Crucial Conversations QA

Is It Ever Okay to End a Relationship with a Family Member?

Dear Emily,

Is it ever acceptable to remove oneself (and spouse) from family relationships that repeatedly cause pain and trouble in a marriage? Using crucial conversations skills has worked in several cases, but not all. I guess I am seeking validation for my decision to severely limit contact with the difficult family members. I want the love and support of my husband. I also want the family members to be at peace. While it is a shame to lose the intimacy of our contact, limiting it will be better off for us. Your thoughts?

Needing Space

Dear Needing Space,

Yes. Yes. Yes. Full stop. I sincerely considered simply ending there. Because the answer to your question is yes! Absolutely nothing about Crucial Conversations says we need to subject ourselves to relationships that are harmful, abusive, or destructive.

Crucial Conversations is about two things: truth-speaking and love. The objective of any crucial conversation should be to fill the pool of shared meaning. That means I need to speak up and tell my truth. And, equally important, I need to bring your truth into the pool.

Truth-speaking and truth-hearing are hard to do. But I do these things in a crucial conversation because of love. It might be because we both love the same person—my spouse, your child. The love that brings me to a crucial conversation may be for the love of a purpose, outcome, or result; that is, I care so much about the issue we are discussing that I will show up in this conversation to the very best of my ability. It may even be that all I can bring to the conversation is love of peace, connection, or humanity.

But underlying all of this must be love of self. I have to love me in order to effectively bring truth and love to any conversation. I have to know deep-down that what I think and feel are valid, worthy of sharing, worthy of consideration, and worthy of respect.

I, like you, have been amazed at the power of truth and love to heal broken relationships—relationships in which people hurt me. I have stepped up to those conversations with trepidation and been awed by the beauty and truth that has flowed.

But not always. For me, crucial conversations skills have the most impact to heal destructive relationships when both people are well-intentioned and willing to commit to truth and love—when they can find a mutual purpose and honestly commit to it. But crucial conversations skills are not a magic wand. They cannot transform ill-intent and selfishness.

So, what do you do when you need to take a step back from a harmful relationship?

    1. Hold on to your truth and your love. I used to think that a crucial conversation was successful if both parties had come to a mutual agreement, or at least walked away both feeling good about the conversation. But time and experience have taught me that I can’t control the outcome of a conversation or even how someone else will feel at the end of it. I can bring my best intent and my best skills and influence to that conversation, but I can’t control it. So a successful conversation is one in which I hold to my truth, I respectfully express my meaning, and I deeply listen to someone else. I do it all without frustration or anger.
    2. Define your boundaries. As you step away from this relationship, I encourage you to think deeply about what behaviors and situations didn’t work for you and draw those as your boundaries. It is easy to focus on the people we want to step back from. Try instead to think about what behaviors and situations you want to step back from. You may find there are ways to step back from the behaviors and situations that trouble you without fully stepping back from the person.
    3. Forgive. Once you take the step back, forgive. Forgive the other person. And forgive yourself. This was not your failure.
    4. Be open to new connections with old relationships. As you move forward, in a new and different direction, away from this person and this relationship, you will find that you change and grow. A year from now, you will be both the same person you are today as well as different. Let that also be true of the other person. Let him or her change and grow. He or she need not necessarily “be dead to you forever.” There may come a time when either you or the other person has changed enough that reconnection could be possible.

So coming back to what I said at the beginning: yes. Yes, it is okay to step back. Yes, it is okay to acknowledge that crucial conversations alone can’t mend all relationships. Yes, it is important to care for yourself. This may not feel like success, but it is most assuredly not failure.

Best of luck,
Emily

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