You get to decide what you will tolerate from others.

Many times, in both our business and personal lives, we can feel like we’re stuck in a relationship we’re not particularly happy with because we’re not being treated the way we want. In the workplace, that might be a relationship with a co-worker, business partner, or even a customer–just fill in the blank. Oftentimes, we feel stuck because we have some sense of obligation in these relationships.

But the way that I see it, the key to breaking free from an unhappy relationship is to recognize that all relationships are voluntary.

I remember when I was a young executive and was serving in the Jaycees, or the Junior Chamber of Commerce, in Hartford, Connecticut. One of my responsibilities was hosting a PGA Tour golf tournament during the summer. But I couldn’t operate all alone, and I needed to recruit others to help. The trouble was that everyone was a volunteer. If I wanted help, I was going to have to find a way to get people excited to do it.

My takeaway from that experience was recognizing that as a leader, the same kind of relationship exists inside every company: The people who work for you do so on a voluntary basis. Yes, some of them might need the job more than others. But it still comes down to an obligation on your part to make the work interesting and important enough for them to want to stick around and work with you.

Where things can go wrong is when a relationship turns toxic in some way. Many of us have been there before, where you have an impossible boss, employee, or even customer who continues to violate boundaries in some way. The key to breaking free from these kinds of relationships is to remember that they are all voluntary, that you are the one who is opting into continuing them.

In fact, harmful relationships begin with the consent of the victim if you stick around. In other words, no matter how much you think you need that job or that customer, that’s something you can change. Remember, life is short, and you have more power to make change then you might think.
Again, I speak from personal experience. Earlier in my career, I worked for an aggressive and toxic boss. He was the kind of guy who would call me on a Saturday and ask why I wasn’t in the office after I had put in a 70-hour week already. Fun, right?

At some point, I decided that I just didn’t want to deal with him anymore, but I also wanted to make a point. So, I decided to show him and the company how much they were going to miss me. Over the next year, I smashed sales records. I had a phenomenal year, and then I left for a much better job. I wanted to make sure that boss understood that he relied on me far more than I relied on him.

As another example, I remember working with a coaching client who operated in the meetings and event space. My client had a customer who represented the bulk of his revenue and who was also driving him crazy by pushing down prices. You see, my client recognized that his market space was becoming increasingly commoditized. While he offered extremely good customer service and high-touch events, he had begun to lose money because his customer wouldn’t allow him to get his prices for the phenomenal service he provided. No matter how much he tried to explain and negotiate, his customer wouldn’t budge. So, ultimately, my client decided he had to close that part of his business down and fire his customer.

But guess what happened next? His customer then begged him to come back and continue to work with them. Fortunately, my client had firmly decided to walk away and invest his time and resources in a much more profitable aspect of his business in which his other customers were willing to pay him fairly for his services.

The key point to remember is that you have options, probably more than you think you do. That’s why, when you’re feeling beaten up by a relationship you don’t think you can afford to lose, think again. Just remember that every relationship is voluntary and that you shouldn’t accept any less than you truly deserve. Don’t let yourself suffer, and take control of your happiness.