Learning How to Handle Hurtful Relationships

How can we start handling hurtful relationships? Stop throwing the ball back.

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If you, or a friend or family member, have struggled with a difficult relationship, if you’ve felt torn-up and crazy and confused because of it, if you just want to know how to move forward and be okay, this story is for you.

It’s my junior year of college and I’m sitting in my favorite class, preparing to continue learning all about family dynamics and abuse and relationships. It’s what we’ve been studying lately, and it’s right up my ally. Basically, my college classes are like therapy. 

I settle in my seat for more information about dysfunctional families when a bald man with a dark mustache and black leather jacket walks to the front of the class. We have a guest lecturer today. He’s some kind of drug and alcohol counselor.

My body straightens and my head leans forward. Tell me what you know, Bald Man, because I need what you know. He lectures for 45 minutes on substance abuse and how it affects families and all I really care about is grabbing him after class and telling him about my mom and asking him what to do with my mom and our jacked-up relationship.

The minute we are dismissed, I move through the desks, bumping my hips in my hurry, and run down the steps toward the door where he’s standing. I ask him if I can talk to him for a few minutes. He says yes.

I tell him about my mom. I tell him that she drinks sunup to sundown and that she knows she’s an alcoholic but doesn’t care. I tell him how when I’m around her I feel crazy, rage sliding under the surface but that I’m also helpless to help her, to make her happy. I can never say the right things or do the right things; I feel guilty around her; I disappoint her. And she tells me so. I tell him that we are so tangled up with each other that I don’t know what is true and what isn’t. Am I just too sensitive? What do I do? 

“Don’t throw the ball back.”

I scrunch my face at him. “Huh?”

“If I have a ball in my hand and I throw it to you, are you going to catch it?”

“Yea, I guess.” 

“Okay,” he says, “Well, you made that choice; you caught the ball. Now you have another choice to make: you can hold the ball, drop the ball, or throw the ball back.” He tells me this ball-throwing situation is what is going on with my mom. He says we are engaged in a game of toss. She throws out a ball of verbal abuse or manipulation (this is a new word for me), and I always respond by throwing the ball back; I engage with her. “Mom, I tried, I really did. I don’t know what you want me to do!” Ball toss. “Sarah, if you would have just…” Ball toss. “Mom, you’re really hurting my feelings…why do you have to be like this?” Ball toss. “Get a grip Sarah, you are way too sensitive.” Ball toss. 

On and on, back and forth, a seemingly never-ending game. 

“If you don’t want to play the game anymore, stop throwing the ball back.”

If she calls and starts being verbally abusive to me or manipulating me, I can hang up the phone. I can start by saying, “If you keep talking to me like this, I’m going to hang up.” But often that doesn’t work because the person will suck you in with explanations and manipulations and it just stays messy and the call drags on and the ball stays in play. 

Bald Man says I can make an excuse: “Sorry mom, gotta go, someone’s at the door.” Click. Or I can just say, “Gotta go” and hang up before she responds. What I don’t want to do is stay in the spiral. If I don’t hang up she’ll keep talking, keep pushing. Ending our conversation abruptly seems rude and harsh, and it is, but it’s a boundary that will save my sanity. 

I feel a responsibility to make things right with her, but I’m being ineffective because I am trapped in unhealthy behaviors and tangled thinking. 

I’m an emotionally unhealthy person trying help an emotionally unhealthy person. And it isn’t working. Of course.

Today I will stop throwing the ball. God help me.

Excerpted and adapted with permission from The Complicated Heart: Loving Even When It Hurts by Sarah Mae. Copyright 2019, B&H Publishing Group.

Sarah Mae is the author of the Bible study Psalm 40: Crying Out to the God Who Delights to Rescue Us and several books, including The Complicated Heart: Loving Even When It Hurts and Desperate: Hope for the Mom Who Needs to Breathe (with Sally Clarkson). She is also the host of The Complicated Heart, a podcast for those looking for healing in the pain and restoration in the ruins.

She resides in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, with her husband, her three children, and their yellow lab, Memphis.

How do you forgive when the wound is still open? People often ask Sarah, "How did you forgive your alcoholic mother?” How do you forgive someone who carelessly brushed aside your pain, who caused such destruction, and who doesn’t show remorse? How do you know when to stay and when to go? 

In The Complicated Heart: Loving Even When It Hurts, you will travel through Sarah's story with her, from age 14 and beyond, as she wrestles with these very questions. If you, or a friend or family member, have struggled with a difficult relationship, if you’ve felt torn-up and crazy and confused because of it, if you just want to know how to move forward and be okay, this story is for you.