Life Lessons I Didn’t Want to Learn #2: When to Let Someone Back in

When someone reveals to you who they are — what’s really beneath all the facades and grand overtures— you owe it to them and to yourself to act accordingly.

I once had a friend who oozed sweetness when the two of us were alone. I should have paid attention when she talked at length about her stories and dreams, never asking about mine. But I was hooked on her good qualities: her love of foster children, her adventurous spirit, her biting wit.

When we were in the company of other people, she morphed into someone else altogether. Suddenly all her jokes were at my expense. She pointed out my tendency to stumble over my words, which only made me stumble harder. She ignored my opinions and pretended not to hear me talking. Sometimes I would go whole conversations without being able to finish a sentence, because her voice was louder and she always had something better to say.

I gradually stopped talking.

I felt small and powerless around my so-called friend. It took me a whole year of these interactions to realize it wasn’t me — it was her.

Whether it’s a friend, a family member, or a partner, when it becomes clear you are drowning, you have to love yourself enough to let people go. Toxic relationships don’t do you any good, and they aren’t doing the other party any good either.

In fact, letting go may be the kick in the butt the other person needs. Your boundary may actually be a gift. They may not realize it when they are blaming you for the Hindenburg and bellyaching about your selfishness, but over time they may actually grow up.

In the time and space provided by your absence, they may take the opportunity to re-examine the relationship, just like you did. And if they are truly through with bullshitting, they may recognize the relationship for what it honestly was: an ugly boxing match where one person always wins, and the other is always trying to figure out why they are fighting in the first place.

Letting go may lead the other person to take responsibility for what is theirs. And this act of humility may lead them to to give a real apology (the topic of next week’s post!). You might even choose to accept that apology.

Important Note: you don’t have to accept anyone’s apology. Or better said, you can accept an apology without choosing to revive the relationship. Trust is earned, not owed. Not bartered with, not reasoned out, not inherited, stolen or swapped. If someone has broken trust in irreparable ways, it is completely within your rights to say no thanks to the relationship. You can be friendly but not friends. Distant family members but not close. Co-parents but not married. Those are all acceptable forms of relationship status.

But if your gut gives the green light, you may find that breathing new life into a shriveled up relationship to be nothing less than magical.

People can change. Broken hearts can be mended. If that were not the case, why would anyone read self-help books, attend 12-step groups, or listen to Oprah? If people couldn’t change, what would be the purpose of the Christian gospel, or any faith that relies on a redemption story? Brain science proves it — we are always growing and learning. And we are capable of learning how to love just like any other skill.

People can change — but only if we let them. If we keep justifying the status quo we are communicating that the way others treat us is perfectly acceptable. Sometimes when we rock the boat, people realize the ship is going down fast. They recognize the only person who can save it is themselves. Their actions are nothing short of heroic.

Of course, the indicator of a truly changed person is when you find yourself treated consistently with kindness and respect. Boundaries are honored. Old arguments die in the past. New and better strategies for handling conflict are employed.

You realize you can breathe easily when they are around, because a steady root of trust is holding you up.

But the change isn’t all theirs. You will need to do some changing too. You will need to speak up when you have needs that aren’t being addressed. You will need to believe that you deserve nothing less than respect and kindness. You will need to accept that you are not 100% responsible (read: to blame) for what happens in a relationship. You will need to own what is yours and nothing more.

Relationships, as a rule, are messy and imperfect. You will know which ones are worth saving when you give space for people to be themselves.

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