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4. Surrounded By Unhealthy Relationships This Pesach?
How many unhealthy relationships are you navigating this Pesach?
Holidays can be beautiful. There’s time to spend with family and friends, and an opportunity to disconnect from work, school, and other demanding and time-consuming obligations. As cliché as it sounds, we all know that holidays are also stressful. The Yom Tov of Pesach, being eight days long and involving numerous restrictions, can be especially difficult. When multiple family members who share a history of conflictual dynamics and unhealthy relationships also share a physical space for an extended period of time, the situation can feel chaotic.
Get any number of family members together under one roof for a week-long period of time, whether grown or old, whether they live nearby or are coming in from afar, and there’s bound to some sort of conflict. But what happens when the relationship between family members crosses the line from classic family quarrels to an unhealthy dynamic? Or when a family member suffers from a personality disorder? What kind of holiday does Pesach look like then? And, perhaps most importantly, how can one prepare for a week of Pesach with family when one or more relationships are truly unhealthy?
The key here is to increase our awareness of what an unhealthy relationship looks and feels like, recognize the signs, and plan accordingly.
Recognizing Signs and Symptoms of an Unhealthy Relationship:
Anyone can have a bad day, week, or month, and anyone can feel the very real, valid, and often painful emotions of anger, hurt, or sadness. But in a healthy relationship, one has the ability to both communicate these emotions without fear of backlash, as well as receive these emotions from the other person, without worrying or fearing their extreme or distressful reaction. Some signs of an unhealthy relationship are universal, and it is important to be aware of them as one is anticipating an extended period of time with a family member who displays unhealthy relationship patterns.
These signs include, but are not limited to:
- Controlling or manipulating the situation or the other person
- Purposefully ignoring a loved one
- Intentionally behaving in a way which belittles the family members, puts them down, or makes them feel worthless
- Creating a sense of fear, unpredictably, or feeling unsafe
- Threatening to or actively putting others in danger
- Creating a dynamic of co-dependency; family member(s) constantly worry, obsess, and fixate on the unhealthy person in an effort to change or “fix” him or her
- Lacking basic empathy
- Frequently disrespects or breaks boundaries
Unhealthy Relationships & Borderline Personality Disorder:
One way an unhealthy relationship can manifest itself is when an individual has a personality disorder. According to the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, personality disorders affect around ten percent of the U.S. population.
As with all disorders, personality disorders can fall on a spectrum. This means that behaviors and symptoms can range anywhere from some dramatic or erratic displays to full-blown chaos, aggression, and dangerous behaviors. This spectrum is particularly evident when it comes to Borderline Personality Disorder, a common type of personality disorder.
A Bit About Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD):
Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is a condition characterized by difficulties regulating emotions. In other words, those who experience BPD feel emotions intensely and for extended periods of time. People with BPD are not the only ones affected by their diagnosis; everyone meaningful in their lives, especially family, is affected as well. Individuals with BPD tend to have major difficulties with relationships in general and close relationships in particular. Their erratic, impulsive and often irrational behavior can leave loved ones feeling helpless, confused, and emotionally distraught. Some signs of BPD include; frequent stormy outbursts, wild mood swings, and an intense emotional roller coaster.
Over Pesach, when everyone is disengaged from normal routines, eating an off-balance diet, and spending time together without the usual distractions of technology and work, being around someone who suffers from BPD is all the more challenging.
It is important to note that not everybody who displays some BPD-like symptoms has diagnosed or undiagnosed BPD. Sometimes individuals can behave in a way that mimics BPD: intense emotions, angry outbursts, love/hate relationships with those closest to them, and so on. These behaviors, though they may not necessarily meet the DSM 5 criteria for a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, are still unhealthy, and create unhealthy relationship dynamics within the family.
Changing the Dynamics in Unhealthy Relationships:
Changing the dynamics of an unhealthy relationship is never easy, but with the right tools and support, it can be done. The first step, as with any life challenge, is to increase awareness. One way to do this is by learning as much as you can about the unhealthy person’s diagnosis, so that you can understand what it is they are going through, recognize the signs, and be aware of what is happening. Once the confusion clears, you can then begin to seek support.
You are the only one that can change. You cannot cause the unhealthy individual to change. However, your change will change the unhealthy relationship dynamic regardless of whether the individual changes him/her self.
To partake in changing the unhealthy relationships dynamic, it may be helpful for you, as the family member, to join a support group, seek counseling with a psychotherapist, or both. The unhealthy family member may or may not be receptive to their own individual treatment. However, by seeking help for yourself, you will learn critical skills. Some of these skills include, learning how to establish firm boundaries, managing your own reactions, and improving communication.
How to Navigate Unhealthy Relationships this Pesach:
In anticipation of a specific time period such as Pesach in which you will be spending time with a family member with unhealthy behaviors, it is always helpful to prepare a specific plan of action.
Specific Plan of Action Ideas:
- Setting healthy boundaries of what is acceptable and what isn’t, and communicating these boundaries to the unhealthy family member.
- Seek out family members with whom you share healthy relationships, and plan to spend time with them as much as your schedule permits.
- Find another physical place you can go to–a private room, a neighbor, a friend–if you start to spot signs of an impending “storm.”
- Take the time to engage in self-care, even on Pesach. This can be anything that makes you feel calm; a walk outside, a good book, meditation, a nap, or preparing a healthy and well-liked dish.
- Don’t engage. When tensions do escalate and you find yourself surrounded by dysfunction, plan to walk away and not engage further.
- Have a mantra you repeat that reminds you of your responsibilities. Example: I am not responsible to keep the peace here.
Use the The 3 C’s When Navigating Unhealthy Relationships:
Being around unhealthy family members over Pesach can be a source of great stress and anxiety. You may question what you did to make the person so angry, feel responsible, and guilty for their destructive behavior.
Please remember that your loved one’s dysfunction is not your fault. You did not cause nor deserve their abusive or unhealthy behavior. For family members of those with a personality disorder, an addiction, or otherwise unhealthy behaviors, consider the 3 C’s rule and feel free to use it as an additional mantra:
I didn’t cause it, I can’t cure it, I can’t control it.
What you can control, however, is your response.
Plan ahead, surround yourself with support, and take good care of yourself. In doing so, Pesach can be a pleasant and enjoyable experience amidst it all.
For more conversation on relationships and family dynamics: