Full Life Reflections

Striving for happiness, peace, and fulfillment in a chaotic world

I’ve been thinking a lot about the topics I explored in my last essay, as well as the wonderful comments made by readers in response to what I wrote. For that reason, I would like to continue the subject of emotional isolation in today’s post. I’m glad I decided to open this can of worms because it’s a major factor in my journey toward a more fulfilling, peaceful, and happy life. Some of my relationships feel so broken, with dysfunctional patterns of interacting that are so ingrained, that I’m not sure how to fix them or even if they can be transformed in a meaningful way. But since writing about other seemingly intractable life issues has given me possibility and a way through in the past, I hope that deepening this exploration will make a difference for me and others with similar struggles.

After I expand upon what I view as a key problem in my – and perhaps your – interpersonal relationships, I delve into the five levels of intimacy identified by psychologists and how they manifest in our communication. I then share sage advice from readers on how we can start to break out of our negative ruts. While I certainly don’t have all the answers, I take comfort and hope from those who have walked a similar path and come out on the other side. Included is a helpful exercise we can all use to shift our focus and change our experience with the people in our lives.

transforming broken relationships

Is there a gulf like this in some of your relationships?

The Problem

Last week, I wrote about my tendency to use interest in others as a defense mechanism to protect myself from being hurt. This has resulted in negative and unfulfilling communication patterns with some of the people in my life. Now when I talk to them or exchange email, they virtually never ask me anything about me or my life. They only talk about what’s going on for them, as well as superficial macro topics like the weather and the news.

When I occasionally take a leap and share something about myself in an email, I either don’t receive a reply at all or the response completely skips over what I wrote in favor of moving back to the usual topics. It’s almost uncanny how this has happened time and time again. I’ve found it so frustrating and disheartening that I now generally refrain from mentioning personal topics and just stuck with the status quo for how we interact. Even though I’m too scared to voice it, I feel dismissed and unimportant to these people as a result of their behavior.

You may recommend that I remove such inconsiderate folks from my life, but what if the people in question are family members or long-time friends? I’ve mostly reacted by limiting my interactions with them and sticking to the “rules” when we do converse, but that doesn’t feel like a good solution to me. I know I can only really control myself, but I feel so weak and disempowered for letting things continue on this same dysfunctional path. I want to believe there’s a way to transform these “broken” relationships such that they feel more reciprocal and engaging for me. I refuse to believe that all of these individuals are simply unapologetic narcissists. Some of them may be, but I know that I’ve also played a role in how things have devolved over the years.

The way I’m feeling now is the dark side of the self-protection measures many of us take in our relationships to avoid being hurt. We dampen our engagement, which in turn deadens our connections. Our unceasing curiosity about the lives of others keeps them around, but is the relationship truly fulfilling for either party with such an imbalance in communication? Sure, if someone is completely self-absorbed, they may relish the opportunity to go on and on about themselves, but most people want the give and take inherent in healthier engagements.

The Five Levels of Intimacy

Since I’m a long-term “information junkie” who is wont to save everything, I looked back through my bookmarks in search of some words of wisdom that might assuage my worried mind. One thing I found was an article about the five levels of intimacy.  While it’s geared more toward romantic couples, the principles outlined can be applied to all types of connections. Here’s a brief summary of the five levels of emotional intimacy we move through as we get to know another person:

  • Level One – Safe Communication: This type of interaction involves only the exchange of facts and information, what we typically refer to as “small talk.” Very minimal intimacy is shared and there are no feelings, opinions, or personal vulnerability involved, and thus, no risk of being rejected.
  • Level Two – Others’ Opinions and Beliefs:  At this level of communication, we begin to share other people’s thoughts, beliefs, and opinions, such as those of a family member, friend, author, or public figure. We may say something like, “My favorite author said…” In doing so, we test the other person’s reaction to certain points of view without sharing how we feel or what we believe. We distance ourselves from what is being shared so we are less likely to be criticized or rejected.
  • Level Three – Personal Opinions and Beliefs: Here is where we wade into the riskier waters of revealing the way we feel about particular topics or issues. Often, this is done in a lower level or more tentative way to begin with. If we start to feel too vulnerable by revealing what we think or believe, we can easily backtrack and say that we’ve changed our mind in order to avoid conflict or pain.
  • Level Four – Our Feelings and Experiences:  At this level of communication, we start to share our joys, pains, mistakes, goals, and dreams, as well as the things we like and dislike. Increased vulnerability is involved because we are revealing more about what makes us who we are and we can’t change the details of our past or current experiences or the way we feel about things. If we fear rejection or criticism, the best we can do is try to convince others that we are no longer impacted by our past and are a different person now.
  • Level Five – Our Needs, Emotions, and Desires:  This is the highest level of intimacy, where we are known at the deepest core of who we are. It’s where we share our hurts, needs, and desires in regards to the relationship, such, “I’m hurt when you don’t call” or “I need to feel respected by you.” Level Five is also where we typically share our emotional reactions to things, which may not always be a pretty sight. It takes a lot of trust to communicate at this level because there is no escape. Once we share the most vulnerable aspects of ourselves, we can no longer backtrack and convince people otherwise. Our greatest fear in being so open and real is that the other person can use what we’ve shared against us later.

Interestingly, the author states that we often reserve Level Five for our families. While that may be true for some people, the only family member I’m that open with is my husband. As I mentioned in my last post, I’m far more open on this blog and in the online communities I belong to than I ever am with my family. In fact, I’m lucky if I ever get to Level Three communication with family members.  This isn’t the way I want it to be, but that’s the way it is at present. Since the article is primarily focused on romantic relationships, there isn’t any advice on transforming family connections, but I still found the distinctions among the various levels of intimacy helpful.

How to Break the Pattern?

Fortunately, my wise readers came to the rescue with encouragement, advice, and hope regarding shifting the way we relate to the people in our lives. Two readers shared about how relationships can improve after we change ourselves and better understood our needs, wants, and what we’re willing to accept and tolerate from others:

  • “Some of the people who would talk about themselves for hours are now asking me about what’s going on with my life. When I changed, so did they, though I’m sure the truly self-absorbed are still out there.”
  • “There’s a saying in Buddhism, ‘Your environment is a reflection of your inner self.’ I feel there’s a lot of truth in that. We create an environment that fits ourselves and our understanding of the world. When you change your inner self, you notice a change in everything and everyone around you.”

The following exercise was also shared as a way to shift our existing relationships:

  • “This can be a really hard exercise, but it has worked for me with my parents. Start by focusing on the qualities you like best in your existing relationships. Basically remember all the best times you had and all the best qualities of each person. Just write them all down. The idea is to focus on the things you like and when you do, you naturally start attracting more of that. I hate to talk about the Law of Attraction because it sounds so trite, but I guess that’s what it is.”

The person who recommended this tried it with her father and here’s what she had to say about the experience:

  • “I never even wanted to be in the same room with him. But even someone like my father has something good in him, and through this exercise and others like it, I feel like I’ve learned to appreciate him. Am I 100% fond of my dad? Hell no! But I can now honestly say I do appreciate him and actually have a relatively pleasant time around him, which is not something I could say four years ago.”

That definitely seems both promising and realistic. We may never have really close and supportive relationships with some of the people in our lives, but we can definitely improve the way we view and relate to them, as this example illustrates.

The Power of Online Friendships

Two commenters also highlighted the ways in which online friendships have helped them feel more emotionally connected to others and can also play an important role in transforming our in-person interactions:

  • “For quite a few years, I was very open and honest. Then I had a period when I started isolating and did something similar to what you were talking about. I knew tons of stuff about all of the other people in my life, but shared very little. It was actually through my online friends that I started to open up again. They gave me support, empathy, and understanding. I was able to let go of a lot of stuff that felt much worse when it was a secret and move forward. Now I’m feeling like myself again and I’m more open with everyone in my life.”
  • “I think online relationships are undervalued. Some of my best friends I got to know initially through the internet. The internet is a wondrous thing that allows you to connect to people who may be far away physically but are close in spirit.”

Very true words! I don’t know what I would have done without my online connections in recent years. They helped me to get though some extremely difficult times and continue to be a great source of support for me. I feel far less alone as a result of the interactions I have with people via the power of the Internet. I never intend to discount these connections, but I do feel that I need a balance of both online and in-person interactions. It’s much more of a “both and” situation than an “either or” proposition.

In Closing and Your Thoughts

Perhaps I need to just be grateful for the positive connections I do have, whether they are in person or online, while also working to attract new uplifting people into my life and transform my existing relationships. I’m going to try the exercise recommended above with a few family members who I will likely see within the next month or two. I’ll let you know how it goes in a future post.

A big thanks to all those who shared their insights in the comments sections of my last essay. I always welcome your thoughts and enjoy reading them. If you have any suggestions or advice regarding transforming our existing relationships, or if you would like to share your experiences on this topic, please do so. I look forward to learning from what you have to say and I wish you a wonderful weekend.

16 thoughts on “Can We Transform Our Broken Relationships?

  1. Helen says:

    Debbie–I,too, have people who use me for talking out their–and only their–problems. I have learned to fix this by either distancing if it’s not really worth it or by opening the chat with “There is something I want to ask you” and then asking something about MYSELF. It has worked for me and for them.. Sometimes the egocentric ones turn it into a me-too thing and still talk about themselves, but…
    So good to have you back.

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      Good to see you commenting here, Helen. It’s nice to have been missed by people… I like your opening line of “There is something I want to ask you.” I’m going to try that one! I definitely think it’s good to start off the chat proactively. Otherwise, it’s likely to go as it always has before. I think some people are very uncomfortable with silence, which is why they keep talking and talking. Some of these people are a lot better in person than over the phone, as they are more engaged and less nervous when they can look at us and see visual cues. But since a lot of people I’m in contact with live far away and I rarely see them, I need to learn how to better manage phone conversations and I like your tip – thanks!

  2. Sew Ruthie says:

    I found some useful tips in two books – 7 habits of highly effective People. Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goldman.

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      Thank you for those tips, Ruthie. I read “7 Habits…” years ago, but it’s a good one to revisit. I will look into “Emotional Intelligence” – the title is intriguing!

  3. Helen says:

    I meant to include that I am an INFJ and think that has a lot to do with this behavior. We are natural sounding boards, empathetic and sometimes forgetting about ourselves. Those who talk about only themselves are def. not INFJ! Anyone have experience with this? What are you in Myers-Briggs, Debbie?

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      I have tested as both INFP and INFJ, Helen. I’m on the cusp of the P and J, so I can go either way… I think your point is a good one. Yes, we are so empathetic that it’s our nature to focus more on others than ourselves, plus people often feel comfortable being open with us. When I used to be out and about more, and especially when traveling, strangers would often tell me intimate details about their lives. I wonder which Myers-Briggs types are the ones who are more likely to reveal those types of details. That’s definitely not me, although that might be surprising given how open I am in my blog posts. It just feels different and I like how my blogs seem to attract “my people.” I’m grateful for all of the kindred spirits I’ve met through my writing.

  4. Lee says:

    Another interesting post – I followed you over from Recovering shopaholic but am often too shy to post comments.
    My life feels ‘quiet’ most of the time – I don’t have many friends. But time and time again I find myself being there for others and listening and advising them in life – yet there is really nobody in my life who gives me this same level of support.

    In addition to this I’ve found those few people have become almost strangers in my life as I have been debilitated my depression which has been at its worst over the past four years. This resulted in me having to leave the workplace and I feel incredibly isolated. Illness has a way of making people want to avoid you. It really is true that many people only want to have friendships or interactions which are always positive or progressive. And I rarely discuss how i feel or what i’m going through because I don’t want the other party to feel uncomfortable.

    I’ve also found that the few times I have tried to ‘change up’ my personality if you like and been more…extroverted – people have not really noticed! I think this is down to people having for set views of how a person is and it’s difficult for them to move away from that viewpoint even if it’s no longer irrelevant. It’s certainly harder as an adult to make these changes and for others to recognise them. But as long as we’re always challenging ourselves and possess an ounce of self awareness all we can do is try!

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      I’m glad you decided to comment on this post, Lee. It seems we have a lot in common in terms of having quiet lives, being there for others who don’t reciprocate, struggling with depression, and people avoiding us due to illness. I actually like having a quiet life, but sometimes it can get TOO quiet and isolated, if you know what I mean. I’m not excusing others’ behavior, but I think that many people avoid those who are struggling because they don’t know what to say. I have had times when I didn’t know what to say, either, but I recall actually expressing that to the person and letting them know that I care and want to be there for them, and they can either talk about their issues or not when we’re together. I haven’t been perfect in this, as I have communication challenges just like everyone else, but I think most people appreciate people trying instead of just going away.

      I don’t want to make people uncomfortable by discussing what I’m going through, either, but that only makes the relationship more shallow and/or distant. I really don’t know what the answer is… I think we have to find the balance somehow (of revealing just enough but not too much) while still being true to ourselves. I agree that people often have set views of us that are hard to break through, which makes the whole thing more difficult! We just have to do our best and I think that thinking and writing about the issues helps. I will continue to do so and I hope you will comment again.

  5. Jane says:

    Great links, as always.

    I’m gonna be devil’s advocate, as usual, and argue that a high level of intimacy is not always warranted or even healthy in all cases. A lot of times, poor family dynamics simply results from poor communication skills, but sometimes it does reflect real abuse. While honesty and I guess intimacy could happen in those cases, personally, I’d rather the individual distance themselves from such a situation.

    A book I have that comes to my mind right now is “Feeling Good Together” by Dr. David Burns. In that book, Burns outlines various scenarios for handling various difficult interpersonal situations such as difficult spouses, narcissistic friends, judgmental coworkers, among others. Interestingly, a lot of the book seems to be devoted to explaining how people who find others difficult are themselves the ones causing the difficulty, and also explains how to avoid that trap. I used that book during my therapy journey and it really helped me to rephrase my communications from very negative (I almost got fired for shouting at a coworker in a crowded room!) to much more positive. I noticed that when I used my new skills, after a couple of years, my family started adopting my new style. I don’t know that we’re at “Level 5” intimacy, but I can say that our discussions are much happier and honest than before.

    I tested as an INTJ. I suppose this is evident from the relatively aloof and detached demeanor in most of my posts, LOL. That said, I am pretty much an open book to everyone in my life and I do get energy from being around people, so maybe I should retest.

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      I love that you are the Devil’s Advocate, Jane, as your comments always make me think. I think you’re right that some relationships don’t merit a high level of intimacy and we can end up feeling unsafe if we open up too much with the wrong people. I think that sometimes if we give being more open a chance, it can reap rewards, but we can also end up learning that it’s better to stick to the lower levels of intimacy with some people. Continuing to open up to people who mistreat us just opens the door to more abuse in many instances. That may well be the case with my family members, but I’m also wanting to consider my role in things and decide if I want to try to break through the status quo. The book you mentioned sounds excellent! I remember reading a book about depression by David Burns years ago. I think I would like to read what that book has to say about difficult interpersonal situations, as there are so many! I do want to better understand the ways in which I could potentially be causing or contributing to my relationship problems.

      That’s great that your family interactions are happier and more honest now. As to your personality type, my husband is either an INTJ or INTP (like me, he tests on the cusp of J and P – I think he’s an INTP, though). He can often seemed detached and aloof, but I haven’t thought that about your comments. I don’t think personality types are as black and white as some people may think. I get energized from being around SOME people, but certainly not all. I generally need a break from social interactions to “recharge,” but with certain people, I feel much less of a need for that. I think for me, it has to do with being able to be myself in some interactions and being accepted for who I am. That can go a long way… If you want to re-test, here are a few links to free tests (posting for others who may be unaware, too):

      http://www.humanmetrics.com/cgi-win/jtypes2.asp

      https://www.16personalities.com/free-personality-test

      1. Jane says:

        I just reread my comment and wanted to make something clear. I didn’t want to give the impression that you are at all a cause of any difficult interpersonal situations. In my case though, I was definitely a cause. Just wanted to clear that up because the book I recommend may not help you. I listed it just in case someone out there might benefit from it though, as it definitely did help me.

        Thanks for the links! I’m going to retest right now!

        1. Debbie Roes says:

          Thanks for clarifying, Jane. I do think I’m a cause for at least part of the difficulties I’m having in my relationships. One of my reasons for writing this post and the last one is to explore how I’m contributing to the problem and how I might be able to turn things around. I think I could benefit from the book you mentioned and I plan to check it out.

      2. socalgardeneats says:

        THANK YOU! Retested as ESFP/ENFP, which is about as opposite of INTJ as one can be. That seems more like me though. I love being around people and am depressed when I am solitary for long periods of time. I kind of wonder if one’s Meyers Brigg personality type can change over time, or if it was just a mistest the first time around.

        Your husband sounds like a classic INTP/INTJ, from your description. Also, let’s not forget how he effortlessly culled his wardrobe back a few years ago. (I don’t know why I like Kondoizing posts so much.)

        Yeah, if your family members are mistreating you, I would hate to see you open the door to more abuse, but I suppose you know better than anyone if there’s any harm in testing those waters.

        Yes, I’ve read all of David Burns books at the library. I bought Feeling Good (which is the one about depression that you mentioned) and Feeling Good Together (which seems to focus more on skills to handle difficult situations). Upon my recommendations, friends bought the books and I got mixed reactions, so your mileage may vary. Maybe you know of something even better; if you do, please feel free to share.

        1. Debbie Roes says:

          Wow, that’s a huge change in terms of your type, and it does seem like it’s a better fit from what I know about you. From what I understand about the Myers-Briggs, one’s type doesn’t change over time, although I have noticed that my percentages for the various dimensions have shifted (I have gotten more introverted and intuitive and less feeling over time, for example). If one is on the cusp like I am between the P and the J, the type may change, too because it’s hard to fine tune things exactly. What I think CAN happen is that we might answer the questions for the way we’d LIKE to be rather than the way we ARE. Maybe it was a mis-test for you the first time for that reason or another… I’m glad you re-took it, though, as I think it’s a useful test.

          I love the Kondo stuff, too, and I’m sure I will write more such posts in the future. I often don’t know what I will write about until I sit down to write! It’s funny, I was surprised that my husband was able to effortlessly cull his wardrobe. He actually agonizes far more over my clothes than his own (like that he doesn’t want me to get rid of certain things) and is a lot more patient when shopping for me than for himself.

          I’m nervous to test the waters with my family, so I will likely tread lightly there. It seems like maybe “Feeling Good Together” could help me there. I know that no one book is for everyone, but it’s worth a try. A good book I read recently that is about a somewhat different but related problem is “Emotional Blackmail” by Susan Forward. The examples in the book resonated with me in terms of family relationships, friendships, and past romantic relationships. There is a lot of great advice in there, but I think I will need to re-read it another time or two before I will be able to appropriately apply it.

  6. SharonW says:

    Hi Debbie. Great follow up to the last article. Very thought provoking indeed! Strangely a few days before this post appeared I had been reading Brene Brown’s book & decided I wanted to try to be more “wholehearted’. I had met my dad for lunch earlier in the day and had expressed how overwhelming I was finding life dealing with my in laws advanced dementia. He sympathized as he also provided care for my grandparents (his in laws) when I was a child. Later in the day I rang him to express my deep admiration for the role he had played whilst raising his own children and working full time in a demanding career. I also touched on how grateful I was that he was experiencing such joy with his second wife. His response was “somebody had to do it’ and he simply refused to accept any praise. After several minutes I realised he was just too uncomfortable discussing such an emotionally laden topic. Therefore like you level 3 is about my limit with my family haha. I’m grateful I have a level 5 with my husband. I am convinced our deep emotional connection has helped us cope with whatever life has thrown at us.

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      Interesting that you have also been feeling a desire to be more “wholehearted,” too, Sharon. We definitely seem to be on a similar life path… Good for you for opening up more to your dad. Even if he doesn’t want to deepen the level of intimacy between you now – or even ever, I still think it’s great that you gave it a try. Who knows? You may have planted a seed that could come to fruition later down the line. All we can do is try… I’m grateful to have Level 5 intimacy with my husband, too, as well as a few other people with whom I connect sometimes. I agree that having at least one person with whom we have such a bond can help us cope with life’s difficulties. As an introvert, I don’t need a lot of people to talk to or get together with regularly. Level 5 intimacy is all too rare, but it’s a wonderful thing when we find it!

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