How to Find Relationships That Are Good for You and Avoid Those That Aren’t

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If you are an adult survivor of emotional child abuse, you probably have a hard time differentiating the “safe” people in your life from ones that are crazy-makers or harmful to your well-being.

In fact, you may not even grasp the concept of “safe people.”

That’s not your fault.

Raised by toxic people, you weren’t taught the vital skills of setting boundaries with people nor of discerning “safe people” from harmful ones. And in lacking those skills, you probably ended up in painful relationships, wondering how you’ve chosen yet again someone who has let you down, criticized you continually, or used you.

“Our blindness to who is good to us and who isn’t can cause tragedies like depression, compulsive behaviors, marriage conflicts, and work problems.” (Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend)

I’ve received emails from The Invisible Scar readers lamenting this “curse” or supposed “destiny of failed relationships.”

But you are not cursed, not destined for poor, unhealthy relationships. You just haven’t acquired the skill set to choose “safe people” or identify the unsafe ones nor looked deep into your past to find the common factors linking your relationships together. You haven’t acquired the skills yet.

The good news: You can learn these skills. You can break the cycle of painful relationships.

Put This Book on the Top of Your To-Be Read Pile

I strongly recommend the book Safe People: How to Find Relationships That Are Good for You and Avoid Those That Aren’t by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend for adult survivors of emotional child abuse.safe-people

The book takes the reader on a journey from identifying unsafe people and harmful behavioral patterns to understanding one’s need for safe people and how to find them.

The book is divided into three parts:

  • Unsafe people | Who they are, 20 identifying traits
  • Do I Attract Unsafe People? | Get to the origin of your problem and find out how to repair the issue.
  • Safe People | Who they are, why you need them, how to meet and relate to safe people

Each chapter briefly offers a real-life example of character-discernment issues, questions to help the reader dig deep inside him/herself to get to the heart of the issue, and well-grounded advice. (Note: The authors are Protestants, and the book is packed with Scripture verses and the authors’ beliefs. That said, non-Christians need not be put off by this angle, for the real-world advice is solid and comes from a psychologically sound place.)

Moreover, the advice in the book is very clear about people’s very natural and healthy need for one another. This might be shocking to adult survivors who—after enduring myriad painful relationships—decide to isolate themselves or vow from close relationships so that they can avoid being emotionally hurt.

“Many of you have tried again and again to connect with safe people, only to find pain and failure,” Drs. Cloud and Townsend recognize. “And now you’ve simply given up. You’ve stopped the attempt and the search.”

But don’t give up. An emotionally healthy relationship is worth fighting for.

The Natural Need for Relationships

“Our most basic and primary need is to be loved by God and people,” the authors suggest. “We can put that need off, we can meet it in crazy ways, and we can try not to feel it, but it’s a spiritual reality.”

Often, people will say that they are done with relationships or that they will just cut themselves off from people and focus solely on God. They say they are “strong enough” or “self-sufficient enough” to go through this life without close relationships. But that’s not being strong or self-sufficient.

We are social beings. We are made for community.

The Safe People book—for all its advice regarding awareness of unsafe people—is also a guide for the present, a book of hope for better and healthier relationships to come.

Do not despair about past relationships. Read Safe People to understand why you chose those types of toxic people and how you can stop doing so.

Edited to add:

If you find it difficult or triggering to read this book due to its Evangelical slant (for the sad reality is that sometimes abusive parents distort religion—of any kindto wield it against their children), you may enjoy these articles as a springboard for thinking about healthy relationships:

Onward to healing and an emotionally healthier life.

* The author of this article didn’t receive any monetary compensation for this review.

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Ask the Therapist: Steven Stosny on Fading Negative Voices, Recognizing the Emotional Abuse, and Getting on the Path to Recovery

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At The Invisible Scar, we’ve recently received questions that made us seek out the advice of a mental healthcare professional to answer them. Because this site is run by a layperson, I turned to Steven Stosny, Ph. D, for a brief but informative interview.

Stosny is the founder of CompassionPower in suburban Washington, DC. His most recent books are Living and Loving after Betrayal. How to Improve your Marriage without Talking about It: Finding Love Beyond Words, and Love Without Hurt: Turn Your Resentful, Angry, or Emotionally Abusive Relationship into a Compassionate, Loving One.

TIS: How can the adult child of an emotionally abusive parent ever get rid of all the negative voices inside their head? All they hear is their parents’ abuse…

They may never ‘get rid’ of them, but they can learn to focus on creating value and meaning in their lives, which will give the old voices ‘white noise’ status, like an air conditioner in the background.

Focus is a skill that must be practiced. Whatever we focus on, amplifies and magnifies neural connections in the brain. Repeated focus forms habits. In time, more beneficial habits can develop by choosing to focus on what is most important to and about you as a person, partner, and parent.

TIS: How can spouses of adult children of emotional abusive parents help their spouse see that they are being abused?

Be compassionate and supportive, but never use the childhood experience as an excuse for accepting bad behavior, which will only further deteriorate the self-value of the adult child. Ultimately, we heal by giving compassion, not by getting it. Be open about your own vulnerabilities, and that will invite compassion from your partner, which is really the only way he/she can heal.

TIS: Can adult children ever have a healthy relationship with their parents? [Editor’s note: The question was not about whether a healthy relationship can exist with NPD parents but those without a personality disorder.] In other words, can the relationship between an emotionally abusive parent and an adult child ever be fixed?

In many cases, but the timeline varies greatly and is highly individual. Focus on healing before repairing. Without healing, adequate repair is impossible. Once you heal, you can decide whether you truly want to repair and what kind of emotional connection you wish to have. Then the decision will be positive, based on your values, rather than an attempt to avoid guilt or shame. 

TIS: How can adult children of emotionally abusive parents begin the path to recovery?

Focus less on how you feel about the past and more on how you want to feel in the present and future. When we focus on how we feel, we bring into implicit memory past instances that evoked similar feelings, creating an illusion that it’s always been that way and, by implication, always will be that way. If the feelings are painful, the brain must interpret, explain, and justify them. This whole process serves to habituate them, i.e., make them habits that will recur under stress. When we focus on how we want to feel, the brain comes up with ways to get there. Doing so systematically creates beneficial habits.

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A hearty thanks to Dr. Stosny for taking the time to answer questions from the inbox and combox.

If you are a mental healthcare professional, please consider an interview with The Invisible Scar. We often receive questions that merit professional advice, and we’d love to talk to you about them.