Your advice for dealing with conflict often involves trying to see the other person as “reasonable and rational.” But what if this person is clearly not reasonable and rational. What if they are simply unable to listen, to reason, and to carry out any kind of agreement on how to “get along”? What if they can neither conceive of nor agree to “ground rules”?
After many years of struggle to build a relationship with one of my parents, it has become clear to me and my siblings that this parent is heavily narcissistic and unable to make changes in their behavior. Because this is a parent, I would like to still maintain some kind of contact, but any time I try it is very painful. It is especially hard being manipulated and feeling I have to agree with their unreasonable opinions and behaviors. After listening to this parent’s non-stop harangues, I’m totally depleted. Help!
Dear Sadly Clear,
I’m sorry. It’s not easy to come to the conclusion you’ve come to. Especially about a parent. But the fact that you’ve come to that conclusion is the answer to your question. The reason you’re depleted is that you’re in denial. You have all the information you need to make a decision, but you’re not making it. I hope my suggestions help you to take that next step.
You’re correct that I often encourage people to resolve conflict, in part, by challenging their stories about others. But there comes a point when you’ve examined your own role long enough and attempted healthy approaches to improving your relationship, and nothing changes, that you must conclude, “This will never work.”
I’m going to use your own words to help you understand what this means.
“Because this is a parent, I would like to still maintain some kind of contact, but any time I try it is very painful.”
You must set a boundary about how much contact you will have. You say you want to maintain contact but it’s painful. Why is it painful? Is it painful because you keep hoping they will be different than your entire life experience has told you they are? If so, this is your problem. Your parent keeps showing you who she/he is, but you are imposing expectations for them to be different. Drop the expectations. Accept them as they are. Then ask yourself, “How much time do I choose to spend with a person who is like this?” You apparently feel some obligation to care for your parent’s needs. Good for you. But you are a person, too. You have an obligation to care for your needs. How can you discharge the duty you feel to your parent while still protecting your emotional wellbeing? Set a boundary that reflects this balance. If guilt is driving you to spend more time than your boundary would dictate, get yourself some emotional support to help you confront that guilt.
“It is especially hard being manipulated and feeling I have to agree with their unreasonable opinions and behaviors.”
You’ve got some work to do here. Please don’t hear my advice as judgmental. It’s not. Everyone struggles with codependence with various people in their lives. And you clearly are struggling with this parent. If you’ve truly concluded that they are “heavily narcissistic” and incapable of changing, you would be immune to their manipulation and would find it easy to shrug off their unreasonable opinions. The fact that their games are working on you is something you need to work on. And, while you’re developing the emotional independence to do so, you should minimize or eliminate contact with them. As long as your contact is enabling their bad behavior and causing you suffering, it is doing neither of you any good.
But be prepared. As you attempt to set boundaries, they will use every trick in their book to challenge them. So, set a boundary about how you’ll respond when they challenge your boundaries. For example, if you say you will only visit with them on the phone and for no more than 15 minutes a week, they may leave you voice mails calling you names and accusing you of crimes against humanity. If you’re still struggling not to personalize those voice mails, decide how you’ll deal with those shenanigans. Perhaps you let them know you will not listen to voice mails. Perhaps you let them know you’ll block their calls other than the 15 minutes a week you are allowing. Decide how you’ll deal with the manipulation. Then stick with it.
“After listening to this parent’s non-stop harangues, I’m totally depleted. Help!”
Here’s the help: The way you’ll know you are keeping the right boundaries is that you will no longer feel depleted. You will feel empowered, centered and strong. Anything less than peace means you are taking unhealthy responsibility for your parent’s needs at the cost of your own.
Again, I’m sorry you don’t have the parent you want. And I assure you that what’s wearing you out is burning energy hoping for someone to show up the way you want rather than the way they are. Accept reality, make the right decisions, and you’ll be on your way to greater peace.
The ideas expressed in this article are based on the skills and principles taught in Crucial Conversations. Learn more about Crucial Conversations