20 Powerful TED Talks on Relationships & Communication

20 powerful TED Talks on relationships, communication, and related topics for mental health professionals and counseling students to use as psychoeducational tools (or for self-help).

For more recommended TED Talks, see 10 Most Popular TEDx Talks (a playlist from the TED website), 3 Powerful TED Talks on Grief, 10 Powerful TED Talks on Emotions, 10 Powerful TED Talks on Resilience, Empathy, & Compassion, and 18 Best TED Talks for Addiction & Recovery.

For additional psychoeducational videos, see 50 Helpful YouTube Videos for Psychoeducation.


20 Powerful TED Talks on Relationships & Communication

1. Four Habits of ALL Successful Relationships | Dr. Andrea & Jonathan Taylor-Cummings (2019)

All relationships take work. Dr. Andrea & Jon Taylor-Cummings share their observations of the four fundamental habits of healthy relationships: BE CURIOUS, not critical; BE CAREFUL, not crushing; ASK, don’t assume; and CONNECT, before you correct.


2. Ten Ways to Have a Better Conversation | Celeste Headlee (2016)

Journalist, author, and public speaker Celeste Headlee reveals the ingredients of a great conversation: Honesty, brevity, clarity, and a healthy amount of listening. In this insightful talk, she shares 10 rules for having better conversations.


3. The Brain in Love | Helen Fisher (2008)

Helen Fisher – anthropologist, human behavior researcher, and self-help author – talks about romantic love in this video clip. She shares what neuroscience tells us about the brain in love.


Bonus video: The Science of Love with Dr. Helen Fisher


4. Do You Have Post Betrayal Syndrome? | Debi Silber (2020)

Dr. Debi Silber – psychologist and founder of the PBT (Post Betrayal Transformation) Institute – talks about being blindsided by betrayal. She explains how we heal (physically, mentally, and emotionally) from betrayal by turning trauma into transformation.

Take a free quiz to find out if you have post betrayal syndrome.


5. The Dreaded Drama Triangle | Lucy Barnes (2018)

There are three roles we take on in unhealthy relationships. Are you the victim, the rescuer, or the persecutor? Lucy Barnes talks about the dreaded drama triangle in this TED Talk.


6. How to Fix a Broken Heart | Guy Winch (2018)

Psychologist Guy Winch talks about heartbreak and the intense emotional pain it brings. To recover from a broken heart, we must be willing to let the relationship go; hope can be incredibly destructive when we’re heartbroken. In one of the most viewed TED Talks on relationships and breakups, Winch shares practical suggestions for moving on after a relationship ends.


7. How to Speak So That People Want to Listen | Julian Treasure (2014)

According to Julian Treasure, the seven deadly sins of speaking are gossip, judging, negativity, complaining, blaming, lying, and conflating fact with opinion. He talks about the four cornerstones of effective speech as well as tools for speaking so that people want to listen.


Bonus TED-Ed Video: How Miscommunication Happens and How to Avoid It


8. How to Spot a Liar | Pamela Meyer (2011)

We’re all liars, according to Pamela Meyer – and we’re lied to between 10 and 200 times on any given day. In one of the most highly viewed TED Talks on relationships and deception, Meyer talks about how to spot lies by recognizing the telltale signs of a liar.


9. How Your Brain Falls In Love | Dawn Maslar (2016)

Biologist Dawn Maslar explains the neuroscience of falling in love. Romantic love is associated with chemical and hormonal changes that differ for men and women.


10. Infidelity: To Stay or Go…? | Lucy Beresford (2018)

Psychotherapist and relationship expert Lucy Beresford argues against the assumption that ending a relationship after infidelity is the best course of action. She suggests that it’s more courageous to stay and rebuild. In this TED Talk, Beresford explains how a couple can repair their relationship and rebuild trust after a betrayal.


Bonus TED-Ed Video: A Brief History of Divorce

11. Is Casual Sex Bad for You? | Dr. Zhana Vrangalova (2015)

Renowned sex researcher and psychologist Zhana Vrangalova discusses casual sex, long portrayed as a societal sin. She explains how “hookup” sex satisfies some of our most basic human needs.


12. Is It Lust or Is It Love? | Terri Orbuch (2014)

Dr. Terri Orbuch (aka, The Love Doctor®) is a professor of sociology at Oakland University (Rochester, Michigan) and a research professor at the Institute for Social Research at University of Michigan. In this TED Talk she explains how to differentiate between lust and love by recognizing distinctive features.


13. Overcoming the Fear of Love | Trillion Small (2018)

Dr. Trillion Small, licensed marriage and family therapist, examines why we fear love and how to overcome this in order to have healthy relationships.


14. The Power of Vulnerability | Brené Brown (2011)

Brené Brown shares a deep insight from her research, one that sent her on a personal quest to know herself as well as to understand humanity.


15. Relationships Are Hard, but Why? | Stan Tatkin (2016)

Stan Tatkin – relationship expert, clinician, teacher, and researcher – explores why we fight in relationships from a neuroscience perspective.


16. Rethinking Infidelity… A Talk for Anyone Who Has Ever Loved | Esther Perel (2015)

Relationship therapist Esther Perel discusses adultery and infidelity in this TED Talk. She explains that monogamy has nothing to do with love and talks about the three ways infidelity hurts us differently today.


17. The Science of Love | John Gottman (2018)

Can science help find the magic of love? Relationship expert discusses the science of love and how to make love work.


18. Skills for Healthy Romantic Relationships | Joanne Davila (2015)

Psychologist and researcher Joanne Davila describes how you can create the things that lead to healthy relationships and reduce the things that lead to unhealthy ones using three evidence-based skills – insight, mutuality, and emotion regulation.


19. What a Sex Worker Can Teach Us About Human Connection | Nicole Emma (2018)

Nicole Emma explains that sex is how men feel loved and worthy. She shares what she learned about human connection through sex work. She also touches on the impact of harmful male messages in society.


20. Why Domestic Violence Victims Don’t Leave | Leslie Morgan Steiner (2013)

Leslie Morgan Steiner shares what it’s like to be in “crazy love” with an abusive partner. For years she stayed with a man who routinely abused her and threatened her life. In this TED Talk, Steiner explains why domestic violence victims don’t leave abusive relationships; she also corrects common misconceptions about intimate partner violence.


TED Talks on relationships

50 Free Marriage & Relationship Assessment Tools

(Updated 1/22/22) This is a list of free marriage and relationship assessment tools to use with couples in marriage and family counseling for assessing relationship satisfaction/expectations, attachment styles, communication, domestic violence/sex addiction, and more.

marriage
Image by bporbs from Pixabay

See Free Online Screening & Assessment Tools for additional screening tools.

Marriage & Relationship Assessment Tools

Relationship Assessment Tools for Satisfaction & Expectations

Attachment Styles

Communication

Domestic Violence & Sex Addiction

  • Danger Assessment Screening Tool | Clinicians can download a PDF version of this assessment, which helps predict the level of danger in an abusive relationship; this screening tool was developed to predict violence and homicide.
  • Domestic Violence Assessment Tools | Five relationship assessments from the Domestic Shelters site
  • Domestic Violence Screening Quiz | Interactive test from PsychCentral to determine if you’re involved in a dangerous abusive relationship
  • Sexual Addiction Quiz | A brief screening measure from PsychCentral to help you determine if you are struggling with sexual addiction

Additional Relationship Assessment Tools


relationship assessment

5 Effective Self-Care Strategies for Addiction in the Family

Self-care is not a luxury; it’s necessary for survival when your loved one has a substance use disorder. By taking care of yourself, you gain the energy and patience to cope with your problems. Self-care promotes wellness and emotional intelligence; it puts you in a better space to interact with your loved one. Strategies include developing/building resilience, practicing distress tolerance, keeping perspective, and recognizing/managing your triggers.

Image by DanaTentis from Pixabay

When your loved one has a substance use disorder (SUD), it can be overwhelming, distressing, and all-consuming. When we’re stressed, we forget to practice basic self-care, which in turn makes us even less equipped to cope with the emotional chaos addiction generates. This post is about self-care strategies for when your loved one has an addiction.

In the book Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change (A Guide for Families), the authors discuss the importance of self-care. This post reviews the authors’ recommended self-care strategies.

(Side note: I strongly recommend reading Beyond Addiction if your loved one has an SUD or if you work in the field. This book will increase your understanding of addiction and teach you how to cope with and positively impact your loved one’s SUD by using a motivational approach. This is one of the best resources I’ve come across, especially for family members/significant others.)

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Based on the premise that your actions affect your loved one’s motivation, taking care of yourself is not only modeling healthy behaviors, it’s putting you in a better space to interact with your loved one. Chronic stress and worry make it difficult to practice self-care. Self-care may even seem selfish.

However, by taking care of yourself and thus reducing suffering, you gain the energy and patience to cope with your problems (and feel better too). Furthermore, you reduce the level of pain and tension in your relationships with others, including your loved one with a SUD.

Self-care strategies include developing/building resilience, practicing distress tolerance, keeping perspective, and recognizing/managing your triggers. Therapy and/or support groups are additional options.

“An empty lantern provides no light. Self-care is the fuel that allows your light to shine brightly.”

Unknown

Self-Care Strategies When Your Loved One Has an Addiction

Resilience

The definition of resilience is “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties” (Oxford Dictionary). Doctors Foote, Wilkens, and Kosanke wrote that having resilience is a way to “systematically reduce your vulnerability to bad moods, lost tempers, and meltdowns.”

While you cannot “mood-proof” yourself entirely, resilience helps when facing life’s challenges, setbacks, and disappointments. To maintain resilience, one must practice at least the most basic self care practices, which are as follows:

  1. Eat well
  2. Sleep well
  3. Exercise enough
  4. Avoid mood-altering drugs (including alcohol)
  5. Treat illness (with prescribed medications, adequate rest, etc.)
Image by Irina L from Pixabay

Self-care is not something you can push in to the future. Don’t wait until you have more time or fewer obligations. Self-care is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. The authors of Beyond Addiction pointed out that self-care is something you have control over when other parts of your life are out of control. If you find it challenging to implement self-care practices, tap into your motivations, problem-solve, get support, and most of all, be patient and kind with yourself.

“Taking care of yourself is the most powerful way to begin to take care of others.”

Bryant McGill

Distress Tolerance

On tolerance, Doctors Foote, Wilkens, and Kosanke suggested that it is “acceptance over time, and it is a cornerstone of self-care.” Tolerance is not an inherent characteristic; it is a skill. And like most skills, it requires practice. However, it’s wholly worth the effort as it reduces suffering. By not tolerating the things you cannot change (such as a loved one’s SUD), you’re fighting reality and adding to the anguish.

Self-care strategies and techniques for distress tolerance include distracting yourself, relaxing, self-soothing, taking a break, and creating positive experiences. (The following skills are also taught in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), an evidence-based practice that combines cognitive behavioral therapy techniques and mindfulness. For additional resources, visit The Linehan Institute or Behavioral Tech.)    

Distract Yourself

  1. Switch the focus of your thoughts. The possibilities are endless; for you, this could mean reading a magazine, calling a friend, walking the dog, etc. The authors of Beyond Addiction suggested making a list of ideas for changing your thoughts (and keeping it handy).
  2. Switch the focus of your emotions. Steer your emotions in a happier direction by watching corgi puppies on YouTube, reading an inspirational poem, or viewing funny Facebook memes. The writers of Beyond Addiction suggested bookmarking sites in your Internet browser that you know will cheer you up.
  3. Switch the focus of your senses. This could mean taking a hot shower, jumping into a cold pool, holding an ice cube in your hand, walking from a dark room to one that’s brightly lit, looking at bright colors, listening to loud rock music, etc. Also, simply walking away from a distressing situation may help.
  4. Do something generous. Donate to your favorite charity, pass out sandwiches to the homeless, visit a nursing home and spend time with the residents, express genuine thanks to cashier or server, etc. By redirecting attention away from yourself (and directing energy toward positive goals), you’ll feel better. In Beyond Addiction, it’s noted that this skill is especially helpful for individuals who tend to ruminate. Also, it’s important to brainstorm activities that are accessible in the moment (i.e. texting a friend to let them know you’re thinking about them) that don’t take multiple steps (such as volunteering).
Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

Relax

“Body tells mind tells body…” Relaxing your body helps to relax your mind. It also focuses your thoughts on relaxing (instead of your loved one’s addiction). What helps you to relax? Yoga? A hot bath? Mindful meditation? (I recommend doing a mindful body scan; it’s simple and effective, even for the tensest of the tense, i.e. me.)

Soothe Yourself

In Beyond Addiction, self-soothing is described as “making a gentle, comforting appeal to any of your five senses.” A hot beverage. Nature sounds. A cozy blanket. A scenic painting. Essential oils. A cool breeze. A warm compress. A massage. Your favorite song. Find what works for you, make a list, and utilize as needed. Seemingly small self-care strategies can make a big difference in your life by creating comfort and reducing out-of-control emotions.

Take A Break

“Taking a break” doesn’t mean giving up; it’s a timeout for when you’re emotionally exhausted and is one of the best self-care strategies you can have. Learn to recognize when you need to step away from a situation or from your own thoughts. Find a way to shift your focus to something pleasant (i.e. a romantic movie, a nature walk, a day trip to the beach, playing golf for a few hours, traveling to a different country, etc.)

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Create a Positive Experience

Doctors Foote, Wilkens, and Kosanke refer to this as “making it better,” not in the sense that you’re fixing the problem (or your loved one), but that you’re making the moment better by transforming a negative moment into a positive one. Suggested self-care strategies for creating a positive experience include the following:

  1. Half-smile. Another mind-body technique, half-smiling tricks your brain into feeling happier.
  2. Meditate or pray. As explained in Beyond Addiction, “meditation or pray is another word for – and effective channel to – awareness and acceptance. Either one can open doors to different states of mind and act as an emotional or spiritual salve in trying moments.”
  3. Move. By moving, you’re shifting your focus and releasing energy. Stretch, run, play volleyball, chop wood, move furniture, etc.
  4. Find meaning. The authors of Beyond Addiction wrote, “Suffering can make people more compassionate toward others. Having lived through pain, sometimes people are better able to appreciate moments of peace and joy.” Suffering can also inspire meaningful action. What can you do to find meaning?
  5. Borrow some perspective. How do your problems look from a different viewpoint? Ask a trusted friend. You may find that your perspective is causing more harm than good.

Perspective

Perspective is “an understanding of a situation and your reactions to it that allows you to step back and keep your options open… [it’s] seeing patterns, options, and a path forward” (Beyond Addiction).

When Trish married Dave nearly 20 years ago, he rarely drank: maybe an occasional beer over the weekend or a glass of wine at dinner. After their fist daughter was born, his drinking increased to a few beers most nights. Dave said it helped him relax and manage the stress of being a new parent.

By the time their second daughter was born several years later, his drinking had progressed to a six-pack of beer every evening (and more on weekends). Currently, Dave drinks at least a 12-pack of beer on weeknights; if it’s the weekend, his drinking starts Friday after work and doesn’t stop until late Sunday night.

Dave no longer helps Trish with household chores or yardwork as he did early in their marriage. He rarely dines with the family and won’t assist with the cooking/cleanup; he typically eats in front of the TV. Dave occasionally engages with his daughters, but Trish can’t recall the last time they went on a family outing, and it’s been years since they went on a date.

Dave struggles to get out of bed in the mornings and is frequently late to work; Trish is worried he’ll get fired. They frequently argue about this. Dave is irritable much of the time, or angry. Most nights, he doesn’t move from his armchair (except to get another beer) until he passes out with the television blaring.

Trish is frustrated; she believes Dave is lazy and lacks self-control. When she nags about his drinking, he promises he’ll cut back, but never follows through. Trish thinks he’s not trying hard enough. She can’t understand why he’d choose booze over her and the kids; sometimes she wonders if it’s because she’s not good enough… maybe he would stop if she was thinner or funnier or more interesting?  At times she feels helpless and hopeless and others, mad and resentful; she frequently yells at Dave. She wonders if things are ever going to change.  

Image by Luis Wilker Perelo WilkerNet from Pixabay

A different perspective would be to recognize that Dave has an alcohol use disorder. He feels ill most of the time, which affects his mood, energy level, and motivation. He wants to cut back, but fails when he tries, which leads to guilt and shame. To feel better, he drinks. It’s a self-destructive cycle.

If Trish understood this, she could learn to not take his drinking personally or question herself. Her current reactions, nagging and yelling, only increase defensiveness and harm Dave’s sense of self-worth. Alternative options for Trish might include learning more about addiction and the reasons Dave drinks, bolstering his confidence, and/or creating a supportive and loving environment to enhance motivation.

Triggers

In recovery language, a “trigger” is anything (person, place, or thing) that prompts a person with SUD to drink or use; it activates certain parts of the brain associated with use. For instance, seeing a commercial for beer could be triggering for a person with an alcohol use disorder.

You have triggers too. For example, if your loved one is in recovery for heroin, and you notice that a bottle of opioid painkillers is missing from the medicine cabinet, it could trigger a flood of emotions: fear, that your loved one relapsed; sadness, when you remember the agony addiction brings; hopelessness, that they’ll never recover. It’s crucial to recognize what triggers you and have a plan to cope when it happens. Being aware of your triggers is a self-care strategy.

Therapy and Support Groups

Lastly, self-care strategies such as therapy and/or support groups can be a valuable addition to your self-care regime. Seeing a therapist can strengthen your resilience and distress tolerance skills. Therapy may provide an additional avenue for perspective.

(Side note: A good therapist is supportive and will provide you with tools for effective problem-solving and communication, coping with grief and loss, building self-esteem, making difficult choices, managing stress, overcoming obstacles, improving social skills/emotional intelligence, and better understanding yourself. A good therapist empowers you. A bad therapist, on the other hand, will offer advice and/or tell you what to do, disempowering you.)

Image by HannahJoe7 from Pixabay

Regarding support groups, there are many options for family members, friends, and significant others with a loved one who has a SUD, including Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, and Families Anonymous. Support groups provide the opportunity to share in a safe space and to receive feedback, suggestions, and/or encouragement from others who relate.


“I have come to believe that caring for myself is not self indulgent. Caring for myself is an act of survival.”

Audre Lorde

In sum, self-care is not optional; it’s essential for surviving the addiction of a loved one. Self-care enhances both overall wellness and your ability to help your loved one; in order words, take responsibility for your health and happiness by taking care of yourself. Commit to engaging in at least one or two of the self-care strategies you learned about in this post.

For additional self-care strategies and more information on how you can help your loved one, visit The Center for Motivation and Change.

self-care strategies

6 Tips for Developing Healthy Boundaries

Why is it important to set and adhere to healthy boundaries? How can you tell if yours are weak?

“Good fences make good neighbors.”

Robert Frost

Thoughts on Building & Maintaining “Good Fences”

When I picture a boundary, I imagine drawing a circle with a stick in the dirt… with me in the middle. I stay in; everyone else stays out. Boundaries are protective; they keep us safe. Without boundaries, you have no limits, no sense of direction. Without boundaries, you open yourself up… anyone can come in, with good or bad intentions.

If you have poor boundaries in a dating relationship, you could end up doing things you’re not comfortable with. Or, another example might be with your boss; if you don’t set firm limits, you could end up taking one extra tasks.

I once worked with a client who regularly violated his partner’s boundaries by yelling, “Phone check!” whenever he wanted to check his girlfriend’s cell. She’d hand it over and he’d review her calls/read her texts. It was a boundary violation for sure. Everyone has a right to privacy. (That being said, your partner never has the right to go through your phone, read your journal, request your social media passwords, etc. Those are all boundary violations; they could also indicate that the relationship is in trouble.)

Another way to conceptualize a boundary is to picture mosquito netting. It keeps the mosquitoes out, but it’s flexible and lightweight. It lets in air, sunlight, a cool breeze… A mosquito net is a healthy boundary. If you were to instead build a brick structure, you’d be doing a lot of unnecessary work and you’d probably still get bit.  

It’s best to be up front and honest about the boundaries you set (which requires assertiveness). With your boss, the first time he asks if you can stay late on a Friday, you might end up saying yes. (It’s probably just a onetime thing, right?) Seeing that you don’t say no the first time, he may continue to ask you to stay late or take on extra work.

The alternative (boundary-setting) option would be to say (when he first asks), “I’m sorry, although I’d love to be able to, I have a policy against being away from home on Fridays. It’s family night at my house.” It’s unlikely he’ll ask you again because you very firmly (and politely) set a boundary.

On the other hand, if you’re passionate about your career, you could be flexible and stay late (especially if you’re hoping for a promotion or a raise) without feeling as though your boundaries have been violated. The important thing is to know where you stand (i.e. what your boundary is).

Equally important to setting boundaries is adhering to them once they’re established. There are people out there who love to test boundaries. A boundary is useless without follow through. Your boundary becomes meaningless if you say you’re not going to do something and then you do it anyway.

If you tell your child “no candy before dinner,” but then finally give in after several bouts of dramatic tears, you’re sending a message. The message is “When I say no, I don’t mean it.” It’s important to be consistent with boundaries.

Signs of Weak Boundaries

  • A lack of assertiveness
  • Altering your personal values for someone (especially in a romantic relationship)
  • Having a sexual relationship with someone when you’re not ready
  • Not being able to say “no”
  • Trusting others quickly (when it’s not warranted)
  • Falling in love quickly or believing an acquaintance is your best friend when you only met the day before

Rigid boundaries, on the other hand, are at the opposite end of the spectrum. A person with rigid boundaries doesn’t trust easily or let others in. It would be difficult to be in an intimate relationship with a person with rigid boundaries.

6 Tips for Healthy Boundaries

Firstly, know that it will take time. Be patient with yourself and don’t criticize yourself if you fall back into old habits.

Recognize (and accept) your right to establish and adhere to personal boundaries. Read one of Dr. Cloud’s books on boundaries or Melody Beattie’s Codependent No More. Personally, I like Co-dependents Anonymous’ recovery literature. It’s an easy read (four pages) and you can access it for free.

If you haven’t already, take time to clarify your values. You can do a values sort – there are plenty of free resources online. It’s something I frequently do with my clients. What’s most important to you? Family? Integrity? Kindness? Have unhealthy boundaries affected this value in the past? (If kindness is most important to you, and you identify as a “people pleaser,” consider all the times you’ve been unkind to yourself. Explore ideas for practicing kindness to both others and self.)

Also, deliberate on the behaviors you find unacceptable (in terms of how you’re treated). Looking back on past relationships, I dated men who cheated on me, called me names, were mean to my friends, and yes, even checked my phone. Completely unacceptable. At this point in my life, I have a zero tolerance policy.

When you establish boundaries, especially with those who don’t expect it (i.e. your mother-in-law or the neighbor who regularly lets his dog romp through your garden), anticipate some push back. It probably won’t feel good in the moment.

Practice assertiveness. Don’t back down. If someone is particularly resistant, don’t engage in an argument.  You don’t owe an explanation. You don’t even have to respond. Remain calm; walk away if needed. If it helps, pre-plan your exact wording. (“I’m sorry, but I’m no longer able to stay till 9 on Fridays. Unexpected circumstances at home won’t allow it.”) Be concise. Don’t be overly apologetic.

If the person you’re setting boundaries with is a significant other or family member, I’d recommend transparency. Let them know that you’re going to make some changes. Share how unhealthy boundaries have negatively impacted you. (Give specific examples if you can.) Don’t place blame. Talk about how healthy boundaries will positively impact not just you,but the relationship. It may still be difficult. There may be some tension; the relationship might feel strained. (And it’s okay.)

If you set boundaries and find them repeatedly violated; firstly, take a step back and reevaluate the situation. Have you been clear and consistent? If so, you may want to consider spending less time with this person or even ending the relationships. Unfortunately, while you can set boundaries, you can’t force someone to respect them.


In sum, boundaries are imperative. Skin is a boundary that keeps other organs in place; it shields our body systems from toxins, viruses, and bacteria that would otherwise be deadly. It keeps the bad stuff out (and the good stuff in). Healthy boundaries are our emotional skin.

If you need a boundaries tune up, it could take some effort, but is well worth it. You’ll experience increased satisfaction in your relationships and will feel more confident. Your overall well-being will improve; boundaries are freeing – by communicating your needs, it’s less likely you’ll feel angry or resentful. And lastly, you’ll find that others have a greater level of respect for you. “Good fences,” it would seem, are not limited to neighbors!


boundaries

How to Help a Loved One with Addiction: 7 Tips that Promote Recovery

If you’re unfamiliar with the term “enable,” it means “to provide with the means or opportunity.” When applied to substance use, it means a person in active addiction is provided with the means to continue to use. With substance use disorders, how can you know the difference between helping and enabling? This post explains how to tell the difference and provides 7 tips for helping a loved one who struggles with addiction.

When it comes to someone else’s alcohol or drug use, how can you know the difference between helping and enabling, and how can you help a loved one with addiction?

I’ve worked with family members who inadvertently fueled their loved one’s addiction. They “helped” by bailing them out of jail, giving them money, etc., which only permitted the individual to continue to get high. It’s hard for family members to differentiate between behaviors that help versus enable.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term “enable,” it means “to provide with the means or opportunity” or “to make possible, practical, or easy” (according to Merriam-Webster). When applied to substance use, it means a person in active addiction is provided with the means to continue to use.

Working at a substance use treatment center, I taught families and loved ones that helping a person in active addiction means supporting their basic needs, such as food, water, shelter, and clothing. (If someone is in jail or treatment, their basic needs are met; therefore, bailing them out would be enabling.) Thinking in terms of “needs vs. wants” helps you to recognize enabling and therefore, to help a loved one with addiction.

Recently, I answered a woman’s question on Quora about how to distance herself from her heroin-addicted daughter. The following paragraph is from my response:

Distancing yourself (or setting a boundary) with your daughter will be difficult because you want to help. In the past, by “helping” her, you’ve enabled her addiction (which hurts her in the long run) and leaves you emotionally depleted. There’s a very fine line between helping and enabling; it’s not clear-cut. (Plus, it can be counterintuitive for a parent whose job has always been to protect your child.)

When a parent has a son or daughter with an addiction, it’s especially difficult to make the distinction between helping and enabling. A parent’s natural inclination is to nurture and protect from harm. It’s heart-wrenching to see your child in pain. But if a parent doesn’t set (and adhere to) healthy boundaries, they will quickly become emotionally drained (as they enable their child’s addiction).

Here are some ways to help a loved one with addiction who’s actively using:

1. Never (ever) offer money.

If asked for cash for food, for example, buy groceries instead (or offer to take them to lunch). I worked with a father who bought a bag of groceries for his son, who struggled with severe alcoholism and was homeless, on a weekly basis. This is an excellent example of how to help a loved one with addiction versus enabling their drug use.

2. If asked for help paying bills, say no. 

If your loved one doesn’t have to pay the electric bill, they’ll probably spend that money on drugs or alcohol. Furthermore, if you protect them from the consequences of not paying bills (i.e. having the power shut off), your loved one is less likely to see a need for change. (People don’t change when they’re comfortable.)

3. If your loved one is addicted to opioids (heroin, morphine, hydrocodone, etc.), attend a training or take an online course on opioid overdose reversal (Narcan [naloxone] administration).

If you’re unsure where local trainings are offered, a Google search for “Narcan training” or “opioid reversal training” will link you to resources in your area. Most trainings are free. Keep a Narcan kit on your person at all times. Provide your loved one with a kit (or two) as well.

This is not enabling. Help a loved one with addiction by potentially saving their life, thereby giving them the opportunity to recover. (A dead opioid-user doesn’t recover.)

4. Offer to help them get into treatment.

Become familiar with the different treatment options in your area. Don’t give ultimatums (i.e. “If you don’t get treatment, I’ll divorce you”) or make threats (especially if you’re not willing to follow through).

Be supportive, not judgmental. Be patient; when your loved one is emotionally and physically drained from addiction’s painful consequences (or when they hit “rock bottom”), they may decide it’s time to get help. And you’ll be ready.

5. Recognize that your loved one is not the same person they were before addiction.

Substance use disorder is a debilitating disease that damages the brain; it changes how a person feels and thinks. With addiction, the brain’s reward center is rewired, resulting in a biological “need” for drugs/alcohol. (Compare this to your need for food or water or air.)

Recognize that your loved one’s addiction will lie to you. They will do whatever it takes to get their “needs” met. Your loved one’s addiction will steal from you. (Lock up your valuables if they have access to your home… and even if they don’t. I’ve worked with more than a few individuals who have broken into their parents’ home for either money for drugs or valuables to pawn for money for drugs.) Your loved one’s addiction will betray you. Accepting the nature of addiction allows you to set healthy boundaries.

6. Attend Al-Anon or Nar-Anon meetings.

By engaging with others with similar struggles, you’ll learn more about supporting your loved one (without enabling their addiction). You’ll also build a supportive network by connecting with others, strengthening your emotional health.

7. When in doubt, try asking yourself one (or all) of the following questions:

Will my actions allow my loved one to continue to drink or use? Is this a “want” versus a basic need? Will my actions prevent them from experiencing a natural consequence? If the answer is yes, it’s probably enabling.

Conclusion

Addiction is a devastating, but treatable, disease. The road to recovery is difficult and long (with many detours).

While you can never control someone else’s behaviors, there are ways to help a loved one with addiction. Be kind and compassionate; they’re in an unthinkable amount of pain. They didn’t choose addiction. The best way to support them is by setting healthy boundaries to ensure you’re not enabling continued use. Boundaries allow you to help them without furthering their addiction. Boundaries also serve as protection for you and your emotional health; you’re in no position to help if you’re emotionally, financially, and spiritually depleted.


Please share in a comment your suggestions for helping a loved one with addiction.

help a loved one with addiction

3 Reasons We Keep Toxic People in Our Lives

Why do we keep toxic people in our lives? Despite the emotional costs, many people chose to remain in toxic relationships. This post explores the emotional reasoning behind not letting go.

Recently, an acquaintance told me about breaking up with his toxic girlfriend. I cringed at his story. His narrative left me wondering, how on earth did it get to that point and why do we even allow toxic people to remain in our lives?

For my acquaintance, it began when his at-the-time girlfriend “secretly” moved in with him. At first, she’d stay for a night or two, which turned into weeks at a time, until eventually all her stuff was there and he found himself with a live-in girlfriend. At that point, it was becoming apparent that she had some serious mental health and interpersonal issues. The relationship had taken a turn for the worse and they weren’t getting along.

So, my friend broke up with her and told her to get out. And… she refused. She claimed the law permitted her to stay since she’d been there for X amount of time. (Note: This is also when he found out she was homeless.)

He kicked her out of the bedroom; she started sleeping on the couch. To “encourage” her to leave, he took back her parking pass, along with the new iPhone he was paying for, shutting off her cell service.

Despite his efforts, weeks stretched into months; she continued to live (rent-free) on his couch.

To make a long story short… she eventually left… but not until the apartment manager and police got involved. (It turned out her tenant rights claim, while valid, was not actually applicable to her situation.)

The reality is, it’s never as simple as “it’s over, get out.” Relationships require a certain level of emotional investment and commitment. Plus, there are multiple factors (such as debt, illness, or infidelity) that contribute to a relationship’s complexity.

3 Reasons We Keep Toxic People in Our Lives

(Apart from “tenant rights”) what are reasons we allow toxic people (friends, family, and/or romantic partners) to remain in our lives? Why is it so hard to let go?

1. Either You Need Them (or You Can’t Ignore Them)

A recent study suggests we keep toxic people around simply because their lives are intertwined with ours. For example, your aging mother-in-law, who degrades and insults you, lives at your home, despite the negative impact this has on your life. Your options are limited because your husband is unwilling to put her in a nursing home (and you may also depend on her for things, like childcare or help with the bills).

Another example would be toxic people at work (coworkers, bosses, subordinates, etc.); you don’t have a lot of choice when it comes to your boss or colleagues, and you can’t entirely avoid them or refuse to talk about work-related stuff (unless you’re okay with losing your job). If pursing a new position isn’t practical, your next best option is to find a way to effectively deal with workplace toxicity.

That being said, you don’t have the power to change anyone else. To manage your reactions to and interactions with toxic people, acknowledge the need for self-adjustment, including attitude and role. Examine your personal views. Lower/manage expectations for others; accept that people will do and say things you don’t agree with… and it’s not something you can control.

Once you’ve reached the point of radical acceptance, follow guidelines for effective communication (i.e. active listening, avoiding blame, being aware of tone and body language, reflecting for clarity, etc.) in conversations with toxic people, whether it’s your mother-in-law or your boss. By being proactive, you’re doing your part to avoid getting caught up in others’ toxicity.

In the face of unavoidable toxicity, I find switching to a “counselor role” is helpful; I set aside my personal viewpoint, opening myself to alternative views, while seeking to understand (not judge) behavior. (And you don’t have to be a counselor to do this!)

I try to view individuals in terms of “what happened to you?” instead of assuming they’re malicious or intentional (i.e., “what’s wrong with you? People act the way they do for a reason). I don’t know what’s happening in a “toxic” person’s life or what they’ve been through. (Maybe that snarky co-worker is in an abusive relationship and lives in fear. Or maybe her son is in the hospital with brain cancer. Or, it’s possible she grew up in a home where her parents yelled and disrespected each other, shaping her view of relationships. The snarky attitude makes sense when viewed through different lenses.)

While it’s never okay to be an asshole, I can understand why people are jerks. Somehow, this knowledge serves as an immunity when encountering a toxic person. Their behavior is the result of something bad that happened to them; it has nothing to do with me and I can choose whether or not to engage. They don’t have power to negatively impact me unless I give it up.

2. Toxic Love: It Feels Better to Stay

When Joe Strummer of the Clash sang the question, “Should I stay or should I go now?”; he knew the answer. (Note: Firm boundaries and healthy decisions aren’t the stuff of chart-topping hits.) We stay in unhealthy relationships or continue to hang out with toxic friends because it feels good (at times, at least).

The boyfriend who yells at you can also be incredibly sweet and caring. Or your gossipy friend who talks about you behind your back also happens to be the most fun person you know. Despite the sense that it’s unhealthy, you (like Strummer) can’t resist. So you ignore the red flags because you crave the rush or the intensity… or maybe what you desire most is the feeling of being wanted. (Despite the toxicity, it’s worth it, just to feel wanted… or is it?)

Beyond feeling good, it’s entirely possible to deeply love a toxic person (no matter how wrong they are for you). You don’t want to give up on the person they could be; maybe you’re in love with their potential (or an idea of what the relationship could be). You believe it’s better to sacrifice your happiness (your dignity, your well-being, your independence) than to be without the person you love.

On the flip side, some people stay in toxic relationships because deep down, they believe they can’t do any better and/or the abuse is a preferable alternative to being alone. It could also mean they believe they deserve to be punished (which sometimes happens when a person remains in an abusive relationship for a long time). Or, they may reason that it’s better to hang out with a “mean girl” than sit and stare at the walls on a Friday night (with only the cat for company).

If you can relate to staying in a toxic relationship because it feels good or are afraid of being alone, carefully consider and weigh out the long-term costs of a toxic relationship. There are far worse and more damaging things than being alone. If the idea of being alone terrifies you, maybe it’s an indication that something’s not right… that you’re not okay. It could be a sign of low self-worth or could point to an intense fear of abandonment. It may also signify a lack of understanding of what it means to be in a healthy relationship. Lastly, an intense fear of being alone is associated with some of the personality disorders and/or could be the result of trauma.

3. It’s (So Much) Easier to Stay

Breaking up is messy and uncomfortable. In my experience, most people avoid conflict when possible. Despite conflict being a natural, everyday occurrence, it can feel unpleasant, even for those with expert conflict resolution skills. However, avoiding conflict in relationships does more harm than good. In a healthy relationship, it’s necessary to address problems in order to resolve them, thereby strengthening the relationship.

In a toxic relationship, conflict should not be avoided, but for different reasons. It may be easier to ignore the reality of your situation than to get honest, but this is detrimental (not only to you, but to your partner, who will never have the opportunity to change so long as you enable the toxicity to continue).

You may wish to avoid the emotional drain that accompanies confrontation, but in the long run, you’ll lose more emotional energy if you remain in a toxic relationship. (A steep, one-time payment is preferable to the ongoing, daily emotional sacrifices/abuses associated with toxicity; you’re slowly poisoned as time goes on.)

If you choose to end a toxic relationship, be realistic; it’s not going to be easy… and it’s going to hurt. A lot. You may love this person a great deal (and maybe you’ve long held on to the hope they’d change). Go into it with low (or no) expectations. When things feel unbearable, remember that the easy things in life matter little; the difficult stuff is what leads to personal growth, success, and resilience.

Conclusion

In closing, I’m sure there are multitudes of reasons people have for staying in unhealthy relationships and keeping toxic people in their lives; this post is by no means comprehensive. I’m also certain, whatever the reason, it seems justifiable to them. People don’t choose toxicity without some sort of justification (if not for others, than at least for themselves). Unfortunately, rationalizations don’t offer protection from harm. No matter the reason for remaining in a toxic relationship, it’s not worth the cost.


What are some other reasons people keep toxic people in their lives? Why is letting go so hard? Share your thoughts in a comment!

toxic people

  • References
  • Bar-Ilan University. (2018, January 17). Why we keep difficult people in our lives. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 14, 2018 from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/01/180117152513.htm
  • Offer, S., & Fischer, C.S. (2017). Difficult people: Who is perceived to be demanding in personal networks and why are they there? American Sociological Review, 000312241773795, DOI: 10.1177/0003122417737951