So far, we have learned a lot of information about how to improve relationships. For example, you have learned to assert, to appreciate, and to apologize with the Adult Voice. You have also learned to listen, understand, and validate; to appear confident with poise, interest, and expressiveness; and to stay calm, aware, and respectful (even when the other person is anything but). You have even learned how to make small talk! But more important than specific skills, you have learned to think win / win by valuing both your perspectives as well as someone else’s. To top it off, you have even learned a powerful way of meeting both your needs and others’ through the five love languages.
But what happens when you try all of this…and a relationship still does not work? What if you learn to be assertive, but the other person is aggressive? What if you learn to appreciate someone else’s perspective, but the other person only criticizes? What if you apologize, but the other person only condemns? What if you use the Adult Voice, but the other person only responds with the Parent Voice? What if you stay calm, aware, and respectful, but the other person does not? What if you think win / win, but the other person can only think win / lose? What if you try to meet someone else’s love language, but that person only takes advantage of yours?
This is certainly a possibility. Here’s the reality: The best you can do in any relationship is use your own skills. Since our behaviors really do affect other people (in both positive and negative directions), using your skills really will go a long ways to improve a lot of your relationships. People will notice that you are handling situations differently, and in a lot cases, that will prompt them to handle situations differently. Unfortunately, however, you can never force someone else to use the skills that you have been learning. No matter how hard you try, some people are simply unwilling or unable to change. Even worse: No matter how skilled you become in relationships, some people remain abusive.
Therefore, this final lesson on relational effectiveness is not about learning even more skills on how to improve a relationship. Rather, this final lesson is about learning to exit a dysfunctional, unhealthy, or abusive relationship that cannot be turned around, no matter how hard you try or how many skills you use. Let’s face it: Finding balance in relationships is not just about improving the good ones; sometimes it’s also about ending the bad ones.
In order to do this, we need to resort back to the same old formula I’ve been harping about since the beginning of this book: Awareness, Acceptance, Action. First, you need to become aware of the signs of a dysfunctional relationship. Second, you need to accept those signs (as opposed to ignoring, rationalizing, justifying, minimizing, or sugar-coating them). And third, you need to take action. In this case, action means keep using your DBT skills. But if a relationship remains unhealthy, then taking action might also mean exiting that relationship!
Let’s start off with increasing our awareness by learning the telltale signs of dysfunctional relationships. Unhealthy relationships tend to involve three roles: persecutor, victim, and rescuer (Weinhold & Weinhold, 2014). The persecutor is the person acting abusively; the victim is the person receiving the abuse; and rescuer is the person attempting to save the victim from the rescuer. There are two ways these roles can play out. On one hand, sometimes there really is a persecutor, there really is a victim, and there really is a victim. On the other hand, however, sometimes these roles are just that: Roles that people take on based on perceptions, miscommunication, and misunderstandings.
Let’s start off discussing the second scenario first. Consider the following dysfunctional family: Let’s assume a disgruntled father feels like he pulls all the weight at home and gets no respect. In short, he feels like a victim. So one day, the father decides to lay down the law by making his lazy kids do their fair share of work around the house. Now the kids, who see dad as an unpredictable tyrant, also feel like the victims. Isn’t it interesting how dad sees himself as the victim, while his kids see him as the persecutor? Now mom sees what’s going on, and so she decides to intervene on behalf of the children. Therefore, mom is now the rescuer. And not only that, but now dad feels even more like the victim, since his wife just undermined his paternal authority. In addition to feeling like a victim, he also sees his wife as the persecutor. But of course the wife doesn’t feel like the persecutor. On contrary, she also feels like the victim: After all, she was simply trying to stand up for her kids! So now the kids see what is going on between the parents, and they decide to stick up for mom. So now who are the new rescuers? The new victims? The new persecutors? Do you see how this is going nowhere fast? Tragically, dysfunctional relational cycles like this one carry on for years and sometimes even decades.
Although this scenario is certainly dysfunctional, it might also be redeemable. As you may have noticed, everyone in this family feels like they are the victim, and everyone feels like someone else is the persecutor. In addition, everyone also takes on a rescuing role: Dad tries to rescue himself, mom tries to rescue the kids, and the kids try to rescue their mom. So much unnecessary drama happens whenever these three roles are present.
So what’s the solution? You have already learned it! Everything you have learned in this chapter is the solution to this scenario. What if dad simply used a DEAR Adult to assert his perspective? What if mom used another DEAR Adult to assert her perspective? What if both parents used LUV Talk to listen, understand, and validate each other’s perspective? What if both parents used another DEAR Adult to both appreciate and apologize, as necessary? What if both parents stayed in their CAR (calm, aware, respectful) while slicing PIE (poise, interest, expressiveness)? What if both parents remained mindful of each other’s love languages? What if the husband realized that his wife simply needed some verbal encouragement while the wife realized her husband feel appreciated by acts of service? In short, what if both parents respectfully heard each other out, utilized win / win thinking, and collaboratively decided to create a new chore chart for their children, while soliciting input from the kids themselves? Do you see how simply using DBT skills causes all of these roles to evaporate? The persecutor stops acting like a persecutor, the victim stops acting like a victim, and the rescuer stops acting like a rescuer…and then the drama simply stops.
Once you are aware of and accept the signs of a dysfunctional relationship, sometimes the best course of action is to simply use your skills. Obviously this approach is the most effective of all when everyone in the relationship is able and willing to use their skills. Sometimes the best way to exit a dysfunctional relationship is to use your skills and be the necessary agent of change to transform the relationship into something healthier. You will know you are back in a healthy relationship when there is balance, acceptance, respect, win / win thinking, and everyone’s needs are being met.
However, all bets are off when there really is a persecutor, there really is a victim, and there really is a rescuer. If a husband batters his wife or a father molests his daughter, we do not use DBT skills…we call the cops and involve the authorities! In other words, these sorts of relationships need to be cut off immediately. If you know that a minor is getting abused, then you need to be the rescuer. And if you are the being abused as an adult, then you need to be your own rescuer. You simply cannot afford to wait for someone else to play that role!