Toxic Relationships


During my childhood, on Cherry Street, two types of families existed.  In most, like mine, fathers left home at 7:30 a.m. for city jobs. Children left by 8:00 a.m. to make the fifteen-minute walk to school equipped with a lunch or lunch money.  By 8:15, breakfast cleaned up, most mothers commenced their housework and grocery shopping with a few heading off to part- time jobs.

After school could be play time for kids depending on homework assignments.  Between 5 and 6:00, fathers returned for family dinner.  By 6:30, teens ran to each other’s houses to listen to their newest 45 records.  Elementary kids met up in the neighborhood playground until mothers called them in for bedtime.

The Kelsey’s represented the other kind of family.  Sometimes, walking to school, we passed Mr. Kelsey, blacked out in front of our neighborhood bar.  Mrs. Kelsey worked swing shift in a factory.  Many days the six Kelsey children got themselves out the door, often without breakfast or lunch.  Even though several of them were bullies, generous children still shared parts of lunches with them.

The volume of the Kelsey home reached much higher decibels than most houses on Cherry Street.  Alcohol-enhanced fights between Mr. and Mrs. sometimes exploded out onto their front yard.  The older two children, 16 and 14 years old, tried to parent their younger siblings mostly by screaming at them. This family lived in a jumble of chaotic relationships.

I’ve met many people who grew up in families like mine and just as many who grew up in a Kelsey-style home.  The funny thing is, even if your childhood was peaceful and highly functional, you will be confronted with chaotic relationships at some point.  It’s part of this earthly life.  Recognizing chaos as one of Satan’s strategies is key.  This insight causes you to focus on the unseen dynamics between you and others with whom your relationship is less than enjoyable or peaceful.

In college, I entered my first friendships that were sketchy and confusing.  My first roommate, a born-again believer, regularly tossed my out of our room so she and her boyfriend could enjoy some “communion.”  I’m not talking grape juice and bread.  That disturbed me.  Another new friend seemed to want to be with me all the time, everywhere, even structuring her class schedule to match mine.   I felt flattered but suffocated, especially when I finally figured out she wanted to be my true love, not just my girlfriend.  Yikes.  That scared me.

Since then I’ve encounter muddled relationships in jobs, churches and neighborhoods.  How I wish someone taught me long ago what I’ll share now.  Satan looks for places to create havoc in your life.  Relationships are easy to foul up even with two highly functional individuals.  Here’s some of what I’ve learned about managing my interactions with people in a way that pleases God and keeps me sane.

  • Understand that some people are incapable of maintaining  peaceful relationships. I wasted too much emotional energy and time trying to stabilize friendships that couldn’t be stabilized.  There are many people in this world, Christians and non-Christians alike who are NOT led by the Holy Spirit.  They are like the unstable, doubleminded man that James describes in chapter one of his book.  They are led by emotions, passions and worldly thinking. They are chronically upset or completely scattered in their thinking such that it’s challenging to converse with them without feeling yucky afterwards.  If these are people you must see every day at work, or home, there are strategies you can use.
  • Create sturdy boundaries around your life.  It’s simple.  People who point me to Jesus and produce the fruit of the Spirit consistently are allowed much closer than people who don’t, including family members and work mates.  You can live and work quite closely to someone without granting them full access to your inner life.  Gracious conversation, an interest in their concerns, producing decent work together and such, can all happen without being soul sisters or brothers.  God will give abilities to be a peace maker (NOT a peacekeeper) in situations in which He plants you. A quiet tone of voice, re-directing negative conversations, keeping people focused on jobs at hand are all good strategies.  It’s unfortunate when it must be this way with family members especially, but the option of allowing someone else’s chaos to invade your mind and heart is a poor choice.
  • Spend your free time with people who are sunshine on a cloudy day.  If you are strong in the gift of mercy, be especially careful how you spend your time.  Your desire to care for and help people can burn up time that should be used for refreshment and restoration.  Too many individuals become unbalanced this way.  Folks without that mercy gift can get snookered by people too. A few times, people cleverly hid their true selves from me until we were alreaady down friendship roads.  Back paddling out of a friendship is tough.  It’s much better to use caution and boundaries before committing your heart and free time to someone.

Take an honest look at your relationships.  Privately, with God, put them in one of two categories, refreshing or draining, or order versus chaos. Adjustments may be necessary.  A life filled with draining relationships will be a frustrating, unfulfilling one.  To help you with the task of creating healthy boundaries I highly recommend Dr. John Townsend’s book “Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No.” 

Remember, chaos and disorder in any part of your life did not originate with God.




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