A few weeks ago I was having a conversation with my boss about a referral she wanted to pass on to me. She said, “This woman was referred by an old client of mine who is a real sweetheart and pretty high functioning, so I think she’ll be really fun to work with.” I said, “Great!” And gave her a call. Later I was reflecting on that conversation and thinking about how we do that often in the office: we make assumptions about how healthy a client might be based on who refers them.
Why is that?
I will tell you exactly why that is: as a general rule we tend to attract and be attracted to people who have the same level of emotional health as us.
If you are an emotionally healthy person with good boundaries, you are going to be less willing to tolerate unhealthy behavior in your friends, and your romantic partners. You won’t be able to stand it. The friendship will fade, or the relationship will end.
You just read that and said to yourself, “Wait a minute!! I’m having problems in my marriage because my husband is really messed up and doesn’t know how to communicate!” Or “There is always so much drama with this friend of mine, but that’s not my fault, that’s her fault!” So here is the tricky part: not all dysfunction is the same.
I separate dysfunction or unhealthiness into two main categories: covert and overt. When you interact with someone who is overtly dysfunctional, you know it! Everything about them screams emotional unhealthiness, and it is often exhausting to be around them. However, when you interact with someone who is covertly dysfunctional, it can be a little harder to see. Their dysfunction is more hidden, and often comes through after the interaction is over. You know those times when you interact with someone, and it’s later that you suddenly stop and think, “Wait a second . . . something about that didn’t feel good.”
The problem is that when overtly unhealthy people get together with covertly unhealthy people, those covert people look pretty good! If you’ve ever witnessed a relationship that left you wondering why one person put up with someone who seemed so unhealthy, it may be because their dysfunction; their reason for tolerating that behavior is hidden by the other person’s “crazy.”
So what does this mean for us? I think for me it boils down to two things. One, if you want healthy relationships, you need to become a healthy person. A truly healthy person is not going to be able or willing to tolerate you if you are dealing with some significant areas of covert or overt unhealthiness. And two, if you find yourself in an unhealthy situation and you feel that there is no hope for the other person to change, then start with you. I know that can sound simplistic and maybe even condescending if you find yourself living with someone who truly makes your life miserable, but starting somewhere is better than starting no where. Go to therapy yourself, start to surround yourself with healthier friends, search your heart for what attracted you to that unhealthy person in the past, and start to grow. One of two things will happen – you will either become happier right where you are, or you will no longer be willing to tolerate that level of unhealthiness from the other person anymore, and be moved to make some changes. Either way you become healthier, and that’s a good thing.
No one is perfect, and I am certainly not suggesting you grow to a level of sainthood, but we all have areas in which we need to grow and change. I certainly do, and my career is centered around helping people become healthier! Growing can be a scary thing, but the rewards are immense. Go to therapy, talk to a wise and trusted friend who will tell you the truth, read a self-help book. Take one step and then the other. That slow change is going to get you where you want to go, and you will find your relationships becoming healthier along the way!
**I want to add that if you are in a situation that is abusive, this post is not meant to judge why you ended up in that situation, or why you are still in that situation. Abuse of any kind is never okay. It is true that abusive people behave that way because they are unhealthy, but that is not an excuse for the behavior, and is also not an excuse to tolerate that behavior. There is help, and there is hope just a google search away for resources in your area to support any changes you might need to make.