How to Stop Toxic Relationship Patterns
Most of the relationships we have in life are those we cannot choose. Our parents, in-laws, siblings, children, and co-workers are all individuals granted by the “natural order”. We don’t have the privilege of choosing them (except for in specific cases of adoption, etc.). That makes choosing our spouse, friendships, pastors, boss, and other certain work relationships of vital importance. These are the people with whom we “do life”. Knowing how to choose that relationship is fundamental to our mental, emotional, and spiritual health, as well as our reputation. We are known by the company we keep. Choosing relationships wisely is absolutely critical. None of us choose toxic relationships on purpose (unless we are unhealthy). So that means when toxic patterns appear, we need to know how to handle them appropriately.
I believe most of us have at least one person we struggle with, who demonstrates toxic patterns on a consistent basis. Toxic patterns have a broad spectrum. So, take your pick. In my humble opinion, anything that compromises the well-being of an individual is a toxic pattern. We all have our weak moments that need forgiving. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. This post is about dealing with individuals who exhibit consistent destructive patterns either mentally, emotionally, physically, socially, sexually, or spiritually.
And here is what you need to know:
You need to define the relationship.
Set clear boundaries.
Make strategic decisions.
It’s all in how you respond.
BECAUSE YOU WILL NEVER CONTROL THE OFFENDING INDIVIDUAL.
The truth is, none of us can stop someone from behaving a certain way. Nor can we change someone. And with that said, we struggle to even change ourselves. Truly, only the LORD can change us, transform us, and create in us a new heart, a renewed mind, and a right spirit (see Psalm 51). For Him do that in a person’s life comes only with permission granted to Him and some cooperative effort on our part. There is a measure of surrender that must take place before God can bring genuine intrinsic change in anyone.
So can we stop toxic relationship patterns? Not by stopping the behavior of the individual. But we can respond in a manner that ultimately brings change to the relationship. We need to focus on how to handle toxic cycles biblically so they don’t destroy us. Because the truth is, they can.
The boundaries need to change. And if you’re going to have a relationship with this person, you need to know how to handle them biblically. That can be very tricky and difficult to do. We are going to briefly discuss the following seven points:
1.) Drawing healthy boundaries
5.) Proper confrontation
7.) Pursuing Peace
Before we start, if you are in an abusive relationship that is escalating, you need to seek professional help to protect yourself and other members of the family. If this is a relationship that you know God has called you to leave, to let go of, or to cut off, then you need to obey that promptly. And you need to have a support network in place when you do so.
#1. Drawing firm & healthy boundaries:
I consider some key boundaries to be the following:
• Time: A little bit of certain people can go a loooong way. Limit the time you spend with them, and if possible, the location as well.
• Distance or proximity: Maintaining a respectable distance from this person is key. Sometimes moving away is necessary. For others it means you don’t invite them over. Or it could mean you simply refrain from putting yourself on their turf.
• Disclosure: Limit what you share. Period.
• Trust: Do not trust them with specific areas or details you already know they cannot steward properly. Don’t set yourself up.
• Responsibility: Be careful not to assume a responsibility that is not legitimately yours. Fearing what may become of this person should you draw appropriate boundaries, or ultimately choose to leave the relationship, is an illegitimate fear unless you are dealing with a legal dependent.
The truth is you can still be kind, respectful, and loving toward these people without compromising your dignity and the integrity of your life. Draw healthy boundaries specific to the offending individual as the LORD leads you. That will look different for each individual relationship.
Toxic people are emotionally exhausting. You need to pray for wisdom and strength, and a greater grace. That goes without saying, right? But praying for this person strategically with effective prayers is going to be something you’ll need to do as well. Not necessarily every day, but when you know you’re about to encounter them, prayer should be your first line of preparation and “defense”. It’s also your greatest offensive strategy. Praying for this person may include things such as:
• Asking God to open blind eyes, so they can see and understand clearly. Truth is what ultimately sets us free.
• Asking God to grant them a heart of repentance so they can be set free, bringing darkness to light.
• Asking God to intervene in their lives in a way that motivates them to pursue change, giving them strength to choose it.
• Asking God to protect them from themselves. Often toxic people are their own worst enemy, endangering themselves.
• Asking God to bring healing and deliverance from those things that bind them. Tear down spiritual strongholds.
Love covers a multitude of sin (see 1 Peter 4:8). People who demonstrate toxic cycles require a lot of mercy and forgiveness. We must forgive, despite the factors of consequence that may play out in any given moment. Forgiveness is not to be equated with justifying their behavior, or saying “It’s okay.” It’s not okay. But forgive, you must, if you’re going to be forgiven and remain in God’s grace.
Long-suffering is actually borne of compassion. This one is hard. This is where the adverse effects of someone else’s sin against us actually begins to refine us as individuals, birthing in us a genuine compassion. This is where the “seventy times seven” comes into play. People who are toxic are repeat offenders. And they are probably not going to stop. To be long-suffering does not mean that you just endlessly put up with them to no avail. That is fruitless. It means you extend compassion toward their sin in a manner that survives the offense committed. That is a love that covers them. That is not easy to do, because being long-suffering can often prove to be a ‘revolving door’. As soon as one offense has blown over, there is another one ready to explode. When you understand that this individual is not capable of controlling themselves, you can begin to pray with compassion. That compassion will set your own heart free from the bitter entanglements of offense, enabling you to pray for this individual effectively and with power.
#5. Proper Confrontation:
Confrontation is actually very biblical (see Matthew 18). You must confront. Absolutely necessary. But we must do it properly if it’s going to be effective. Biblical confrontation should be constructive. It’s never fun, but it’s very healthy when done properly. We are called to do so gently while examining ourselves so that (1) we do not become hypocrites (see Matthew 7:3), and (2) so that we are not ensnared by sin (see Galatians 6:1). Confrontation is actually one of the clearest demonstrations of love and concern. If we do it appropriately, it can yield very good fruit.
There is no greater teacher than consequence. Many times this is precisely how God the Father disciplines His own children — He allows us to experience the consequences of our actions or behaviors until we learn to obey Him. He draws very clear boundaries for us. There is no ambiguity. And if consequence doesn’t work, He will use other means to chastise us, usually resorting to means that may be quite painful. God’s goal is our holiness (see Hebrews 12), not our comfort. Remember those boundaries you’re drawing? Make sure this individual knows exactly what they are. You’ve got to stop saving this person. You’ve got to stop softening the blow of reality for them. You’re not doing them any favors. Allow them to experience the consequences of their actions and behaviors. They must learn. And always be consistent to follow through when clear verbal warnings are given.
#7. Pursuing Peace:
We are commanded to peace. The peacemakers are the sons of God (see Matthew 5:9), and we are to pursue peace and keep peace with all men as far as it depends upon us (see Romans 12:18). However, that does not always mean we will achieve it. That does not guarantee peace will be the outcome, because others also have a choice in how they respond to us and our efforts.
So, when is it finally time to let go and walk away? I believe the key to answering that difficult question can be found in answering some of the following questions:
• Have you truly done all you can?
• How much more can you truly sustain before you or your life becomes broken?
• What are the effects upon other family members?
• Have you forgiven your offender?
• Are you legally responsible for this individual?
• Is God releasing you into wholeness and freedom? Or is He calling to you to stay for the sake of your offender?
God ultimately calls us to peace in our relationships (1 Corinthians 7:15). If peace cannot be achieved despite your best efforts, it’s time to seriously consider the consequences of remaining in a toxic relationship. The truth is, you can extend your peace to someone even though a relationship cannot be properly reconciled or rightfully sustained. There is a biblical point when we need to walk away. Knowing when to let go is very important for the sake of maintaining biblical peace (see Matthew 18). And this decision may not always be mutual. Recognize what is sustainable for you. If it’s not a covenant relationship that is mutually agreeable or obligate, then chances are it’s not going to work. There may be very rare and isolated cases when God calls us to to remain in a relationship that is toxic. But that is the exception — not the norm. And before making such a decision, there needs to be an absolution regarding God’s will for you to do that, and a clear plan of action with adequate support. God does not call us to brokenness, abuse, and defilement. He calls us to peace and wholeness. Don’t be afraid to seek God in letting go and moving on. You can offer your peace to someone despite a very real and legitimate need to say good-bye. By biblical definition, that is entirely sufficient.
Remaining In a Toxic Relationship
I know what it’s like to remain in a toxic relationship for the sake of my offender. That individual was a close family member, and I hung upon the hope they would change. Despite my investments relationally, spiritually, and emotionally — that change did not happen. The abuse and toxic patterns continued. I remained in that relationship for more than 20 years. The time finally came when God said, “Enough is enough,” and He called me to let go, face the truth, and trust Him with this individual whom I loved. When I left my heart was not bitter, but saddened. By the time I left I was able to have genuine compassion upon my offender that came by the grace and power of Jesus Christ. I still love that person, but I no longer allow that toxic relationship in my life. That was necessary not only for me, but my family.
People stay in toxic relationships for varying reasons. Some of the most common are:
• Holding fiercely to the hope that this individual will change.
• Believing we can effect permanent change or perhaps “save” the individual.
• The pain of losing the relationship seems to outweigh the pain of staying.
• A misalignment of priorities, feelings of obligation, or manipulation and control.
• A loss of self.
• Dependency or co-dependency.
• Fidelity. Or the genuine desire to give sacrificial love or remain loyal.
• Avoiding the grief that accompanies letting go and walking away.
• Soul Ties and other emotional, covenant, legal, or sexual bondages.
Please understand that toxic patterns are not something you can control in someone else. But you can always control how you respond. If it’s time to walk away, then understand the finality of that decision. Don’t vacillate. And make sure you have support when you do so. It’s natural to grieve the loss of a relationship with someone you love, despite the abuse or pain they caused.
Don’t be afraid to take the necessary biblical steps to achieve peace and wholeness for the sake of your own mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health. You and your life are worth saving.
Cheers & Shalom,
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