Relationships are not limited to romantic ones. We cultivate them every day – at work and with family and friends.

When people hear the word “relationship”, they tend to think only of – or mainly of – romantic relationships.

This article is about the relationships we sometimes forget to think of as relationships: friendships, interactions with colleagues, and familial relationships – whether immediate or extended.
These are mostly long-term and emotionally demanding commitments in their own right, after all.

All our relationships shape us, and since I’m in the communications game I soon realised that I have to cultivate them in order to ensure success and investment on many fronts.

However, like anything, there are exceptions to this rule.  I’ve written about toxic environments before, and it is important to remember that, just as the effects of these environments can (and do) extend beyond work, the same can be said of toxic relationships and people.

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I had to learn that sometimes people and situations simply cannot be salvaged

Herein lay my difficulty, though: I’ve been trained to deal with conflict, and have to do this on a daily basis. However, I had to learn that sometimes people and situations simply cannot be salvaged. This was a difficult pill to swallow, but swallow it I had to.

I didn’t purposefully embark on a ‘relationship audit’ – it was a natural progression that stemmed from me walking away from situations, opportunities (yes, you read right), and people who weren’t meant for me…

I realised that the way I value my time and energy levels had changed – for the better

I was able to take stock of the people who were genuinely there for me, and realise that I would absolutely do the same for them. Once you turn that corner, there is no looking back.

I laugh about it now, but I think the catalyst for a lot of this was my wedding.

If you want to see who people really are, tell them you are getting married

In the days leading up to and after the wedding, it seemed to be like the universe was dishing up all the lessons about human psychology it could, and was hell-bent on making me take them all at once, or to convince me that I’d missed my calling to become a psychologist.

The real gems included:

  • Being completely lambasted for not telling the ‘friend’ who introduced me to my husband that we were getting married before I told anyone else;
  • Being taken to task about not having bridesmaids (not even my sisters brought this up, though they would have been fully entitled to do so);
  • Having the MC cancel on us less than a week before the wedding because I called him out on something I found deeply morally offensive;
  • Having to deal with a guest crying in the bathroom at the reception because she thought she “would never get married” (I kid you not);
  • After the wedding, I had orders barked at me on social media about sharing the photos (I’m so sorry, I must have missed your contribution to the wedding photographer – but oh wait, I paid for that myself, and I don’t remember seeing any photos of me at your wedding being shared with me…); and
  • Being told that people had given up other commitments to be there (well, that’s why you were asked to RSVP – no one was holding a gun to your head).

So yes, that experience was a real eye-opener. I could count on both hands the people who kept me going through all that – all of whom I thanked individually, and one of whom I am fortunate enough to call my husband.

These are the people I cherish and choose to keep close. For the rest, I had to learn to get go.

To be honest, I was incredibly angry for months afterwards. Not my most shining moment, and definitely not a time I want to reflect on.

I made a lot of mistakes: I held my tongue when I shouldn’t have, I left a lot of things unsaid in the interest of ‘keeping the peace’, and I also said a lot of things to people that I shouldn’t have (some of them were deserved, but not said at the best times, or in the best ways).

In the end, I decided that I needed to overhaul the way I set boundaries

No more letting people get away with things just because I wanted to avoid conflict. I couldn’t have individual conversations with those people, but I knew that I had to deal with them and the residual emotions constructively.

Here are some of the things I learned:

1. Not everyone has to have a seat at your table just because they are in your life at a specific time.

People come and go like emotions. A bad moment is a bad moment – you can choose to let it affect the rest of your day, or you can choose to move past it. The same applies to people, and to life in general.

2. Decide what you really value

You’d be surprised by how little you actually need to make you happy. This is especially true when you remove everything superfluous or negative in your life. Again, the same applies to people.

3. You don’t have to be cruel to be kind – neutrality works much better

You aren’t appointed to be anyone’s teacher. Their lessons are their lessons. Your dealings with people become easier when you understand that people are only capable of extending knowledge gained from their life experiences.

If they are emotionally stunted, ignorant, insensitive, jealous, petty, or just attention-seeking energy vampires, it is not your job to fix that, or them.

Let them be – they need to learn for themselves. You’ll have enough of your own lessons anyway.

4. Toxic people needed to be avoided, but you can still be merciful and empathetic towards them

You don’t have to interact with them, you don’t need to take the bait, you don’t need to have them around you. I took the advice I once heard from a dog trainer: “Ignore the behaviour you don’t want, and reward the behaviour you do.” Who knew it would work so well with people too?

Change is like exercise: we know it’s good for us but it’s easier to sit on the couch than go out there and make it happen

5. You need to understand that you can’t change anyone except yourself

… and the process required to change yourself, your behaviours, your habits (good and bad), and your responses is a long and difficult one.

Change is like exercise: we know it’s good for us but it’s easier to sit on the couch than go out there and make it happen: if exercise was easy then everyone would do it – and that applies to change too.

Self-actualisation is even more difficult to attain, and people seldom want to go through the process of admitting their mistakes, apologising to others (and themselves), and then changing that behaviour or response permanently.

6. Don’t expect apologies from anyone. Ever

Yes, that is something you have to be prepared for. Sometimes people are so wrapped up in their own lives and emotions that they can’t (or won’t) see how they are hurting others. Don’t waste time or energy expecting things from people who aren’t capable of that level of self-awareness and maturity.

When it comes to your own ‘relationship audit’ remember that you need to practise compassion towards others as well as towards yourself.

Life doesn’t come with a rule book – just be a good person and, if you’re really lucky, you’ll inspire others to do the same.

Read this next: 8 Small (but powerful) ways to fix your toxic relationship with your in-laws