay in a dysfunctional relationship, perhaps too long, in a place that clipped my wings.

I now know the true value of standing strong in who I am, and not basing my self-acceptance on the way others treat or view me.  That wisdom is profoundly liberating and once again I can be free, like a bird with newly feathered wings.

About Darice Cairns

Darice is a writer, educator, blogger, and explorer. Her passion is writing about how to be, live, and speak your truth. She holds degrees in science and education, including a graduate degree in transformational learning. Darice has extensive experience teaching in many different professional environments to a multicultural audience around the world. She is passionate about exploring topics that support people in living their most empowered life. Read her newest book, The Art of Finding Truth…

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