Can I just stop talking to people if they’ve been horrible to me?

Dear Bear,

In therapy I am learning some new things. One of them is that a lot of times I give people too many chances and let them treat me badly over and over without any consequences. When I ask for an apology I am not taken seriously. Or sometimes I get an apology that goes “tell me what I’m supposed to do” which doesn’t seem like an apology?

Anyway I am recently just thinking about not being friends with or not talking to certain people anymore. That includes some relatives. It seems much less stressful than trying to explain everything and keep forgiving anything they do. My therapist says I need to learn that I have value as a person and should not just accept whatever people do or say to me. I guess I never really complained so I’m not sure its their fault but there are some pretty bad patterns I guess. The same people being pretty mean or selfish a lot.

So I guess I need to know from you if I can just close the door on those people and not worry about it anymore. Or do I give them some chances to do better? Or what?

Dear Brave Correspondent,

This feels like a good conversation for a new year’s column: how to leave bad old patterns behind in the old year, and walk forward unencumbered and with some measure of grace. I agree with your therapist, Brave Correspondent: you do have value and people shouldn’t treat you poorly.

I am of the opinion that sorry, like love, is fine as a feeling that a person could have but ultimately not especially meaningful without the actions to back it up. You love me? Great: how? You’re sorry? Thanks: now what? It’s common that people report having these feelings – and believe me, I am 100% in favor of feelings – but when it’s time to demonstrate them, they fall short over and over. That, Brave Correspondent, is not an okay behavior.

You do not have to accept repeated bad behavior and allow people to smooth it over by saying that they have an emotion of sorry if there’s no changed behavior to go with it, or even an attempt to change behavior. I am wild about incremental progress; there’s no percentage in demanding overnight change or GTFO. Effort, sincere effort, counts. In these kinds of cases I am sometimes even swayed by intention – did you mean to do better but fell into an old pattern? I might accept it, especially the first few times.

I am guided by Jewish tradition about apology: saying sorry is the first step of a multi-step process. It’s a crucial step but it is not the end. After that comes doing your best to address the harm you caused and taking steps to be sure that you don’t cause the same harm in the future. It’s not rocket surgery, it’s just plain old hard work. So if your parents bully you or invalidate your identity and they won’t stop, it’s reasonable that after repeated instances of this you can just say, okay, no more of this. I am removing myself from your sphere of influence until or unless you can name the harm you cause and make specific changes to stop it. If a friend or lover repeatedly does things that are harmful to you, you can stop being friends or lovers with them.

Now: is this easy? No, it’s not. And the more Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs) you have withstood up to the age of university or so, the harder it can be to tell someone you don’t want any more of their bad behavior. That’s because when you’re raised by people who constantly bully you, abuse you, neglect you, or create a toxic environment around you with rage, belittling, and so on the harder it can be to recognize oh, hey, I don’t deserve this. Children tend to normalize their experiences; that is, they think how it is in their house is normal and that what they get is what there is.

Amusing examples of this are things like the fact that our nine-year-old just discovered this year that tomato sauce for pasta or pizza is a thing most people regularly buy at the store (my farmboy husband makes and cans ours every year). But toxic examples are, say when a child is constantly told they’re useless or stupid and so they not only grow up internalizing this idea but also accept it when other people tell them the same thing, later. In the book The Perks of Being A Wallflower, by Steven Chbosky, when the main character asks his English teacher why sometimes nice people date the wrong people, the teacher says something perfect. He says: “we accept the love we think we deserve.” If your relatives treated you like you were stupid or useless or only worth what you could do for them and otherwise of no consequence, then it makes sense that you’d have a lot of difficulty separating that expectation from your relationships (I imagine your therapist has mentioned this, Brave Correspondent, but the moment in which you find yourself is alarmingly universal).

Also, you mention that you never told them to stop. I mean, okay? For some things that might be relevant, but those things are largely going to be minor. You can go ahead and apply the “reasonable person” standard here or, as I like to think of it, the Stranger On A Bus Test. If a stranger you happened to be sitting next to on a long bus trip told you that their parent regularly exploded in rage and accusations at them, would you think “Golly, you should tell them not to do that,”? Or would you think that a reasonable person should know you don’t bully and belittle people when you don’t get your way. If a stranger on a bus told you that they had a friend or lover who regularly cancelled plans at the last minute and expected flexibility and kindness, but was pissy and punitive when plans needed to be adjusted by your new stranger-acquaintance… well, you get the idea. Sure, if you’re super-attached to things being a certain specific way or having a certain experience, it’s always great to tell people explicitly what you want. This is good relationship communication. Sometimes you may even have to tell them multiple times before they grasp how important it is to you that, for example, all the cupboard doors are closed and it stresses you out if they’re left open. Or maybe there’s one thing that feels important to you that a person just cannot get right with but otherwise they do a good job and are responsive to your needs. All of those things can probably be worked with. But you shouldn’t have to tell people with whom you have relationships to treat you kindly and respectfully, Brave Correspondent.

As to whether you can cut them off, I think you can. You don’t have to allow yourself to be treated poorly by anyone – not as a pattern that never changes. This sounds like you’ve been absorbing years and years of unpleasantness and you don’t have to anymore. You can, if you want to and if you have the emotional resources, give a last-exit-before-toll warning. You can say “It really upsets me when you [insert specific bad thing or things here]. If you can’t stop doing it, I am not going to be able to have you in my life anymore. I will look forward to changed behavior, but if it doesn’t happen then this relationship isn’t worth my energy.” Then wait and see. Some people might rise to the occasion when they see how much you mean it (I certainly hope so). Some people will probably huffily say “If that’s how you feel maybe we should just stop being friends,” which, okay, that’s fine. And of course, there will always be those few who apologize tearfully for having behaved badly and explain all the reasons why they did it and then they will go right back to doing the exact same thing.

(Those people are the hardest to cut off, for me. I am a sucker for sincerity and emotional displays and I want SO BADLY to believe the best of people. I will make one million excuses for someone’s bad behavior, especially if I have invested a lot in the relationship, especially especially if I care for them, because I want very, very much for it not to be like that but…sometimes, it’s like that. I have no advice for you about those people; I am just terrible at this and the reckoning at the end where you have to face the fact that you’ve been excusing someone’s behavior for so long and they really actually just don’t give a shit about you is brutal and heartbreaking and I am so, so sorry.)

This is probably also a good time for me to mention my ongoing advice about making relationship choices as an adult, which applies to friends, lovers, choosing jobs, &c: everyone and every situation has some virtues that you could get excited about. In my opinion, however, the secret to long-lasting success is to choose faults that you can live with. I recognize that this sounds like extremely pessimistic advice, but the truth is that of everyone who wants to be your friend, lover, boss, whatever? They ALL have good qualities a person could get excited about. Some of them are immediately obvious and some of them might take a minute to appreciate and develop but they all have them. They also all have faults, and some of those faults will make you feel angry, or exasperated, or exhausted – and that is okay. What’s not going to work, long-term, is when their faults (or mis-matches, if you prefer) make you feel belittled or invalidated. Your job in choosing people going forward, Brave Correspondent, is to pick people who give you as much of the good stuff as possible and the right kind of bad stuff for you. Because everyone, every situation, every relationship has downsides. You will fight. You will think about running away from home to join the circus. That’s fine. But when the high, hot, OMG-you’re-my-favorite phase starts to wear off and the regularly-scheduled life makes it all a little more of a daily-wear situation, you need people who might make you want to tear your hair out (or even theirs) sometimes but it’s real hard to make a go of it with someone who makes you want to lie down in traffic sometimes.

I want good things for you in this, Brave Correspondent – in everything, really. And closing the door on people who treat you badly and cannot change their ways would be a good thing, especially because it will free up time and energy for you to choose better people with better faults (or better faults for you) and be friends or lovers with them instead. I like this therapist you have who wants you to remember that you have value, and I hope you can stick with therapy. But mostly, I hope that there comes a day when your practice at reminding yourself that you have value, trying to have some boundaries about what you will accept, holding people accountable for how they treat you becomes second nature. I hope you come to understand that you deserve uplifting, emboldening, truthful, generous love – and that someday you find yourself surrounded by it.

love and courage,

Bear

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