By: Brittany Ann
In this article I’m going to share my best step-by-step advice for learning how to deal with toxic family members Biblically. Before we get there, let’s start by identifying the signs of a toxic relationship.
Signs of a Toxic Relationship
You may be wondering, “Am I in a toxic relationship with my family?” Or, “Is my sister a toxic person?” The Bible describes what love is supposed to look like in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
If we take the opposite of 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, we see several signs of a toxic person or signs of a toxic relationship:
- Lacks patience
- Is verbally and/or physically abusive
- Acts jealous over every little thing
- Boasts excessively
- Is excessively prideful
- Dishonours others
- Is self-seeking
- Reminds others of past mistakes
- Delights in your pain or suffering
- Neglects or refuses to protect or defend you
- Refuses to trust
- Lacks hope
- Gives up easily
If your friends and family members are simply annoying, it’s probably best to give them grace and try to overlook their faults, if speaking with them doesn’t help. If you read these signs of a toxic relationships, however, and thought, “Yep. I definitely have toxic family members,” then this article on how to deal with toxic family members Biblically is definitely for you.
What Does The Bible Say About Toxic Family Members?
What should we do if the signs of a toxic relationship are evident? Do we have to “play nice” because they’re family, or is cutting people out of your life ever okay? What does the Bible say about cutting ties with family? Let’s take a look.
“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” — Luke 6:27-31
Yes, we absolutely should love our enemies, but I think sometimes we forget what love really means. Loving someone well does not mean always playing “nice,” always being the peacemaker, or just letting other people walk all over you. This isn’t love–it’s called enabling.
A better definition of love would be: honouring the true dignity of another person, acknowledging their inherent worth as human beings, created and loved by God, and doing everything in your power to do good for them and to act in their best interest.
While love can include being “kind” (see 1 Cor. 13:4 again), it’s so much more than that. In fact, if you really examine the way Jesus behaves in the Gospels, his actions aren’t always what we consider “nice.” When a Canaanite woman asks Jesus for his help in Matthew 15:26, “He replied, ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.’”
Jesus tells the Pharisees, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” in Matthew 12:34.
And let’s not forget how “Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves” in Matthew 21:12.
I wouldn’t actually recommend you calling your in-laws dogs or vipers or flipping their tables – my point here is only that the Bible does not teach us that we need to be super polite, calm and passive to the point of being walked over and enabling others in their sins. In fact, Jesus instructs the apostles to “leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet” in Matthew 10:14 and to “treat [unrepentant sinners] as you would a pagan or a tax collector” in Matthew 18:17.
Jesus’s plan for our lives isn’t to make us “nice.” It’s to make us (and our loved ones) holy. Sometimes that means treating others kindly. But other times that means protecting ourselves and our families instead of protecting the feelings of others who insist on pursuing sinful attitudes or behaviours.
How to Deal With Toxic Family Members Biblically
Since the Bible doesn’t teach us to be passive doormats, how should we deal with toxic family members Biblically? Here’s what I would advise:
1. Assess the Situation Honestly
Toxic family members are annoying. So it only makes sense that you might get worked up when your friends and family members start showing the signs of a toxic person or you start noticing the many signs of a toxic relationship. Before you get too worked up, though, take a step back and assess the situation honestly:
- Is the other person actually toxic, or simply annoying, thoughtless, etc?
- Is the problem serious enough to warrant action, or can you simply overlook it for the sake of family unity?
- Are you sure the other person’s actions are intentional, not simply perceived?
- What type of effect is the behaviour having on you and your family?
- What have you done to remedy the situation in the past, if anything?
- Have you actually told the other person how you are feeling, and what you’d like to change?
- Are things getting better, staying the same, or getting worse?
In the best-case scenario: you may realise that the other party truly didn’t mean to hurt you and that they were unaware that their behaviour was coming across so hurtful. If this is the case, then you may simply need to have a conversation.
Alternately, if the behaviour is purposeful but small enough in nature, you may simply be able to ignore it or avoid the situation when possible. Life isn’t perfect and people are annoying, and sometimes we just have to deal with annoying people. Yes, there are absolutely times when you may need to take action (there are times when cutting people out of your life is the right choice to make), but let’s not jump there quite yet. Can the behaviour simply be resolved or overlooked? If so (and the situation isn’t serious), then start here.
2. Accept Responsibility for Any Wrongdoing on Your Part
Next, take a minute to look at yourself and any part you may have played in the issue: Have you done anything to make the situation worse? Or failed to do something to make the situation better? While the situation may not be ultimately “your fault” (especially in cases of outright abuse), once we reach adulthood, each of us is responsible for and accountable for our own actions. And this is good news! Because it means that you have the power and ability to choose different actions, and to improve your situation.
It’s time to get honest with yourself:
- Have you said or done anything hurtful to the other person? (even unintentionally!)
- Have you ever failed to treat them as kindly or as respectfully as you should have?
- Have you ever been selfish, self-centred or mean-spirited?
Again, this does not mean the mistreatment is your fault. But if you have done (or continue to do) things that hurt the other party, they may be acting out of that hurt, and a heartfelt apology for any wrongdoings on your part may be just what the other person needs to heal. You aren’t responsible for them, but you are responsible and accountable for YOU — no matter what they’ve done to “deserve it.”
3. Set Healthy, Biblical Boundaries With Family
Next, once you’ve gotten honest about the situation and the role you may have played in it, it’s time to set some Biblical boundaries with family members and friends who may need them.
What behaviours will you accept? Which behaviours will you not accept? Where is the boundary?
I received this question from a reader:
My relationship with my family isn’t a healthy one. Both my parents and my siblings clearly favour my sister and her kids over me and mine, and it hurts me and my kids the way this favouritism is displayed.
For example, they don’t visit me unless they need favours and they brush my concerns aside when I try to share how their actions make me feel. My feelings are minimised, dismissed and discarded. It’s hurtful.
Even my kids are aware of this blatant favouritism. They ask questions about why their cousins get more attention, etc, and it breaks my heart.
I want to remain respectful to my parents and siblings, yet this has been happening for over five years now with no signs of remorse, and I don’t know how to make them understand how hurtful their actions are to me and my children.
How can I handle this without going against God’s words or teachings? What does the Bible say about cutting people out of your life?
Here’s the advice I gave the reader above:
Personally, I would explain, incredibly politely, that while you love them, you cannot allow them to continue to hurt you and your children in this way. (If you even want to explain at all. You’ve had this conversation several times now. I don’t know if it is necessary to say anything else.)
I would be careful to be as unemotional, straightforward and polite as possible, to avoid saying anything that could be taken as accusatory, and to just speak out of your concern for the children.
“We’ve spoken with you several times about how we feel as though you favour the other family over us. This has really hurt us and our family, as we want to have a relationship with you too, but it never seems to happen. Unfortunately, I cannot allow my children to have their hopes up and be so disappointed every time. For this reason, we will not be spending as much time with you” etc etc in your own words.
Then, if they call, you’re busy or cannot help them out at this time. (Which is true–you are busy… doing anything else other than being mistreated by toxic family members… even if that’s just washing the dishes or playing with the kids. That counts as busy.)
So what do healthy, biblical boundaries with family look like for you?
Do you need to limit visits or restrict your visits to a certain format? (For example, maybe you are happy to call on the phone, but you can no longer visit in person.) Do you need to set the boundary that you can only visit X times a year, that you can only give X dollars a month, or that you will only continue to be around them only as long as the conversation remains healthy and polite.
Seek wise counsel from friends and family you trust to make sure your boundaries are reasonable, let the other party know what your boundaries are, and then stick to them.
There’s no need to feel guilty. The Bible encourages you to set Biblical boundaries with family where necessary.
4. Stick to Your Boundaries!
Once you’ve set your boundaries and told your friends and family members where they are — this is the hard part. You have to stick to the boundaries you’ve set! Learning how to deal with toxic family members Biblically isn’t easy… It takes time and practice, and you won’t get it all right the first time, but stick with it. Because if you’re continually “bending the rules,” your family will just learn that your “rules” aren’t really rules at all. Seek Godly counsel, determine (through prayer) where your boundaries should be, and then stick to them!
Sometimes the most loving thing you can do in a relationship is simply to pray for the other person. This is why God commands us, “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” in Luke 6:27-28.
Pray that God would heal their hurt, that he would open their eyes to their behaviour, and that your relationship could be restored. Pray that God would help you love your toxic family members more, and that He would give you wisdom to deal with them wisely. God will help you learn how to respond to toxic family members — you just have to ask.
Although you may feel very angry or resentful towards the toxic family members and friends who have hurt you and ruined your relationships, the Bible is clear: We have to forgive, even when we don’t feel like it. We see this in Mark 11:25, which says, “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
Forgiving someone doesn’t mean that what they did is okay or that they shouldn’t receive any consequences for their action. You can still set Biblical boundaries and turn an abuser in to the authorities if needed. But we have a responsibility to forgive others (even and especially our enemies) if we want God to forgive us as well.
7. Close the Door
If you have done all of the above to the best of your ability, then it may be time for you to ask the last question: “What does the Bible say about cutting ties with family / cutting people out of your life?”
While it would be awesome if we could all get along, the truth is that we do have free will, and some people choose to use theirs in a way that interferes with God’s best for our lives. And when this happens, we don’t have to stay stuck in toxic, abusive relationships. God walks away from stubborn, sinful people at times (Romans 1:24-28). Jesus had times where he walked away (Matthew 12:34). And we have the Biblical right to walk away too.
God opens doors, but we often forget that he closes them, too.
Sometimes, as unfortunate as it is, when there is nothing more we can do, we need to just step back and let GOD deal with it in a way that only He can.
And that’s okay.
Article supplied with thanks to Equipping Godly Women.
About the Author: Brittany is a wife, a mother of three, a writer, author, teacher, and lover of Jesus!