Save yourself first! The instructions are clear. When the oxygen mask drops from the airplane ceiling, task number one is to put your mask on. Take care of yourself, before even attempting to assist anyone else, even a baby. The second directive to breathe normally may be expecting more than I will ever be able to achieve in such a circumstance, but I will save that topic for another day.

Out of context this command sounds a bit selfish, but the oxygen mask instruction has application—beyond air travel—in our relationships. If you are feeling wrecked, you are much more susceptible to danger and hurt than when you enter a relationship feeling confident and emotionally healthy. Perhaps counterintuitive, but a cold fact of life is that you have to take care of yourself first if you want to be in a healthy relationship with anyone else.

This rule of thumb applies to all relationships—friends, coworkers, significant others, and even within families. Just because you grew up with someone or married into a family doesn’t mean your interactions will always be peachy keen. Sometimes we must admit that a relationship is broken or perhaps too unhealthy to bear. What to do when you reach this breaking point? With friends, perhaps you make an intentional decision to stop talking, texting, hanging out, etc. But within a family, challenging relationships are trickier. Whatever the situation, it is good to remind yourself—and often—that you can only control your own actions. Save yourself rather than try to fix the other person.

My relationship with my late mother-in-law was fraught with angst and challenges, especially at the beginning. I was a busy, successful, and confident professional. Yet I found myself constantly questioning and seeking her affirmation. I needed her to demonstrate in word and deed that she believed I was a good daughter-in-law and mother to her grandchildren. (My own mother never let me doubt that she thought I was fabulous, after all.) The harder I tried, the more frustrated I became, never sure of exactly where I stood with her, convinced I was a disappointment in ways I could not understand. Eventually I opened my eyes and saw the bag of air dangling in front of me, and I grabbed it. I saved myself.

Once I accepted that our relationship was never going to be the inspiration for a Norman Rockwell painting, I began to take care of myself first. My actions were always respectful and loving, but I let go of my expectations of what I would receive in return. I controlled only what I could control—myself. By the end of my mother-in-law’s life, we had actually become close—loving, accepting, and respectful of one another to the best of our abilities. Often, saving yourself means seeing what’s right in front of you. 

I’m here if you need me. Until then, y’all behave.