Great Expectations: Managing Relationships with People Who Hurt You

When people you love disappoint you.

You can find the podcast version of this blog, here.

If you're stuck in a loop of bad behavior and find yourself set up again and again, maybe even to the point that a confrontation has come about, this is a blog for you.  Whether it's a friend, family member, or significant other, a solution is about setting yourself to zero. Not in a bad way, in a realistic and self-loving, healthy way.

When someone you love constantly disappoints you, what is really hurting you is your expectation not being met.  If you want to keep this relationship, you’ve got to be able to accept both outcomes, and be okay with that.  I know that’s easier said than done so I will cover the what, why and how in these types of relationships in hopes that you will better find a solution if you happen to be in a relationship like this. 

First, I am going to cover what kinds of behaviors you might be encountering.  Second, the various “why’s” behind their behavior.  Why they make false promises, why they “can't change” and why they don't seem to care about you.  Third, how you can change the way this situation is affecting you. 

Part 1: What are these relationships like and what is the pattern?

Picture the one person who disappoints you again and again. What is their mode of operation when it comes to bad behaviors?  I’m guessing it's likely they’re one of the following:

- selfish or self-centered

- childish

- lazy

- dishonest

- manipulative

- depressed

- erratic and unpredictable, insane - a loose canon

- angry or full of hate

- uncaring and blind to you (this one can be especially excruciating)

Journal Exercise

Write in your journal about this person: what is the last experience you had in which they were able to hurt you? Why do you think you didn’t see it coming?

As you read on, know that this article is not to excusing their behavior; it’s about understanding and accepting the reality of who they are so you don't get hurt by them again.  Once you understand why they are the way they are, you are able to decide what kind of relationship you want and have one that accounts for their flaws.

This is written to hopefully give you a reflective process.  The goal is for you to be free from the scars they will continue to cause in the future so you don't have to hold onto any painful grudges.  The goal is also for you to be able to have something of value from this relationship, regardless of the fact that you cannot change them. Even having something as simple as peace of mind is a worthwhile pursuit because often with confusing behavior comes confusing emotions.  When you’re suffering in a painful relationship, often you are torn in two directions around cutting it off and if you do finally end the relationship you feel confused and guilty. With understanding you can also process the pain of the loss you have endured and by mourning you’ll be able to make empowered decisions moving forward.

The majority of relationships like this involve another person who does not fulfill what we need them to.  When we allow them to hurt us again and again, it’s often because we had a good reason to invest in this time “being different.”  Usually we completely understand where they’re coming from and therefore feel enough compassion to give them another chance to save our hearts.  Other times we anticipate the disappointing behavior but despite our best efforts, we can’t help but have hope that they will come through just this once.  It’s an especially difficult spot to be in because when someone is close enough to hurt us, it’s because we love and care them and the stakes are much higher.  You can’t simply ditch this person or turn your heart cold: you are ambivalent.  This relationship has value in your life, and if only it didn’t hurt so much, you could keep it.  You could keep reaching for the one sentence you need them to say.  Or the one night they finally get it.  You try everything in your power to help them get there because you want it that badly.  When they promise you something you want to believe them so badly that you do, again and again – holding that desperate hope that this time – they’ll see me.  They’ll see me in pain.  And that is the crux of the issue. 

We know this other person can change, and because of that we think they will – that this time will be different because we helped them so much or yelled loud enough or made them promise it ten times harder than before.   The toughest part of your process comes outside of this person.  It comes in your own mind.  You must accept that the old room they stay stuck inside is not about you.  You cannot enter it, and you will never be seen from inside of it.  That person must leave the room, or at the very least open a window, in order to be capable of giving you what you need.  You cannot force them to leave that room, but you can be loving and honest with them about why you cannot tolerate the behavior.  They must decide to do the work, themselves.          

Because these behaviors are engrained from a long, long time ago, it can be hard for them to see what they are doing – even when you feel it is painfully obvious.  That is why you have to make your decisions based on yourself and what’s best for you.  You cannot make your happiness conditional to this other person waking up and changing.  To be a healthy, happy, functioning human being you have to be able to rely on yourself to take care of your best interests.  Which is why it’s extremely important that you do not tolerate and endure any negative, abusive behaviors.  No matter how much it hurts to not get what you want from this other person, eventually you will heal and you will grow as a result of this.  Eventually you will also gain a peaceful acceptance of who they are. (I like the word acceptance more than forgiveness because it doesn't involve denying the evil of cruelty you might have endured at this person’s hand.)  The real reason to have peaceful acceptance of this situation, and not hate, is immunity from the pain they caused, for the remainder of your life.  You are the one who hurts when you don't let go of pain, and not them.

I assume this person’s behavior sucks and you have a very good reason to feel the way you do.  It’s not about forcing yourself to forgive them and say it’s okay, or keep them around because you’re supposed to; it’s just about letting go of the pain. It’s about honoring the wounds, soothing them until they heal, then deciding from an empowered and rational place what you want for the future – if anything at all.

There are a variety of personality types you might fall victim to in a one-sided relationship.  Let’s imagine this person missed your birthday party and you brought it up.  These are a few examples of how that person might respond.

Selfish / Self-centered

You:It was my birthday yesterday. Why didn’t you come?”

“Look, I can’t deal with this right now— work is insane and I tons to do before tomorrow.”

What it feels like: Your needs are nothing in comparison to theirs.

Childish / Always the victim

You:It was my birthday yesterday. Why didn’t you come?”

“How do you think that makes meeee feel!? I’m under a lot of stress! My life is hard, and you just make me feel like an idiot!"

Lazy / Avoidant / Non-committal

You:Can you come to my birthday party this year?”

 “I might try to make it. Not sure.”

Dishonest

You:It was my birthday yesterday. Why didn’t you come?”

 “I tried calling – but my phone wasn’t working, so I didn’t know the address, or what time.  

Manipulative

You:It was my birthday yesterday. Why didn’t you come?”

“I told you I was maybe going make it. You always do this – make me the bad guy.  It’s always just all about you – how perfect you are and how imperfect everyone else is. I can’t win.”

Depressed

You:It was my birthday yesterday. Why didn’t you come?”

“Not really my thing.”

Erratic and unpredictable, a loose canon

You:It was my birthday yesterday. Why didn’t you come?”

 “Do you need something? Money or something?”

Uncaring and blind to you

You:Missed you at my birthday party yesterday. Just wondering if everything’s okay?”

 “Yeah, everything’s okay, I guess… Do you think I look old? I have been feeling old lately..”

You: “Huh?”

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?  Even if they’re not exact, note if any of the roles feel relatable.  Write in your journal about this person. What was the last situation involving this person that hurt you?  Were there any instances before it that were similar?  What do you think was the reason you didn't see it coming?

If your answer revolves around what that person felt or thought and not what you felt, that is something I want you to examine.

Part 2: The Why

Often the reason others are able to hurt us is because we hand over power to them to do so.  What it takes for you to be “safe” in this relationship is a shift in your awareness.  I am hoping to give you some additional awareness behind these people’s motivation so that you can better see what’s going on.  However – analyzing motives is likely responsible for getting you into this mess in the first place, so as a general rule it’s best to stay out of other people’s heads. Assume you're wrong about what they are thinking and only react to objective information.

1. Why people make false promises

This is usually people who have a sense of low self worth. So deep down knowing they won't follow through but not wanting to lose you or not wanting to confront that and keeping you by telling you what you want to hear. It's a way to avoid confrontation. They might also believe their own lies or want to believe them so badly that they play house along with you.

2. Why people refuse to change

In order to want to change, they have to want to look at themselves honestly and that can be much too terrifying a prospect for those with buried pain. Whatever they have buried deep down is creating an intense fear and denial.  Living their identity is the safest way to avoid looking at the pain and it’s what they’ve grown comfortable with, despite how unhappy and uncomfortable their existence happens to be. If they change it has to be something they want to do – unfortunately, you can not want it enough for the both of you.

3. Why people you love don't seem to care about your suffering

They are stuck in their own world that is confined to their loop of issues, to the point that they cannot look outside of themselves and their own needs.  The best way I can describe it is as an old room that was frozen in time at a pivotal, defining moment in their life; one that caused them to stay stuck there because they didn't get what they needed to advance.  This is excruciating, I know, and it doesn’t mean you should explain it away.  But it’s not about you. Wherever you are, they cannot see you and fully invest because a part of them remains stuck in this old room. That's their reality, and you and your needs are obscured. In other words, they are incapable until they decide to look at their issues.  You cannot rationalize with that fact or wish them or beg them to be different.  You cannot force them to change.  You can, however, own your truth and protect yourself by detaching with love – which is often what inspires a person like this to do the work.  You have something much more powerful than control over them and their actions: control over yourself.  Which brings me to…

Part 3: The How

Here are a few ways to create change in your life so you don't end up getting hurt again and again in the same exact ways. 

Mental Exercise: Good with 50/50

This is a mental exercise to do before you know you’re going to encounter this individual, especially if you feel unsure of your ability to self-protect.  Whoever you journaled about, the next time you are considering interacting with them, picture the negative outcome as just as likely as the positive one. Decide that you will be okay with that outcome ahead of time. Know that it's very likely going to occur and accept it, ahead of time.  Make sure you’re not allowing yourself to hope and prefer one outcome over the other one – be happy with the negative outcome as well, and expect it.  Play out what the negative version of the scenario will look like in your mind.  Visualize your conversation, what you will think and do, and that you will feel okay and positive afterward.

If you are able to do this and feel okay, proceed with making plans with this person.  Decide to honor their words and promises with kindness, but privately assume that you have a 50/50 chance of the negative behavior, regardless of how much they promise or any new factors they throw into the mix.  Those are just their words and not your objective observations and therefore they are irrelevant to this situation.  

If you cannot commit to feeling happy regardless of the outcome then you are probably not ready to be around this person. I recommend you detach with love so that you can self-protect.  You will have to do more prep work in order to be around this person in an emotionally safe way.  Literally, you will have to build up enough distance and security before you’ll be able to face them, unharmed.

What about the Major Milestones?

If this person affected you negatively in the past and you are unsure whether or not to involve them in a major milestone in your life – one you can’t do over again, then I suggest taking a long inventory of your feelings for and against inviting this person.  Commit to honoring all of your emotions in conflicting directions and start to build that list in your journal.

Journal Exercise: Old & Grey

When it comes to major milestones like a wedding, you should decide what to do based on what the future you would want and what the current you can tolerate safely.  This is a tool to help you choose based on what you want, holistically in your lifetime.

Step 1: Think about it in the scheme of your life and who you will one day be, when all this pain and hurt is gone.  Create a journal entry and call it “Old and Grey.” What do you want for the sum of your life experience? If you don't invite this person, is this potentially something you would regret missing out on? Even though you are hurt or distanced now, you can work on finding a safe way to include them: not for them, but for you.  You deserve to have this experience if it’s important to you, years from now.

Step 2: On the opposite page, write “Today.”  Write down a list of pros and cons of inviting this person, factoring in the worst-case scenarios and ideal scenarios in their simplest form. Highlight the items that are most important to you on both pages.

Step 3: Calculate the sum.  Now weigh the feelings of “Present Day” next to “Old and Grey.”  Are the worst-case scenarios you might endure, tolerable?  If so, are they worth it? Where is your heart leaning?  If you’re still not sure, don’t worry.  Just allow yourself to emotionally sift for a while.  It can take some time to tap into how we feel when it comes to something so big and powerful.

If you are leaning toward inviting them, know that you can always change your mind if you end up feeling you’re not ready and just begin preparing for that event, starting now.  Write a concise statement to yourself as to why. Know that you have spent a good amount of energy and thought in figuring out why you want this, and that it is valid.

Know that this is only FOR YOU. It's not about them. It's about you getting the best life experience possible.  Now work on accepting all scenarios and decide now that you will be happy no matter what. Almost anticipate the worst-case scenario. Decide now that you'll be happy no matter what and think about how you’re going to take care of yourself if that scenario takes place, for example make plans ahead of time with friends who can support you. 

Never decide your actions based on this other person’s words or promises, and definitely don’t decide them based on their feelings because you have no idea what those really are.  Which brings me to the next tool…

 

Mantra: Assume you're wrong.

This tool is a mantra that you can write down in a place that’s easy to refer back to when you need it most, for example on your phone or written on a piece of paper in your wallet.  It’s to help keep you safe inside your own self-protective body and not abandoning your thoughts to read into theirs. 

Here’s the gist of it: no matter how much you think you know what's in this other person's mind, you are 100% wrong. These types of relationships are formed by a negative pattern of behavior completed by the both of you.  It’s not your fault, it’s more like you got stuck in it and you can’t even tell it’s happening.  Usually it’s formed by an emotional necessity on your part to make do with what you get – which isn’t much.  You likely coped with the pain and confusion by tuning to their behavior as much as possible so that you could understand why they were acting the way they were.  Basically, you’ve been reading their thoughts but those thoughts are coming from a kind, concerned brain (yours) and not the unaware, selfish one (theirs) and therefore, you’re acting in a play all by yourself.  It's what anyone in your position would do to make sense of hurtful or irrational behavior, especially if that person happens to be a parent or another important role that is supposed to be loving toward you.

Right, for your own sanity and emotional health you need to assume that you are completely disconnected from whatever’s going on inside their head and basically decide what you want and how you feel SOLELY based on objective experiences.  What you are witnessing vs. what you think they think.

As a way to emotionally detach from additional hurt, step away from the play and put down your role.  You must look at them from outside your relationship and repeat to yourself, “I can’t read thoughts.”

If you’re curious why they can’t see you despite the fact that you’re screaming at them and jumping up and down in front of their face, it’s because they’re preoccupied by their issues.  You are haunting the house of this old room they're inside.  Your pain is invisible. 

Even if it doesn’t seem like it, you have all the power you need in this situation.  You have power over yourself and your feelings. You get to decide how to feel- even based on the most self-pity-worthy situations, you get to decide if you want to experience any pain or not.  When you do change your behavior and remove yourself from an unhealthy loop, that moment is when the other person will be given the most powerful opportunity to self-reflect and change. Because if you are not dancing with them anymore, they are forced to examine the void.  Don't let that be your deciding factor because you must decide things based only on taking care of yourself.  This is about what you decide you want for your life. Let go of the idea that they have power over you: no one can make you feel anything you don't decide to feel.  You hold the keys to your emotions.

 

You might be asking, what about hope? How do I stop myself from doing that?  My answer: acceptance.  It’s very painful to be in this position, and there is a real process of mourning that has to take place.  The best advice I can give you is to focus on the pain you’ve endured as a result of this person and decide you’re not going to tolerate it anymore.  Decide that you love yourself enough to never place yourself in the line of fire again.  That is not okay – to be mistreated like that.  You should be mad and hurt, and you should protect yourself from it ever happening again.  Accept the reality that this person hurt you and that is not okay.  Do not allow it to happen to you again at any cost.  Think about how you treat others and how you demand to be treated.  Write a list of those mandates so you can enforce them when it comes into play.

Most of all, remember that you’re not helping them by allowing yourself to be hurt by them.  They are the way they are. Remember the old room: it's not about you, nor has it ever been.  You are simply standing in the line of fire. I know this is kinda tough-lovey, but I want you to be free from the scars in your future so you don't have to reserve a place full of hate in your heart for this person.  If they’re hurting you now, they’ll continue to hurt you – almost like you’re a tether ball attached to their messed up life.

I also want to give you a reflective process so that you can potentially gain experiences that you might have missed.  When people hurt us and we cut them out of our lives, we seal the door because we’ve been burned too many times.  Even if a part of us longs to open it and wishes we could have something – anything positive of that person in our life.  If you want that, you can build that relationship, but it will take some work and a lot of diligent self-care.  Just having the ability to make that choice can change the way you feel about the rest of your life.  When it comes to “forever,” it’s extremely valuable to have simple peace of mind. Or relief from guilt or worry.  Regardless of what you decide, don’t worry about “messing up” or doing the wrong thing, because the only person who can decide what's best for you, is you.

In short: Set your expectations to zero. Train yourself to accept all outcomes, happily. Do not change those expectations.  Assume you're wrong about what they're thinking.  Stay out of their head.  Decide what you want based on when you're old and grey.  Accept the truth and mourn for what you didn't get. 

When you accept others as they are, you open yourself up to the option of loving them. Even if that means you love them from afar. Which I believe feels lovely and good, too. 

I hope this has helped you in some way and as always, smile! xoxoox

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