When I was still in High School, I trained to be a lifeguard. The final exam included a simulated rescue. The instructor would dive in the water and I was to get him to safety. Sounds easy, right? Well, this guy won the title of “Mr. Alaska” in a Body Building Competition. He was about 250 pounds of solid muscle. He sank like a lead weight.
It’s dangerous to get too close to someone who is drowning. He will panic and wrap himself around you until you’re both struggling and gasping for oxygen. I dove in and sure enough, the instructor grabbed me and we both sank way below the surface. I figured if I drown I probably wasn’t going to pass the exam and I’d miss out on a lot of great summer jobs.
I did the only thing I could think to do. I dug my fingernails into his massive chest in an effort to hurt him and get him off of me. It worked! He pulled away and I had just enough time to grab his arm, flip him, and get him into a cross-body hold. I was gasping for air when I reached the other end of the pool, but I lived to tell the story!
Putting Ourselves In Harm’s Way
Unhealthy relationships can be like that. Sometimes in an effort to be supportive and helpful, we find ourselves drowning in unrealistic and endless demands. We can’t bear the thought of hurting this person or letting him down, so we try and try to make adjustments to salvage the relationship. We go to extraordinary lengths to keep this person happy. We sacrifice our peace and happiness for theirs.
In an effort to be patient and helpful, we may be putting ourselves in harm’s way. Like the rescue of a drowning person, we are at risk when we get too close and tangled up in an unhealthy person’s problems and issues. These relationships can turn us into a physical and emotional mess!
I have watched perfectly intelligent people begin to feel helpless and question their sanity after time in a relationship with someone- parent, partner, child, church member, co-worker, neighbor- who is unhealthy.
I am not encouraging people to bail on otherwise healthy relationships that hit a temporary rough patch. No relationship is perfect. Conflict and hard times are part of even the healthiest relationships.
The toxic behavior I am talking about includes a pattern of unrealistic demands, grandiose behavior, deception, passive aggressive treatment, abuse, criticism, lack of empathy, unpredictable blow-ups, manipulation, extreme mood swings, recurrent substance abuse, and often a lot of drama. In other words, crazy-making behavior that leaves you feeling drained and out of control.
Toll Of Interpersonal Stress
Interpersonal stress had the potential to do an incredible damage to our psychological and physical health. There is a close connection between the mind and body. Stress is inevitable, but negative stress, the kind that comes from feeling out of control, is bad for our health. It can lead to increased levels of cortisol-a stress hormone, suppression of the immune system, decreasing the body’s ability to fight disease, increased blood pressure, palpitations, cardiac stress, depression and anxiety among many other things.
The Whitehall II study, which followed 10,000 men and women between the ages of 35-55 years over 12 years, showed that the participants who were in close negative relationships were more likely to have heart problems, even fatal ones, when compared to people who weren’t in unhealthy relationships.
Taking Time to Reflect
- If this is a relationship I am in by choice, what keeps me here?
- Am I confusing being needed with being loved?
- Do I have sensible friends or family who can help me see if I am viewing the situation realistically?
- What have I done to try and work through the conflict and create a healthy relationship?
- Have I expressed my concerns to this person in a clear and respectful way?
- Has he/she made a sincere effort to change?
- Have I really listened to the concerns of this person? Are any of them valid?
- Have I gone to counseling or read books in an effort to understand how to handle this relationship?
- What is this relationship costing me?
- Have I prayed about the situation? What do I believe God is asking me to do?
Sadly, not every relationship can be saved. Letting go may feel like a death. We must mourn our loss and learn from our experience. If we move on too quickly, without allowing time to grieve or reflect on what happened and why, we are at risk for repeating our mistakes. Ever heard the expression: same person, different face?
It might be helpful to talk to a professional to identify the relationship patterns you fall into, find the parts of yourself lost in an effort to keep the peace, and make some healthy adjustments.
If we rescue someone and drown ourselves, have we made a healthy choice?
I am a Licensed Professional Counselor and a registered nurse with several years experience helping people with healthy, successful living. Suzanne Jones, BSN, LPC, NCC firstname.lastname@example.org