Sometimes we may have a relationship that we want to keep but that feels out of control and unsafe. For instance, we may have a relative like a parent or sibling who consistently runs over our boundaries no matter how clear we are about what our expectations are. Every time we see them, we let them know our boundary and then they run right over it, anyway, causing disappointment and hurt. We can learn assertiveness and communication skills, and yet nothing we do seems to stop them from what they do: disrespect, manipulate, shame, or take advantage of us.
Frequently, when my clients are in this situation, they might express the following sentiment: “If this were a friend, I would have dropped them long ago! But I just can’t do that to my Dad [or my brother, or my cousin, or my grandmother]!” One person’s ideal of their relationship with their mother might be of closeness and mutual consideration. And they might do all kinds of work on themselves to make that possible. But what if their mother isn’t willing to change, too? What if no manner of messaging and communication is received and respected? At this thought, my client might despair, because in their mind, this means that they only these two choices: stay in the current hurtful and dissatisfying situation for forever or cut off their relationship entirely. This is when I remind them that there might be another way.
When most people think about improving a relationship, they often think about drawing closer. However, sometimes, closer means less safe. One should only move closer with people who respect and understand your boundaries. If you have someone in your life who chooses not to do this, then a safer and more compassionate option is to create a healthy distance.
But what does a “healthy distance” look like? It means taking as many steps back as you need to so that you can keep control of your boundaries. This can manifest in different ways depending upon the relationship. Maybe you stop staying with your relatives when you visit for the holidays and start staying at a hotel. This way, you can control the amount of time that you spend together and limit the amount that you “owe.” Maybe you drive yourself to the party. This way, you control when you arrive and when you leave. Maybe you set a time limit on the phone call and let them know what that will be up front. Maybe you don’t vacation with them any more. Maybe you let them know that you won’t be the go-between any more.
Of course, your relatives might object to this distancing. They may even say that it’s hurtful! And this can induce a feeling of guilt. But think about your reasons for needing the boundary- you have compassion for yourself that your relative doesn’t feel for you at this time. And you also have compassion for them- by keeping them at a distance, you make it easier for you to bring your best self to any situation they share with you. Your relative may not be able to understand this, and they don’t have to. So long as you are clear with what you need and how to enact it, you can be confident in your decision and see how the relationship improves.
Finding the right distance might take a little experimentation for you to get it right. Give it a try and see how it feels for you. Do you feel calmer, more confident, more relaxed, safer? Then you know it’s working.