I have many vices, but co-dependence is not regularly listed among them, so my response to my friend’s question initially was short.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about emotional obligation to others, and at what point trying to be kind to others actually becomes unhealthy behavior.
I often find myself in very close relationships with people that I do not like because they are having a hard time and need someone to talk to. Is there any exit point in a friendship? It’s not easy to say, “Hey I actually think you’re super mean and manipulative and I don’t want to be your friend.”
It would feel so shitty to hear that, but is it worse to do that or pretend to enjoy a relationship that you don’t?
As with anything, relationships with you ultimately are defined by what you get out of them. Mark Twain’s What is Man? gets to that in defining selfishness:
‘The act must do him good, first; otherwise he will not do it. He may think he is doing it solely for the other person’s sake, but it is not so; he is contenting his own spirit first—the other’s person’s benefit has to always take second place.’
Whatever sacrifice you make for someone else is not so much a sacrifice for them as a reward for yourself. You feel the satisfaction of martyrdom. You gain the pleasure of watching someone else improve due to your effort. At Christmas, the gifts you give to others are intended foremost as gifts to yourself, knowing you’ve chosen something they’ll enjoy.
This doesn’t disqualify the genuine good of anonymous giving or helping someone to become self-sufficient, but we all behave as we do because at the time we imagine other options to be worse than the choice we end up making.
I regularly find myself counseling people to jettison someone from their lives because the other person is an emotional vampire, siphoning their resources and energy. And my argument is not that that person is harming them by doing this—which also can be true— but rather that their sacrifice is not actually helping that person.
If someone has a substance-abuse problem, continuing to provide the cushion to indulge that addiction without dealing with what’s underlying isn’t necessarily helpful. If you’re doing it in part because it gives you someone else’s problems to focus on rather than your own, truly there’s no value to anyone in what’s happening.
Then again, I’ve officially broken up with friends before when the slow fade doesn’t take on its own. I’ve certainly broken up with romantic partners because I recognize I can’t do anything positive for their lives going forward.
Without a doubt, that’s selfishness. That’s being a self-centered person. But it’s also being a person capable of empathy and imagining what I would want from someone else. If a condition of a continued relationship involved someone being something they’re not or can’t enjoy being, I’d just as soon not make them do it, either.
If you enjoy helping other people, certainly you should do it. Whatever your motivation, helping other people to get through hard times is a good thing and what each of us wish someone else would do for us. But that good is dependent on what both sides actually get out of it.
When I’m in a mental place of undesirable behavior, the boundaries for what I will attempt and assume get away with are dependent on what others allow. So in that way, too much understanding and forgiveness from others is actually corrosive to my own progress and development as a worthwhile human creature.
Mothers and fathers are required to care for their offspring even when those people have achieved a level of hateability that renders them distasteful to the entire remaining portion of the human race. The rest of us are not required to do so.
And this is the reason that I say no one should continue to try to be friendly with a toxic or antagonistic person. We ought to have people whose jobs are to reach such folk as social workers or friends in some way measurable and quantifiable. But as a regular person, it’s more than enough to be there for someone willing to reciprocate empathy, receive their complaints, and encourage them. If a person insists upon misery, by all means vote and politically agitate for conditions that benefit that person beyond their active predilections, but don’t feel obligated to suffer them as a lay fellow.
If someone is terrible, that doesn’t mean they’re undeserving of sympathy or attention, but also it doesn’t mean you’re responsible for that person’s well-being or providing attention to them. We all have the ability to influence others, but you’re never so important as you think, especially in the way you think. It’s worth caring about people and providing for them, but if they’re unrepetentant jerks, it’s worth cutting them loose so they have incentive to behave as a better human than they have been.