Over in Presence Seekers Soaring–our free Facebook mentoring group–we began talking recently about relationships:
- How to tell when boundaries are needed;
- Whether or not it’s even okay to put up boundaries;
- How to distinguish between a healthy relationship versus an unhealthy one; and more.
Relationships have really been on my heart for awhile now, but I didn’t realize what a hot topic this would be until we started discussing it in the group! As soon as we brought it up, all kinds of folks chimed in about the various kinds of struggles they are having in relationships with mean people.
And I learned: People are really hurting in many of their relationships! 🙁
One of the main things we talked about was:
Boundaries are healthy. You don’t have to let someone keep hurting you.
Yes, we have to love. We also have to forgive. (Learn my special techniques for how to really forgive in Finding Deep Soul Healing 101.)
But loving someone is a TOTALLY different thing from being close to them! Forgiving them is a different thing from being friends with them! Loving and forgiving are also totally different from letting them have access to your life!
Beloved, if someone in your life is hurting you over and over, please know that it’s okay to make changes in that relationship.
The changes you need to make will depend on your personal situation, and on the measure of unhealthiness of any particular relationship. For example:
- Some relationships might be just fine except for one or two bad patterns you’ve allowed. In those situations, you might decide to gently confront the person about the situation; and that might resolve the problem.
- Some relationships might be with people you don’t want to alienate, but you do need their access to your life drastically reduced. In those situations, you might decide to put up boundaries that will maintain a loving relationship, but will also give you a new–and healthy–distance.
- You might realize that some relationships are so toxic that you don’t want them to continue at all. In those situations, you may decide to withdraw from the relationship completely.
Whatever you decide to do, please simply know that boundaries are healthy.
You are called to love people, but remember Jesus also said to love your neighbor as yourself. You can’t love others unless you love yourself first–and letting yourself be abused is NOT “loving yourself.”
Remember also that loving people is not the same as liking them. Jesus loved everybody in the world (John 3:16), but He sure didn’t seem to like the Pharisees very much. 🙂 You know, “whited sepulchers” and all that … 🙂
So anyhow …
Toxic relationships can occur in many kinds of situations. If you aren’t sure how to analyze a relationship you’re in, here are 9 signs of an unhealthy–or even toxic–relationship.
Use these signs to help you discern what kind of relationship you are in.
Then, pray about how the Lord would have you to handle your unique situation.
1. The other person always asks you for things (help, support, prayer) without investing into actual relationship with you.
If someone asks for things from you without having a relationship with you, they are using you to some extent (even if they don’t mean to be using you).
When you recognize that, YOU have to decide whether or not it’s a kind of “using” that you’re willing to put up with–e.g. deciding to continue the dialog in the interest of ministering to them, or being willing to come alongside and support a common cause that needs help.
However, some situations have nothing to do with ministry or with putting your shoulders behind a common cause.
Some situations are just toxic, because people are outright using you.
When someone has a relationship with me–and I know they actually care about and invest in that relationship–I’ll do a whole lot more for them than when someone just keeps asking me for help when we have no relationship. I’ll go the extra mile for my friends every day of the week. I’ll pour out my life for them. I’ll be there for them through thick and thin.
When we have relationship.
However, if I have no relationship with a person–and that’s relationship by my definition, not theirs–I won’t go as far. I can’t; there’s only so much of me to go around! If it were in a ministry capacity, it would be different. But I just can’t be available to everyone all the time, and neither can you.
How do you invest in actual relationship?
Just a few ideas could include:
- Get to know them.
- Take them out to lunch.
- Check on them when they’re sick, sad, or in trouble.
- Pray for them. And lots more … see below.
In the absence of those things, there’s no relationship. In that case, decide for yourself if this person needs ministry (and if you’re the person to minister to them or not) or if you need to distance yourself from them.
2. Someone attacks you whenever they want to, but they get mad if you disagree or resist their attacks.
Many years ago, I used to have a friend like this. She made free to lambast me for whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted. She attacked me over my theology; my actions; you name it.
But then one day, as she was (again) attacking me over something I believed from the Bible, I had enough.
As this lady railed at me, I tried to explain what I believed–but she wouldn’t let me. She just got madder and madder, and she just wanted me to say that she was right, and I was wrong, and to acknowledge her “superior” whatever.
Worse, she started coming after me personally–not only disagreeing with my theology. It was a personal attack.
That “friend” wasn’t willing to listen, hear, or discuss. She had already made up her mind that I was wrong, and she was going to bite and tear at me until I submitted to her desire to tear me down.
And that is when I realized: this is a toxic relationship.
If anyone–ANYONE–attacks you, that’s a bad sign.
They should ask you questions, then enter into discussion with you, if they have an issue with you. They should never attack you.
And if someone attacks you and then gets mad when you don’t agree with them about how bad you are, that’s toxic. Verrrrry unhealthy.
That doesn’t mean it’s always good to defend yourself. Frankly, a lot of the time, it’s not good to try and defend yourself. Jesus was accused and didn’t defend Himself.
But when someone thinks they have the right to attack you, and they think you should just agree with them about how bad/wrong you are, that’s toxic. And I believe that person is NOT your friend.
What did I do in my situation?
Well, after that conversation mentioned above, I walked away from my friendship with that woman. And today, many years later, I have never missed her–not one day. I’m much happier without that toxic relationship, and I’m glad I made the decision I did for the sake of my own health and self-esteem.
3. They want to use your hands, wallet, etc to accomplish their purposes. They don’t want you for you.
Ooooo. #boom #micdrop
If someone is using you, you can often tell because, well, they use you. They use you to accomplish their own purposes.
For example, they want you to listen; to make them feel better; to help with their project; whatever. But anybody could fill the same shoes. They just need a warm body, really. Or two hands. Or a pickup truck on moving day.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t help when people just need a helping hand.
Of course, like any other time, we should be the hands and feet of Jesus. We all need to serve. But if you want to discern when you’re in a real relationship versus a toxic one–and whether you’re being used versus valued–this is a really big indicator.
People who are using you don’t care about the things that make you you–such as your dreams, gifts, talents, passions, thoughts, heart, or concerns. Those things are annoyances to them. They don’t care what’s going on in your life. They just need you to show up, shut up, and load the sofa.
In other words: If all you are to someone is a listening ear or a helping hand when they need it, discern well. There’s nothing wrong with serving. There’s nothing wrong with throwing your wide shoulders behind a mutual cause.
But if you confuse that with friendship, you’re in for heartbreak. Discern well what kind of relationship you’re in, so you can decide whether or not it’s a relationship worth keeping.
4. They ask you to do things that only God can do.
“I’m so depressed. Help me.” Sorry, but I can’t. (Now remember, we aren’t talking about ministry relationships here.)
Hey, if you’re depressed and we have a relationship, it’s healthy to talk about it–and I’ll be there for you! That’s what friends do.
But if you’re depressed and we have no relationship, you need to go to someone who either 1) has a relationship with you or 2) occupies a professional position whose job it is to help with situations like that (pastor, minister, counselor, etc).
Can I help you if we have a relationship? Well, it depends on how you define “help.” (Again, we’re not talking about ministry or mentoring relationships here!) If you’re hurting, and we’re friends, I can be there for you (and thereby “help” you) the same way you can help me if we have a relationship:
- If you and I are friends and either of us are depressed, we can talk about it together.
- We can cry into our milkshakes together. “Weep with those who weep,” right?
- We can pray together.
I’ve been discouraged or depressed plenty of times before and talked with a friend about it … and felt a WHOLE lot better afterward. That’s what relationship does. That’s how relationship helps.
But remember: the difference between someone using you versus someone actually being your friend depends a lot on relationship. Lack of mutual relationship = either ministry or being used. You decide which it is, depending on your situation.
5. You go to all the effort to maintain your friendship. They make zero effort.
You are always the one inviting the person to spend time together. They do not extend invitations to you. You have to be the one saying “hi” and checking up on them. They do not check up on you, unless they need something (see #1).
6. In your time of need, your “friend” is nowhere to be found.
Oh, I’ve gone to preaching now!
You can pour and pour and pour out for someone when they are in need, but you really learn something when YOU have a need. When you have a need, and your “friend” is nowhere to be found, you might want to re-evaluate that relationship.
7. They put you down and criticize you.
Toxic people can sometimes be the sweetest people in the world. But other times, their fangs come out and boy, do they ever have their way with you.
Toxic people tell you what they think–what they really really think–and baby, it ain’t good.
- “Someone has to tell you,” they say.
- “I have to be honest with you,” they say.
- “I have to speak the truth in love,” they say.
My answer to them? Read my lips, babydoll (that’s the Southern in me coming out): Your mama was right. If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it at all.
Dear toxic person: There’s nobody on the planet that needs you to “just be honest with them.”
You are not Holy Spirit, Junior. You are not God’s weapon of choice to fix everybody on the earth–or anybody, even.
You do NOT have to “be honest.”
You do NOT “just have to tell them.”
You do NOT have to “speak the truth in love.”
Because “honesty” means “speaking truth,” and TRUTH is who they are in Christ. Nothing else.
“Having to tell them” means you think God’s not capable, and you’re the solution.
And don’t even get me going on “speaking the truth in love.” Loving to WHOM? Your actions certainly aren’t loving to the recipient of your advice!
So who else is left? Who is it you’re really loving when you tear someone down? YOURSELF! … Because you’re satisfying your stinking pride and superiority that make you think you’re so much better … and you’re loving yourself because tearing someone else down makes you feel bigger and better.
But you know what?
If you really loved that person, you’d pray for them. You’d pour encouragement into them. You’d build them up. You wouldn’t tear them down like you have been.
If you can’t build someone up, keep your trap shut.
And to the person who has been victimized by the “honesty” of a toxic individual:
Confront them. State your case simply and factually. Pray they will listen.
But if they won’t, then put up boundaries. Run for your life. Get away from the toxic individual. Limit their access to your life.
Trust me on this.
Distancing yourself from someone who acts in a toxic manner may be hard, but it’s worth it. The benefits far outweigh the difficulties!
Remember that God said you have to love your neighbor as yourself. In order to obey that command, YOU HAVE TO LOVE YOURSELF FIRST! And letting someone tear you down is NOT treating yourself with love.
8. Someone only values you to the extent that you’re just like them.
If someone criticizes you for not having the same gift they have …
If they don’t honor or value what you do, simply because it’s not the same thing they do …
If your priorities are different because you do have different gifts, but they just get mad about your priorities …
That’s a toxic relationship.
When two healthy people are in relationship, they will be different … but they value and appreciate their differences. They care about one another’s callings and passions, even if they don’t share those callings. They esteem one another highly …
… even if they are nothing alike.
But when someone can’t value you because you’re not the same as they are, then Houston, you have a problem. HONOR between individuals is a necessary part of any healthy relationship.
9. Your “friend” talks only about themselves.
This is my absolute biggest indicator that tells me what kind of a relationship I have with another person.
Why? Because everybody’s favorite subject is themselves … but if we’re going to have a healthy relationship, it can’t be all about you. That’s just reality. Relationship is a two-way street.
Here’s how I watch out for this:
The best place I’ve been able to notice this issue is over a meal. When I sit down across the dinner table with someone, I’ll ask them all sorts of questions. Why? Because I really do care. I want to know what’s happening in their life. And if we’re to have a relationship, we both have to be willing to open up and share.
But if that person is perfectly content to just answer my questions the whole time and talk about themselves? Ding ding ding ding ding. Warning bells! Be careful! That person is NOT a friend!
If someone only talks about themselves, they can be an acquaintance, a ministry opportunity, or a business contact. Fine. But if they were a friend, they would share their own stuff BUT they would, at some point, stop talking about themselves and start asking you about you.
I have never seen this indicator of relationship fail; not one time.
So, rule of thumb: If someone only talks about themselves, that’s a red flag. You might want to apply some discernment to the relationship.
Beloved, if you discern some unhealthy patterns in your relationship(s), please pray about making changes.
I am not here to tell you what to do. I can’t tell you that; only God knows the dynamic of you and your relationships.
But, I do encourage you to make whatever changes you need to make in order to be healthy. Make the changes you need to make to protect your emotional, spiritual, mental (and even physical, although this post didn’t talk about physical abuse) well-being.
Putting up boundaries is healthy. Yes, even when those boundaries impact family relationships! Just because you have DNA ties to someone doesn’t mean they get to ruin your life. You only have one life to live. You only get one shot at today.
So, live it well–and live it healthy. Live it in such a way that you love both yourself and others … even if you love some of those “others” from a distance.
Do these 9 signs of unhealthy, even toxic, relationships shed light on your own situation? If so, please leave a comment below!
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