#2 in Love Is Action Series
This is the second in a series of articles about how to be in relationship with someone who is mentally un-well, unstable, downright ill, or who behaves that way. With the number of Americans who take some kind of prescription drug for depression and other mental illnesses, it is safe to say that people who are suffering from being mentally and emotionally un-well are everywhere. Rather than shun them or leave them, this series of articles is about helping to love them into better behavior and maybe even into wholeness.
Many people take the crazy behavior of a loved one as long as they can and then throw in the towel. Some last two months, others last two years, and still others somehow manage to hang on for decades, often in misery. The problem is that the people who stay are often suffering through it all, and the behavior of the other person never changes. If you are suffering through a relationship with someone who doesn’t behave well, and who you can’t or don’t want to leave, this is for you.
There are some rude, mean, and hurtful people who we simply cannot eliminate from our lives. We can’t leave a parent with Alzheimer’s. We wouldn’t divorce a spouse who’s behaving erratically because of a brain tumor. We don’t abandon a child who was born with a defect. When we’re dealing with people who we know can’t help their behavior, we are able to bite our tongues and dig deep for more patience when they dance on our last nerve.
People who don’t behave well aren’t at their best, not because they are inherently evil. They’re not at their best because they are not well physically, mentally, or emotionally. These people are everywhere. Some of them are the people closest to us—aging parents, life partners, children, teens in their normal role of separating from parents, bosses, friends, and neighbors.
People who aren’t behaving well can challenge our ability to be happy. They can be unreasonable, irritable, or downright mean. And they often aim all of that ugliness directly toward the people they are closest to (and safest with)—us.
Many of us find ourselves in relationships with these people. We love them. We want to help them. But in the process of helping, we sometimes (ok, often) get hurt. Helping un-well people can be a lot like trying to hug a porcupine.
Well-meaning friends will tell us to leave. They tell us that we don’t have to be a doormat. Some even say things like “God doesn’t intend for you to be miserable. You should LEAVE!” To them I say, “It’s possible to love someone into wholeness. And doing that work is one of the most noble things that anyone can do in this life. And you may be in that person’s life because you are the only one who can reach them.”
When you find yourself doing life with someone who isn’t treating you well, please don’t let your first
response be to leave. The person who is mistreating you may be, on some level, trying to push you hard enough to test you to see if you’ll leave before he or she is willing to open up to you completely. That was my story.
I was abandoned by both parents and abused by grandparents for the first 16 years of my life. By the time my husband came along, I had been lied to and cheated on by others, so I expected him to hurt me and to eventually leave. My fear was logical. It was grounded in my life experience.
So to hasten what I was sure was going to eventually happen anyway, I picked fights with him. I worked late, standing him up for dinner dates. I chose plans with girlfriends over plans with him. And the ultimate insult—I put the garage door down on his beloved car. His response to that last poke in the eye was to chase me up the stairs of my house to grab me, get his face just inches from mine, and to say, “I know that everyone has always left you, but I am NOT going to leave you. Not now. Not ever. No matter what. Can you get that?”
We’ve been married for nearly 30 years. I’m grateful that my husband refused to let me push him away. He saw past my rough exterior to the wounded person who was beneath those porcupine quills. He poured love in where there was a hole in my heart that had resulted from abandonment by people who should have loved and protected me. In the early years of our marriage, pouring love into my heart must have felt like filling a bucket that had holes in the bottom. But he refused to give up, and eventually the sense of acceptance, belonging, and value that he gave me, loved me into wholeness. I know first hand that love that isn’t conditioned on behavior is like healing balm on an open wound.
In the third, and final, blog on this topic, I’ll give you five substantive things that you can do to live with someone who acts like a jerk, hopefully resulting in their better behavior and your happiness.