How Should Christians Cope with Toxic Family Members?
By Dr. Rebecca Deurlein
It’s tough being a Christian sometimes. It requires us to act in a way that might not seem natural but is right and will ultimately bring us greater peace. In the moment, however, it may seem counterintuitive. If you’re a logical person, what you are required to do may not make rational sense. Does it make sense to forgive someone 70 times 7 times? Or does doing so make us doormats? If you are a feelings-based person, how do you just ignore your feelings in times when God calls us to do one thing and our hearts tell us to do something else?
Just about everyone I know is currently dealing with a family member who, by all definitions, is toxic. You probably have one too. This is a person who treats you poorly, or worse, treats your kids poorly. Maybe it’s a mother-in-law who is constantly critical of your parenting or a sibling who is jealous of you. This person makes you feel bad about yourself or drives a wedge through your marriage. He or she causes fights among family members or makes everyone’s time miserable on holidays or vacations. No matter how many times you’ve tried to reconcile with this person, the situation never improves and perhaps even gets worse. The result is that no one wants to see this person, resulting in problems for the entire family.
I’ve been there and am still there. My friends are all there. It seems there isn’t a family alive who doesn’t deal with at least one toxic family member. Keep in mind that toxic doesn’t equate to annoying. We all have LOTS of annoying family members, or at least family members with annoying habits. No, toxic is different. It’s poison. It’s insidious. It weaves its way through your life, eating away at your happiness. So as Christians, how do we deal with toxic people when we are instructed to give unlimited forgiveness and to love our enemies?
I think, as with all things, we look to Jesus for our answer. His interactions with others should be a model to us when we are struggling with how to react. Here is what we can learn from Jesus about dealing with people who are dangerous to our well-being:
1. Understand the difference between annoying and truly toxic. I defined the differences above. As Christians, we don’t get to just drop family members out of our lives because they talk nonstop, have different political views, have poor hygiene, or leave the cap off the toothpaste. A person is toxic when she is threatening your family unity or emotional well-being and there is little to no sign of that changing or improving.
2. Forgiveness is crucial but acceptance is not. Jesus always forgave but he did not accept sin. He pointed it out and offered love and encouragement to change and heal. We should do the same. Talk to the person who is hurting you and share how their actions make you feel. Tell them what needs to change in order to mend the relationship. Give them a fair chance to do so, knowing there will be setbacks and failures along the way. Acknowledge their efforts.
3. If change doesn’t come, you do not have to accept or settle for toxic behavior. Once you have communicated your bottom line, encouraged and loved the person through their efforts, and prayed for the person to see the light, you have done what Jesus has asked you to do. It may still fail miserably. Why? Because no one can change another person; they have to want to change themselves and do the work to make it happen. Sadly, some people refuse to see the need for change. Pride, ignorance, or stubbornness keeps them from doing what it takes to keep their loved ones in their lives. This is truly sad, but not within your control.
4. Control your own behavior. Your actions and reactions, however, are entirely under your control. At this point, you can make the decision that you feel is best for your family, and you can choose to spend less time or no time with the toxic person. This is never what you want, but sometimes very much what you need, and it’s okay to give yourself permission to step away from a dangerous relationship. The one thing you should continue to do, though, is pray for the toxic person. You may not be able to change him or her, but God can.
5. Praying for your enemy helps you as much as it helps your enemy. It helps you forgive, it helps you see that we are all humans with flaws and weaknesses, and it helps you to be humble. There is nothing easy about praying for someone who has come close to destroying us, but it is what we are called to do, and for good reason. Praying heals.
Remember that God knows our hearts. He does not want us to risk our own spiritual well-being and that of our family in order to placate someone who is seeking to hurt or destroy us. All he asks is that we be kind, we forgive, and we pray. I’m sorry if you are dealing with a toxic person, but I pray that God will give you the strength to recognize what is best for your family and to take the necessary steps to protect them and yourself.