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Day 12: Starting Over When Relationships are Unhealthy

31 Days of Starting OverA friend and I were having a conversation about relationships recently and were trying to determine if and when it is ok to sever and move on. In the movie, Steel Magnolias, Shelby (Julia Roberts) says to her mother (Sally Field), “I’d rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.”  Her mother is unhappy to discover her diabetic daughter is pregnant. The pregnancy is not good for her body and like all good mothers, M’Lynn only wants what is best for her daughter.

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I couldn’t agree more.  Although, in this case a child is born and if the story had continued, we’d likely see a lifetime of wonderful for this grandmother.

Unhealthy Relationships

But, how do you achieve that “30 minutes of wonderful” if some of your relationships are unhealthy? How can you tell that the relationships are unhealthy? I am a researcher by nature, so I’ve read up on the subject. This of course, is not a complete list and I am not a therapist, but I think this is a good place to start.  Mayo Clinic gives the following list of questions to determine if you are dealing with borderline personality disorder.  The last 5 deal with narcissistic personality disorder from other sources.

  • Does spending time with this person(s) create in you an insecure sense of who you are?
  • Does their self-image, self-identity or sense of self often rapidly change in your presence?
  • Do they seem to change jobs, friendships, goals and values frequently?
  • Are their relationships usually in turmoil? Do they seem to idealize someone one moment and then abruptly and dramatically shift to fury and hate over perceived slights or even minor misunderstandings?
  • Do they have difficulty accepting gray areas — things seem to be either black or white, good or bad?
  • Do they seem to be only self-focused?
  • Is it difficult for them to empathize?
  • Do they use other people without regard to the cost of doing so?
  • Do they admire and flatter people who seem to affirm them, while hating and detesting those who do not?
  • Do they pretend to be more important than they are?
  • Do they claim to be an “expert” at many things?
  • Do they seem incapable of remorse or gratitude?

In Sandy Hotchkiss’ book, “Why is it Always About You?”, she lists the “seven deadly sins of narcissism”:

Shamelessness: Shame is the feeling that lurks beneath all unhealthy narcissism, and the inability to process shame in healthy ways.

Magical thinking: Narcissists see themselves as perfect, using distortion and illusion known as magical thinking. They also use projection to dump shame onto others.

Arrogance: A narcissist who is feeling deflated may re-inflate by diminishing, debasing, or degrading somebody else.

Envy: A narcissist may secure a sense of superiority in the face of another person’s ability by using contempt to minimize the other person.

Entitlement: Narcissists hold unreasonable expectations of particularly favorable treatment and automatic compliance because they consider themselves special. Failure to comply is considered an attack on their superiority, and the perpetrator is considered an “awkward” or “difficult” person. Defiance of their will is a narcissistic injury that can trigger narcissistic rage.

Exploitation: Can take many forms but always involves the exploitation of others without regard for their feelings or interests. Often the other is in a subservient position where resistance would be difficult or even impossible. Sometimes the subservience is not so much real as assumed.

Bad boundaries: Narcissists do not recognize that they have boundaries and that others are separate and are not extensions of themselves. Others either exist to meet their needs or may as well not exist at all. Those who provide narcissistic supply to the narcissist are treated as if they are part of the narcissist and are expected to live up to those expectations. In the mind of a narcissist there is no boundary between self and other.

My personal thoughts on this subject are that life is SO short and like Shelby in Steel Magnolia’s, I don’t want to look back over my life at 70 or 80 and realize I’ve had a whole lot of “nothing special”, due to unhealthy relationships.

I spoke with my pastor about this years ago and his advice to me was, “Distance yourself, but don’t disconnect.”  There are going to be people in our lives that we can’t completely disconnect from – nor should we want to – unless they are abusive.  For instance, if a woman decides to divorce the father of her children due to his narcissistic and abusive behaviors, she is distant, but not disconnected because of the children. Or say, worse case, your step-mother was abusive to you as a child.  Is it ok to completely disconnect in this case?  Can you decide not to attend family functions where she is present?  In this writer’s humble opinion, ABSOLUTELY!

Where the lightbulb comes on in my dull mind, is that I have no power to change this person, I am not responsible for their actions, I am NOT the cause of their behavior, and I have no real obligation to remain in an abusive relationship.  There may be imagined or contrived reasons to stay involved, but in reality, boundaries are a very good thing.  And it doesn’t make us narcissistic to set those boundaries!

This is a topic that could go on and on forever, but in reality we don’t have forever on this planet. To borrow from James 4:

14 Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.

Time has done just that in my 53 1/2 years on this planet – vanished away. But thankfully, I’ve had many, many “30 minutes of wonderful” and hope to have many more – without allowing difficult people to make my lifetime “nothing special”.

Continue reading this 31 day writing challenge with Day 13: Starting over after a funeral.

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