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Cutting “toxic people” out of our lives has almost become a trend among millennials. When someone is destructive and emotionally damaging, we’re encouraged to cut them off. (There are entire online forums devoted to cutting dysfunctional family members out of your life.)Okay, so we know from our own experience and other people’s around us that there are definitely unhealthy people in the world. But, as Christians, how do we know if we’ve ended up in a toxic relationship or marriage? And if so, how do we deal with it from a Biblical point of view?
It can be confusing to know how to handle a toxic relationship, whether that be with a family member, friend, or spouse. If your spouse is behaving in dysfunctional, harmful ways, what should you do? What is the Biblical response?
The first and most important thing to do is learn about toxic, dysfunctional relationships and identify whether you are in one. Here are some things to know about the signs of a toxic relationship.
What is a Toxic Relationship?
If you’re looking for a toxic relationship definition, you might have a hard time drawing the line between normal and dysfunctional. Does “toxic” mean abusive? Is toxic always the fault of one partner? Is the label “toxic” a death sentence for the relationship?
Dr. Lillian Glass, author of the 1995 book Toxic People, defines a toxic relationship as “any relationship [between people who] don’t support each other, where there’s conflict and one seeks to undermine the other, where there’s competition, where there are disrespect and a lack of cohesiveness.”
Even though all toxic relationships are not abusive, a toxic relationship is “a poisonous environment that impacts your ability to live a healthy and productive life” (Psychology Today).
So, “toxic” means your relationship is unhealthy and dysfunctional. The dysfunction stems from one or both people who react in damaging ways to unpleasant situations or issues. They may consistently overreact or not consider the other person’s feelings with caring and respect. This behavior can be harmful to one or both partners. It’s rooted in a lack of self-control and emotional regulation.
Abuse, on the other hand, is rooted in power and control. It’s one-sided and typically associated with narcissism and a disproportionate sense of entitlement. If there is violence in the relationship, it has moved beyond toxic into a dangerous situation.
Signs of a Toxic Relationship
Here are some of the most common behaviors you’ll notice in a dysfunctional relationship:
A lack of mutual caring and respect
All healthy relationships have this fundamental dynamic. Despite disagreement, conflict, sin, and selfishness, healthy relationships are based on mutual standards of love and respect.
It’s not possible to have a healthy relationship when one or both partners consistently make selfish, disrespectful decisions, or when one partner expects their spouse to live according to standards they refuse to honor. When selfishness and disrespect are the norms, it’s impossible for a relationship to flourish.
Addictions and other ongoing problems
Addiction, bad habits, and untreated mental conditions can affect the health of a relationship and cause it to become toxic. Mental illnesses that are being treated consistently, such as anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder, may affect a relationship without turning it toxic, but any unhealthy patterns that are not resolved over time will almost inevitably turn dysfunctional.
Addictions have a very detrimental effect on relationships and marriages, so much so that the term codependency was originally coined by experts who observed alcoholics’ relationships with family members.
If your spouse is addicted to a controlled substance or has a behavioral addiction such as gambling or pornography use, the behavior stemming from the addiction can create a toxic pattern in your relationship.
Destructive relationship habits
Marriage researcher John Gottman has identified the “four horsemen of the apocalypse,” meaning the four behaviors that most reliably predict divorce. These behaviors often apply to toxic relationships.
Each of these four behaviors plays into the others, although they may not all be present at once. When these behaviors are the ongoing norm in a relationship, it has likely become toxic and the risk of divorce has skyrocketed.
Other toxic patterns include a lack of healthy boundaries, chronic unfaithful behavior (even “minor” things such as flirting), passive-aggressiveness, scorekeeping, and jealousy. These issues will generally cause problems no matter how minor they are, but when they become pervasive and habitual, they engender a toxic environment.
Addressing a Toxic RelationshipHow do you address a toxic relationship or marriage as a Christian?
Assess your physical and emotional safety
Again, it’s important to understand the distinction between a toxic marriage or relationship and an abusive one. If you’re concerned that your relationship may be abusive, you can read more about that or contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline here. A counselor can help you assess your level of safety and make a safety plan.
Talk to a counselor
If your relationship is not abusive but is damaging to your emotional health, it is still important to address what’s happening. A professional Christian counselor can walk you through the process of identifying the signs of a toxic relationship and knowing what steps to take next. Some of the following steps will be important as you heal from the dysfunction in your relationship or marriage:
Take ownership of your behavior
It’s possible that you may be the source of some or all of the toxicity in your relationship. If you’ve realized that you are creating dysfunction, identifying the problem and getting help are wonderful first steps. There is hope to create new patterns of behavior and drastically improve your relationship.
If you’ve realized that both you and your partner are contributing to some of the unhealthy patterns and your partner, a Christian counselor can help you to:
- Take ownership of your part of the problem and learn healthier behaviors.
- Set healthy boundaries.
- Respond in a wise manner to your partner’s unhealthy behavior, choosing intentional responses instead of being emotionally reactive.
Take ownership of your well-being
As you’re figuring out how to navigate a toxic relationship and you’re working on your own actions, it’s important to take good care of yourself on a practical level. Neglecting your physical and emotional well-being will make it much more difficult for you to manage your responses and set healthy boundaries.
Work with your Christian relationship counselor on how to establish good self-care habits and nourish your body, soul, and relationship with God as you seek to establish healthier relationship patterns.
A Biblical Response to Toxic Relationships
“If a person in your life is toxic to your mental, spiritual, or physical health, often the wisest decision is to put some distance between you and them. God’s greatest desire is to set us free, and sometimes that means facing the person and saying, “Stop, no more,” and walking away.
The key to making this distance work is to avoid indulging in your anger or bitterness. We shouldn’t respond by gossiping or ridiculing the person (I Peter 3:9, II Corinthians 12:20) no matter how much they hurt us. Instead, we should focus on building a stronger and healthier relationship with Him to help us forgive and move forward.” (BeliefNet)
Although the world would often tell us that a toxic marriage should end immediately in divorce, as Christians, we know that God doesn’t want us to immediately jump to that conclusion. There are circumstances in which divorce is permissible, but there are other ways to address a non-abusive but toxic relationship.
As you work to avoid unhealthy dependence and create healthy distance and boundaries, you will find the need to rely on the Lord as your source of identity and strength, as well as learn to relate in love, based on what is truly best for your spouse and yourself.
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