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safe relationships

Safe relationships

Relationships come in a wide variety of forms whether it be work, friendships, dating and so on, or more permanent relationships such as family or choice of life partner; whilst we may feel we have few choices within these relationships, self awareness and boundaries can help in the trickier situations.

In order to spot safe relationships, we need to be able to recognise traits in unsafe people and boundary up. However, the difficulty is that the signs of an unsafe person are not always immediately apparent...

Imagine the scenario…

A couple of years ago, your path crossed with Bobbie - you instantly “clicked” with each other. Bobbie was amusing, easy to talk to, seemed immensely wise - thoughts and feelings were shared that you might not expect on a first meeting. You agree to meet up for a drink the following week, and though you are cautious (not sure if this is too good to be true) Bobbie continues to trust you with confidential details, shares deeply with you. You have this sense you have known each other for a lifetime.

It feels really good to be so understood, and to be able to laugh together. You end up meeting regularly. You seem to have lots in common and it is a joy to bask in what feels like a really authentic, equal and balanced friendship.

Gradually, you open up about hurts and confusions, and feel better for sharing but lately you have left the friendship feeling a little bit lectured and a little bit small, a sense that you are being corrected, or somehow a bit “less than", or that the issue was rather trivial. The deep level connection seems less certain. You don’t seem to laugh about the same things so easily now and the suspicion of feeling judged hangs in the air. You wonder if you are imagining it.

Bobbie still contacts you whenever there is something big or upsetting going on for them, and says that you are their first port of call as you are so wise – you notice you immediately feel so much more connected and upbeat. But more recently, you have noticed that it is almost entirely you suggesting meet ups. And when you really think about it, the only time Bobbie makes contact is when they are having a tough time.

When you needed your friend the most, Bobbie was very sorry to hear things were difficult, hoping you’re ok, but things are crazy hectic and much as they would love to, they can’t meet up right now and phone calls are a bit tricky. You feel small, hurt and unseen... and actually a bit resentful because you had dropped everything for them in their time of need.

So what is going on?

I think many of us have experienced something similar, and it is not always obvious what is going on...we are just aware that things seem to have changed, and the equality and balance lost. We wonder if we are being judgemental, over-sensitive, or perhaps just lacking in trust? We doubt ourselves – are we reading too much into this? We question…is this relationship good for us? Is Bobbie really trustworthy?

The problem, so often, is that the only thing we know for sure is what is going on for us. We can’t change Bobbie, only our responses. If the relationship is leaving us feeling unworthy, small, insecure or resentful then something is definitely out of kilter. As in so many situations, the question to ask ourselves is…

What do I need?

What are my underlying beliefs about myself in this situation?

How am I feeling?

What are the pros and cons of this friendship?

Can I accept this friendship for what it is, or do I need to make some changes?

How can I bring calm back into the situation?

We need to learn to identify our needs and find ways to communicate that. It sounds simple, but often we are not sure what we need and just respond reflexively out of pain. It might be to express our thoughts (for example speaking with someone else, journalling, prayer). Communicating our needs doesn’t have to be a demand, we are just being authentic and humble. For some of us, our relationship needs have been buried so deep we can’t even identify them – connecting with a coach or counsellor can be immensely helpful in this process.

How might we identify unsafe people?

Dr John Townsend sets out 3 categories of unsafe people, traits of which may become more obvious over a period of time:

1. The abandoners

2. The critics

3. The irresponsibles

1. The Abandoners are often people who have experiences of their own abandonment and although they seem delighted with this new friendship and deeply committed, they bail out as soon as supposed cracks appear, or the friend seems a bit needy. They leave us when we need them the most because they have moved on to look for the “perfect” friend (who, of course, does not exist).

Impact: This can lead to the abandoned friend losing trust, feeling depressed, and potentially developing compulsive behaviours.

2. Critics behave in a (critical) parental way and can be judgemental, tactless, and quick to point the finger, perhaps unaware of their own shortcomings. Whilst they can be clear-thinking and informative, they are more concerned with being right than being connected, forgiving and compassionate.

Impact: This can lead to the recipient feeling guilt-ridden, compliant and unable to make mistakes without great anxiety.

3. The irresponsibles are like “grown-up children” who don’t take responsibility for themselves in some way; financially, functionally or perhaps emotionally. They can be good fun and caring but don’t take responsibility for the future and are unable to meet deadlines or be dependable. They can be incredibly warm, empathic and likeable but not trustworthy.

Impact: Recipients can feel they are always apologising for or making excuses for them, giving them endless chances. They seem to take the consequences for the irresponsible leaving them feeling resentful. Crucially – for every irresponsible there is an enabler (someone who is bailing them out all the time).

Spot them: how can we recognise safe people?

In cartoons, it is very easy to spot the baddies from the goodies but in reality, the least safe person might be the wittiest, most outgoing and friendly person on the surface. Bobbie certainly had a very warm and appealing personality which is why you were drawn to them in the first place.

Cloud and Townsend suggest that in seeking out trustworthy people this checklist could be helpful (p166). Do they demonstrate…

· Acceptance and grace

· Mutual struggles (not necessarily the same type)

· They have other support systems in place as well as you (to avoid toxic dependency)

· Mutual “chemistry” and interest in each other

· Absence of power dynamic – one up one down

· Honesty

· Absence of controlling

Manage them: What can we do?

Lynn Margolies (2019) suggests that setting boundaries is paramount:

“Boundary setting is challenging. Most people have difficulty and, without a strategy, resort to repeating the same tactic when unsuccessful, trying harder, or giving in. Another common obstacle is feeling it’s mean or selfish to set limits, but it’s actually hurtful not to. Boundaries protect relationships — allowing us to put our own oxygen mask on first, rather than be disingenuous, set ourselves up to become resentful, and then want to escape. With the tools to be successful, you can now take charge”.

If we have noticed that there is an imbalance, and our needs are not being met, then coaching might help you to put boundaries in place. We also need to acknowledge where our own behaviour may have enabled this scenario to play out and be willing to make changes.

What stops us from putting boundaries in place?

It may be that we agree with all of the above but something is still stopping us from putting in boundaries. It could be people-pleasing, fear of confrontation, fear of rejection, a need to be needed, constant worrying about what people think of us, a sense of shame or guilt about "bailing out" of a friendship, or something else entirely.

I appreciate that this is not a very easy read – it can be very painful allowing feelings to surface and making tough decisions. Ultimately, only we, as individuals, can decide if the troublesome relationship is one we should stick with (with the help of boundaries) or walk away from. The challenge is getting the balance right in terms of trusting people and remaining connected, and being vigilant in self-care if we notice that things are a bit "off" in certain relationships. Often, only the test of time will reveal the fuller picture, but all along, we need to check in with ourselves and be honest about how we are doing.

If any of this resonates with you, and you would like to talk anything through, please do get in touch.

Further reading:

“Safe People” – Cloud and Townsend (1995)

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