Dealing with difficult people can be a real ordeal. When these people are part of our life or live under our same roof, the problem acquires greater proportions since we have no truce. That toxic relationship can become very frustrating, maddening, and sometimes even terrifying.
What bothers us most of difficult people?
We can all become difficult people to deal with. When we go through particularly difficult stages in life, our character turns sour and we may react badly or become emotionally distant. However, difficult people have some personality characteristics that complicate relationships in any situation.
They generally assume a defensive attitude that limits their ability to listen, so that it is almost impossible to say something constructively to improve the relationship. Their hostile reactions can be unpredictable and difficult to manage.
It is also common for these people to belittle the others or their ideas, assuming a position of superiority against which any argument crashes, no matter how fair or sensible it may be. In this way they generate great frustration in their interlocutor.
However, a study carried out at Bar Ilán University revealed that the characteristic that bothers us most of difficult people is their inability to provide us with support and validation, especially when we have supported them in the past.
These psychologists surveyed more than 1,100 people, who described more than 12,000 relationships. They found that about 15% of the people in our network of closest relationships can be classified as “difficult people.”
The partner, parents and siblings were the most conflictive relationships, probably because they are the people who are normally part of our circle of trust. Therefore, the main drawback in the relationship was not receiving the support they expected, while they were willing to provide it. In practice, what bothers us the most is the lack of commitment and reciprocity in the relationship.
Unbalanced relationships drain our psychological energy
Continuous giving without receiving anything in return can be extremely exhausting. Being available to the others, often relegating our needs and priorities to the background, represents a huge psychological burden that can end up taking its toll.
We can run the risk of becoming eternal “givers”, people who renounce to the right to be happy to please the others, continually sacrificing for them without ever being rewarded. In those cases, difficult people become eternal “receivers.” They get used to receiving without any obligation or commitment, so that they end up becoming extremely demanding.
However, we cannot forget that giving makes us happy, but we also have the right to receive. Interpersonal relationships, especially the closest ones, should be a source of emotional support and validation. When only one person surrenders and commits, the balance gets broken and leads to a toxic relationship. Giving without receiving ends up generating frustration, disappointment and dissatisfaction.
Of course, it is not a question of limiting ourselves to giving only to those who have something to offer. It is about making sure that those importants for us, with whom we share our lives, can compensate in some way or another for our dedication. It is about knowing that that other person will be available when we need him or her, to help or simply listen and support us emotionally.
How to deal with difficult people and balance the relationship?
Interpersonal relationships are complicated and it is not always easy to find a balance. In the vast majority of relationships there is always a person who gives more, wants more or is willing to sacrifice more. In fact, the goal is not to achieve a strict quid pro quo but to find a balance in which our emotional needs are satisfied.
To do this, we must make clear our expectations. Expectations that are not communicated or agreed upon can end up ruining the relationships. It is very easy to make assumptions about what we expect someone to do for us and if that person does not meet our expectations, we feel disappointed and blame him or her.
However, the key is to communicate and level the expectations, especially when dealing with a difficult person. We can structure that conversation around three key questions:
1. What can you expect from me? It is about telling that person what we are willing to do for him or her. We can show him or her how much we care and how much we love him or her, but also how far we are willing to go and what limits we are not going to cross for any reason.
2. What do I expect from you? In this case, we must communicate our expectations so that that person knows exactly what we expect from him or her, the level of commitment we demand from the relationship, and what degree of responsibility we would like.
3. What can we expect from the relationship? This is the most important point of the conversation because every relationship is a dyadic encounter of different expectations and demands. Perhaps the other person is not willing to commit to the point that we want and we need to know it to adjust our expectations. Or maybe that person was not even aware that he or she at some point let us down. Therefore, this is the moment when each person communicates what is expecting from the other and from the relationship, so to avoid misunderstandings.
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; 83(1): 111-142.