Whether professionally or personally, like many of you, I receive a lot of complaints. Typically, they are minor, yet certainly significant to the complainer. As a prime example, I have had a lot of parents tell me that their children tend to ask for help with seemingly every detail of their lives. And I hear about relationships where one partner does not pull his or her weight. And then there’s the slacking co-worker scenario. My typical response is to ask, “So, what do you do?” I ask that less out of curiosity about what it is they actually do, and more with an ear toward understanding the pattern that exists.
It’s no mystery that people tend to ask things of those most likely to deliver. If your child or young “independent” adult is constantly calling home for help, then chances are you are giving it to him or her. And if your partner can’t seem to manage household chores, chances are you are picking up the slack. The co-worker also knows the work will get done and exactly by whom. The fact is…people behave as they do. Until it doesn’t work.
Though many refer to above patterns as dysfunctional, they are basically the opposite. Someone has found a way to get needs met by someone capable of meeting them. How much more functional can you get? It only becomes dysfunctional if someone’s needs are unhealthy or dangerous, or if the person meeting the needs is resentful and otherwise not thriving in the relationship.
For those of you in the truly dangerous or unhealthy category, it’s time to get professional help. If you are in the functional category, but not satisfied in your role, then there are options. With functionality usually comes flexibility and adaptability. Translation – people getting their needs met by you are pretty good at getting their needs met. If you resign your position as the caretaker, then the person who previously relied on you will have two choices – find someone else, or meet his or her own needs.
That isn’t to say that person will go without a valiant effort to keep you engaged. You have been accessible and adept for so long that letting you go will not be easy. This can present in several ways:
Initially, your former recipient may escalate his or her attempt to engage you to the point that you begin to believe that not meeting the stated needs will lead to ruination. For example, if you aren’t available to help your child with an English paper then you may be convinced that failure and a life of shame are the natural outcome. A college student with a bad housing assignment will work to convince you that he or she will not survive. Or your partner may work hard to convince you that household chaos will ensue if you don’t continue to over perform.
Recognize, as well, that these scenarios mirror the workplace, the extended family, and any other group of people with whom you are regularly or intimately connected. For example, if you are a workplace overachiever, what would happen if you decided to only pull your weight and create an opening for someone else on the team to step into? Or if you decided not to deflect a family argument between your dad and your brother by being unavailable when they both engaged you? Initially, you might believe that neither your workplace nor your family would rectify the situation. Over time, however, they would likely adapt and your actual role would be more commensurate with your desired role.
An alternative or follow up to this kind of escalation may be that the person who previously relied on you engages someone else. Initially, this may leave you feeling somewhat useless and unneeded, as reliance upon you has diminished. Ultimately, however, this new way of relating will allow you to shift the boundaries in your favor – and you may find yourself engaged in ways that go beyond what you can provide in the moment. In other words, your children may start to access their other parent to meet the needs you previously met. Or your co-worker may find someone else to pitch in and you may be able to reduce your workload to one that feels more equitable. This may feel like a big loss. You lose “hero” status while watching someone else receive accolades for a role you have maintained for years with no acknowledgement. From a relationship perspective, you are doing great work by facilitating those you care about to connect with other resources (another parent, a different co-worker). This allows for everyone to expand their roles and deepen their relationships with those who may have previously seemed unavailable and certainly under utilized. With this new dynamic, your relationship can shift from a need-based one to something that seems more satisfying and balanced.
So I return to my original premise, which is that people behave as they do, until they don’t. And they don’t when the roles of the people they rely upon shift. If you find yourself closely tied to someone with predictable behavior that you find unsatisfying, it is up to you to stop behaving as you do. When one person’s behavior is modified, the whole interaction is open to change. The amount of change and the direction of change depend upon the flexibility and adaptability of the people involved. There is no guarantee that the change you seek will be the change you receive, but you can be sure that when you stop behaving as you do, so too will the people who engage you. The mystery lies in what comes as a result, but you can almost guarantee that it will be very different from the previously predictable behavior. Until it isn’t!
Carrie is a therapist and licensed attorney in Connecticut with a specialization in divorce mediation and parenting plans. She also runs CT Relational Therapy, LLC and holds a Master's Degree from Fairfield University.
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