We all have relationships in our lives that become complicated from time to time. But at some point, we may find that one has become so strained or toxic that it causes us a great deal more stress than we can make room for.
Recently, the topic has come up in conversation more times than I can count. It’s amazing how many people are currently navigating this scenario, and they feel helpless or stuck because of several factors, one of which being how the church has portrayed forgiveness.
I don’t know about you, but growing up, it was a common Sunday School lesson to forgive and give grace to those who repeatedly hurt you, to be kind and love them…except it was always about sticking out the friendship in the name of Christ, even if the person didn’t change. Forgive, forget, and suffer in silence, denying your own needs because that’s what good little Christians do. If I did stand up for myself, I was told I was “off-track” spiritually.
It wasn’t until my adult life that I received wise counsel on boundaries, and how to protect myself from relationships that had become unhealthy. But the damage of years of walking on eggshells, stifling my emotions, and being a people pleaser had taken its toll.
So let me offer a little relief to those of you who might be dealing with this. Friends, you do not have to stay in a situation where you repeatedly feel uncomfortable, anxious, belittled, diminished, or inferior. I’m not talking about walking away from someone who has wronged you once or twice. When we love others, we show grace as we have been shown grace. But if someone you are in relationship with, even if it is a lifelong friend or family member, repeatedly behaves in such a way that makes you feel devalued, you can set boundaries in that relationship to protect your heart.
We are called to love others, to honor them, and walk in forgiveness. But forgiveness doesn’t automatically equal reconciliation, and “forgive and forget” has no basis in reality. The reality is, a toxic relationship is damaging not only to you, but it prevents you from being who you need to be for other people, and it’s damaging to the person fueling the toxicity. You can love someone without having to be around them, especially if their presence causes you stress. Just because you forgive them and love them doesn’t mean the dynamic isn’t toxic or unhealthy, and you are not required to endure such mistreatment in the name of Christianity.
The truth is that boundaries, though they may offend those who don’t understand them, are a way to protect the love in the relationship. You cannot change another person, but you can change how much access they have to your life if they do not steward your feelings well. Boundaries allow you to act out of love instead of obligation or coercion or guilt. By setting limits on what behaviors you will allow, it frees you up emotionally to love that person, rather than grow to resent them. And furthermore, enabling negative behavior isn’t loving at all.
To be sure, boundaries aren’t the same as avoidance, and distance doesn’t equal dishonor. We are called to honor one another, and even if someone has wronged us, it doesn’t give us license to slander or dishonor them. And we shouldn’t avoid others with no given explanation in the name of boundaries. BUT, we are called to honor others according to God’s standards, not according to that person’s. We may never measure up to others’ unrealistic demands or unhealthy expectations of us, but God standard is clear: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18)
In your effort to “declutter” your relationships, ask yourself these questions:
1. Do I consistently become anxious or nervous whenever I am around or anticipate encountering this person?
2. Does the person repeatedly act in a way that devalues me or diminishes my feelings, values, or priorities?
3. Can I connect with this person beyond a surface level?
4. Is this person respectful of my feelings, and open to changing their behavior if they discover it’s hurtful?
5. Is there equal initiation of contact, or am I reaching out more than they are?
6. Does an encounter with this person make me feel drained or heavy?
7. Can I be truly myself around this person? Or am I constantly being questioned or questioning myself around them?
8. Am I consistently being guilted into spending time with this person, even when it’s inconvenient for me?
9. Is this person there for me when I need them, or are they mostly interested in what serves them?
As you take this assessment with each of your relationships, it will become clear to you which ones you can back away from and create some distance.
The bottom line is, your life is precious, and it is to be shared with those who see its value. When someone fails to see your value, they forfeit, or at least decrease, their access into your life. Your time is better spent with those who lift you up, encourage and refresh you, challenge you in a positive way, and who love you unconditionally. It is God’s desire for you to be around people who allow you to be yourself.
The beautiful thing about the redemption of the Father is that He provides the relationships you need. If you feel a void after cutting off a toxic relationship, ask Him to put people into your life to fill that void in a healthy way. You might be surprised by how letting go of a damaging relationship can open the door for new, healthy, edifying relationships to grow!