I think this topic is so needed because I hear from people all the time, clients or not, “How do I handle or deal with the people in my life that are so difficult? How do I love someone who is hard to love?”
They may be in a relationship with someone who is just living their life with an unmanaged brain – as in, they have no idea that they are creating their own misery in their life due to their thinking and belief system and run-away emotions. Or they may be someone who has a mental health issue – they’re narcissistic, or bi-polar, have clinical depression, or a host of other factors that directly impact the relationship. And in either case, for whatever reason, you’ve decided you’re not getting out of this relationship – maybe it’s with a spouse or a parent or a child – and you’ve decided that cutting this person completely out of your life is not what you choose to do. So how do you, as a Christian, live in a relationship with this person and not lose yourself or lose your mind?
I want to talk about a few terms we need to be aware of to make sure we are acting in a healthy manner first. Because if you’re not healthy yourself, if you’re not managing your own mind, it’s going to create a scenario of misery for everyone. And let me say, up front, it is totally possible to be in relationship with someone who has mental health issues and still live in joy and peace and hope. It’s happening with some of my clients right now and they’re thriving.
First, I want to establish that regardless of the type of relationship you are in, each individual has ‘Agency’. ‘Agency’ is defined as the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. It’s where you decide who you are and who you are not. It is your ability to separate your own thoughts and feelings from those of others, and to take responsibility for what you think, feel, and do. It refers to the thoughts and actions taken by people that express their individual power - their independence. So, ‘Agency’ is taking responsibility for your life through self-regulatory skills. I did a whole episode on ‘Agency’ and I suggest you check it out because I talk about some indicators that will let you know if you’re giving away your ‘Agency.” It’s episode number 117 in the Abundant Life Saboteur series – Giving Away Agency. See, we all have our own ‘Agency’, but it’s possible to give your agency or power away every day to people or circumstances or emotions.
But ‘Agency’ means that you have the capacity to make decisions for your life that are alone your responsibility, no one else. No one gets to tell you what to do, except for your Heavenly Father. You alone are responsible for how you feel. You get to decide how you want to feel. Regardless of anyone else around you.
So, it’s important to create an understanding of ‘Agency’ as we talk about these next few terms.
The first one is co-dependency. I’m sure you’re aware of this definition but, humor me as I explain it. Co-dependency is an excessive – and I want to emphasize that word – excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner, typically one who requires support on account of an illness or addiction. It’s a theory that attempts to explain imbalanced relationships where one person enables another person's self-destructive behavior such as addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement.
So, I’ve literally had people say, “In marriage, aren’t we all co-dependent, regardless of whether or not there are mental health issues involved?” The answer is “no, not every marriage.” The definition is that the dependency is excessive, remember, excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner. It’s not a healthy partnership, relying on one another in the context of two individuals coming together as one flesh – as the Bible describes – in a covenant relationship before God where the woman loves and respects her husband, and the husband cherishes and treats his wife like Christ treats the Church. No, it’s the opposite. Co-dependency is present when individuals rely on others for their self-worth and feel that their emotional reactions are not separate from others' emotional responses. It is the absence of individual ‘Agency.’ In fact, it leads to an enmeshed relationship, the next term we need to understand. Enmeshment is actually the description of behaviors that occur from co-dependency.
Someone in an enmeshed relationship is emotionally and psychologically intertwined with another person, or could be a group of people like family members, in a way that blurs or erodes one's own individuality, ‘Agency,’ and their boundaries. The person is so overly connected with another that they lose touch with their own needs, goals, desires, and feelings. Often, just the thought of being without that person can be anxiety-producing.
This is often seen in parent/child relationship where the parent is over-involved in the child’s life. Over-involved parents may develop an unhealthy attachment to their children. They may lack the ability to recognize their children's need for independence and individuality – their ‘Agency’ - leading them to become overprotective, controlling, and intrusive.
You can identify enmeshment in a parent’s relationship with an adult child when the parent feels responsible for the adult child’s decisions and life choices and feels like they need to fix things or rescue that adult child.
It can also occur where the roles of the family members are not clearly defined. For example, where a child is forced to take on the role of a parent to their siblings or even to their own parent(s). This may create a situation where the child is enmeshed with their parents, feeling responsible for their well-being and becoming overly attached to them.
Enmeshed individuals may struggle to develop their own beliefs, values, and interests. They may be so focused on pleasing the other person or group of people that they lose sight of what they truly want or believe. They, also, may have difficulty making decisions for themselves, relying instead on the opinions and preferences of the enmeshed partner. Or, they may feel as though they can’t express negative emotions or disagreement, fearing that if they do they will upset or disappoint the enmeshed partner. Over time, this loss of individuality, this loss of ‘Agency’ and identity, can lead to feelings of emptiness and lack of personal value and worth. If they’re aware of the unhealthy relationship, they may feel trapped or suffocated by the enmeshed partner or group, leading to feelings of resentment and anger.
If you go back and listen to episode 117 – Giving Away Agency, you will find a comparable list.
Now, let’s go back to that definition of co-dependent. It’s typically a relationship with someone who requires support because of an illness or addiction. An imbalaced relationship where one person enables another person's self-destructive behavior such as addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement. In other words, not holding the other person accountable or giving over responsibility for their own ‘Agency.’ Notice though, this is an imbalance. One person dominates the relationship, the other acquiesces. This is not a healthy, supporting spouse, friend, or parent. There is a significant difference.
So, today we’re talking about how to, as a Christian, be in these unhealthy relationships. First, if you recognize you’ve been enmeshed in a co-dependent relationship, it will require a willingness to reclaim your ‘Agency’, establish healthy boundaries, and find someone to help in the process if necessary. Sometimes you’re living this way and you don’t even recognize it. Hopefully, if that’s you, these things I’ve talked about so far will help you have an ah-ha moment. So, the first step in overcoming enmeshment is to recognize that it is a problem.
Now, even if you’re not enmeshed with another individual or individuals, but you are in a relationship with someone who has an addiction, or mental health issues, or illness, or doesn’t know how to manage their mind and emotions, then you are being affected by their choices and actions and behaviors. And this can make your life miserable. If you choose to let it.
First, as we understand ‘Agency’ we know that each individual person gets to choose how they act, believe, speak, think, where they go, what they do. They have this ‘Agency’ just as you do. And honestly, this can be super frustrating because we believe life and relationships would be so much better and so much more fulfilling if they just behaved a certain way. Our way. Right? But you also have to factor in the truth that you can’t change someone. And, honestly, you’re better off not trying to. Talk about a defeated effort before you even start. You can only change yourself. So that’s where we’re going to start. Changing you and the way you think about your relationships.
A friend recently called to ask my opinion on a relationship with her sister. Now, you must know that my friend is also a life coach. Yes, life coaches also need life coaching. We have human brains, too, you know. Anyway, she called to explore what options she had and how she could show up authentically in her difficult relationship with her sister. In my eyes, there were at least three. She could cut ties with her altogether. Let me stop here and say, I don’t believe God calls us to be in toxic relationships. We have the right to choose for our own mental health who we expose our hearts and minds to. But that also doesn’t mean a cutting of ties has to be done without love. Love should always be the driving force. So, she could cut ties; she could set hard boundaries, or she could respond with sacrificial love and decide to do the unreasonable thing her sister was requiring of their relationship. Or, with sacrificial love, find a way to appease the request by making concessions. She said, “Isn’t there a fourth way? Can’t I make her see that she’s being unreasonable and selfish, and that she needs to let go of any expectations of me?” You probably know the answer to that. And actually, she knew the answer to that, too. The answer is no. No, you can’t. You can’t change the mind of anyone who 1) doesn’t think they need to change their mind, and 2) doesn’t ask for help in changing their mind.
A few weeks ago, I had the back door open to my house. It was a beautiful spring day and the dogs were running in and out while I worked in my office. In fact, I was in the middle of a client session when I heard what sounded like grown men wrestling in my house. It was, in fact, my two dachshunds chasing down a bird that had flown into the house. I locked up my dogs and left the door open hoping that frightened little bird would find its way out while I was finished with that client. Unfortunately, it didn’t. I think it was traumatized by my dogs. Anyway, I did everything I could to encourage that little bird back outside. I opened up my two front doors, wide, grabbed a broom and tried to coax it out, waving the broom and my free arm. It was a sight, I’m sure. I finally got it to the entry way, but it kept fluttering around at the ceiling. It wouldn’t go out the front doors, even though it was, at several times, just inches from freedom.
This is the same as people with unmanaged minds. You can’t make them change, you can’t make them manage their minds, you can’t make them live in emotional adulthood, you can’t make them fly out the two wide-open doors to freedom.
But you are the one with the broom and you know what to do. You use all the tools you have to navigate the relationship. You decided for yourself, with your ‘Agency’, how you want to show up in that relationship and what kind of outcomes or results you want. You get to choose for yourself and take responsibility for yourself. For your own actions, and words, and responses, and for what you believe.
And when the relationship is one you’ve chosen not to walk away from, and you’re with someone who is hard to love, it is so important to maintain your ‘Agency’ as to not lose yourself. The tools you will use are setting healthy boundaries (check out episodes 37, 38, and 39), managing and processing your emotions, learning to identify the lie-based stories your mind creates because of your circumstances, and learning to not take the actions, words, or behaviors of the other personally. You can learn to feel in a neutral place emotionally when conflict is high. You can learn to respond in a way that’s pleasing to your Heavenly Father and honoring to your ‘Agency.’ You can learn to keep your power; or even get your power back from that person or situation or even emotion you’ve given it over to. And you can learn to invite the Holy Spirit in and trust God in it all. You can trust His promises that with His help you can stand firm against the lies that are designed to kill, steal, and destroy you. That’s what lies do. They tear us up from the inside: mind, will, and emotions. The soul. But you can take your ‘Agency,’ your power back, from these lies, too.
Friend, with God, there is always hope for something new: a calmer atmosphere, a peaceful and kind exchange of words, and ultimately, prayerfully, healing for the individual. You can do all this and stay in a relationship with someone who, seemingly, is making your life miserable. But it doesn’t have to be miserable. It can actually still be good. It’s possible to live in peace, even in relationships with unhealthy people.
I know this subject is something a lot of people can identify with and are currently experiencing. We all have occasions to be in relationship with someone who is unhealthy to one degree or another. If this is you, I’d love to be your Life Coach and help you gain more tools to navigate your relationship in a way that allows you to thrive in your life. Let’s chat and see if we’re a good fit to work together. There’s a link in the show notes to book a free 30-minute call at your convenience.
If you know someone who would benefit from this episode, would you consider forwarding it to them, as well?
Also, don’t forget that I have created a work-alone guide that goes with this episode to help you work through relationships that are unhealthy. You can get that at triciazody.com/guide. Or, the link is in the show notes.
Last thing, I’m hosting a Live Q&A on April 27th at 1p Central for anyone who wants to discuss this or any episode topic I’ve recorded. You can bring a guide you’ve worked on or just your questions and comments. I’ll even coach you for free if you want it. Register to get the Zoom link at triciazody.com/live. Again, that link will be in the show notes.
Have a wonderful week, friends. See you next Wednesday for the next episode of Another Beautiful Life.