When My Family Is Toxic
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Gary ThomasGary Thomas is a writer in residence at Second Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, and an adjunct faculty member teaching on spiritual formation at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon and Houston Theological Seminary in Houston, Texas. He is the author of 20 books, including When to Walk Away, Sacred Marriage, Sacred Pathways, Cherish, Sacred Parenting, and the Gold Medallion Award-winning Authentic Faith. He has a master’s degree from Regent College, where he studied u...more
When the people in your family hurt you the most, what do you do? Gary Thomas explains that if a family member enjoys tearing you down and destroying the relationship, then it may be time to walk away.
When My Family Is Toxic
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, December 13th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I’m Bob Lepine. You’ll find us, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com. When there are toxic people in our lives—even in our families—we sometimes have to make some very hard decisions/some hard choices. We’ll talk about making those choices today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. You know, it occurs to me that the reason that we have a radio program is because relationships are hard. [Laughter] I mean, let’s just acknowledge—
Ann: It’s true.
Bob: —if relationships were easy, no one would be tuning in and listening to FamilyLife Today.
Dave: They wouldn’t need any help!
Bob: But relationships are hard; because any time you are in a relationship, it’s two sinful people. Our sinful tendencies manifests themselves; and it makes what we long for, which is love—it causes it to go sideways because of our sin.
Sometimes, that gets extreme; and that’s what we’re talking about this week as we talk about toxic relationships. We’ve got Gary Thomas joining us, again, this week. Gary, welcome back.
Gary: Thank you.
Bob: Gary is an author/a speaker. He is on the pastoral staff at Second Baptist Church in Houston. He is the writer-in-residence there. He’s the author of books that really have been widely influential in the church—the books: Sacred Marriage, Sacred Parenting, Sacred Influence, and now this book, When to Walk Away. Really, a book—I started this week by saying, “Yes; we’re going to have Gary on whatever book he writes.” But this is the least Gary Thomas book you’ve written; don’t you think?
Gary: It is. I would have never believed it, and it was difficult for me to put it down. There were some truths in here that, honestly, are painful; but I think necessary.
Dave: I’ve got to tell you—when I picked it up, I thought the same thing—that: “This is Gary Thomas?!” Then I started reading, and I couldn’t put it down.
Ann: Oh, I know.
Dave: You are hitting something so important. It was a journey to go through; it was really very, very good.
Bob: It’s one thing—if we’ve got a friend, who we just look at and go: “This relationship is draining me,” and “I need to put some boundaries around it. I need to protect that,”—but when those relationships are blood/when we’re talking about our parents,—
Bob: —or when we’re talking about siblings, or when we’re talking about—
Ann: —then it gets real.
Bob: Now, all of a sudden: “What do we do with that?”
I know, as you got into these chapters in the later part of your book, you were walking into a minefield. You knew you were walking into a minefield; didn’t you? [Laughter]
Gary: I certainly did.
Ann: Well, Gary, one of the chapters is about toxic parents. One of the Ten Commandments is to honor your father and mother. Then you start out saying, “How do we honor our toxic parents?” That is really difficult, because God’s calling us to honor them; but what if they are toxic? What does a toxic parent look like? Give us some examples.
Gary: If we go back to what we said a couple of days ago, if they are overly controlling, they are certainly acting in a toxic way. We talked yesterday between acting in a toxic way and actually being toxic, so you’re trying to figure that out.
If they have a murderous spirit, where they are murdering your plans, they are murdering your joy, they are murdering sense of security, or murdering your independence, frankly; or if they love to hate—if they enjoy tearing you down, if they enjoy cutting your feet out from under you, if they enjoy destroying your relationships—that’s a situation, where you realize, “This relationship isn’t healthy for me.”
I’ve got to tell you—I’ve talked, so often, with couples, where I just—one of my favorite things—I love doing premarital counseling when I see this woman, who came out of a really dysfunctional home, and she chooses a great guy; because you know, sometimes, when you come out of dysfunctional home—
Gary: —you marry a guy, who is sort of like your dad; but Jesus has redeemed them; He has restored them; He’s renewed them. They have this great marriage—and then I see this half the time, where suddenly they have this great marriage; they are starting a new family: “Okay; now, it’s time for me to go fix my childhood home.”
I’m like: “That is wasting your time. You can’t have a healthy relationship with an unhealthy person. You need to walk away from what’s destroying you, so you’re building up a strong marriage. You have a chance to build a new family/a new relationship; a new marriage takes a lot of time.”
Lisa and I—the first year of our marriage was the most difficult of marriage. Sounds like, from Vertical Marriage, that was your—
Ann: It was.
Gary: —most difficult year. Don’t go back and try to parent your parents. Thank God that He has brought you to a new place, where you can be involved in a healthy relationship.
Bob: Do you just cut yourself off from your dysfunctional family and your parents, who may exhibit toxic behavior?
Gary: Let me give two examples. There is one, where a woman had an older sister, who had made some really bad choices in life—was a single mom, had a baby. This younger sister had done so much right: she’d gone to an Ivy League school; she was starting a business; she was following the Lord. It was exciting—the doors that God opened up for her. It’s like she was a female Joseph; everything she did was being blessed.
Well, because she was now in the same city as her older sister, she would get these emergency babysitting calls: “You’ve got to watch your niece.” Because she owned the business, she was sort of able to do that; but she resented it. It was getting in the way of starting this off, because it takes a lot of energy. Thankfully, God brought her a great mentor, who just said to her: “Look, neither your mom nor your sister know what it takes to succeed at this level. You are actually undercutting your ability to bless so many people with this new effort you have by doing these emergency babysitting calls.”
She felt guilty when she looked at it through the lens of relationship; because the older sister would say: “You’re a Christian. Aren’t Christians supposed to help those in need?” Her mom would say: “You’ve got to help her. She doesn’t have the advantages that you have had.” Of course, the mentor could tell her: “You both grew up in the same home. She made some choices; this isn’t about advantages.”
But when she looked at her family dynamics through the sense of mission: “God has called me to do an important work in this world. I need to invest in reliable people,”—the people in her work—“and that I am actually hurting more people by doing this really childcare that isn’t appropriate at this time.” Now, she had a lens to say, “It was selfish for her to say, ‘Yes,’ to her sister and her mom.”
In that situation, I believe that her mom was acting in a toxic manner; but her mom wasn’t toxic. She didn’t cut off the relationship there. Now, they weren’t happy with her; but she has maintained that relationship.
Toxic—where you need to walk away—would be another couple, where the husband was married to a solid Christian woman; but his mom was either passive aggressive or not so passive aggressive and would just punish his wife. She couldn’t do anything right. She wasn’t parenting right; she didn’t cook right; she didn’t love her husband well enough—it just drained her.
She just said to him, early in December: “Honey, I’m—I just can’t even bear the thought of spending Christmas with your mom this year.” She goes: “It takes me months to [recover]. You know it’s been a difficult fall.” They had an issue with one of their kids; she goes, “I just don’t know if I can do it.” This guy—he knew that his mom preached the gospel of family above all else, and not being there for Christmas would be an act of war.
Ann: There would backlash.
Gary: But he did the right thing. He realized, for that holiday, they needed to walk away. His wife needed to know, “Honey, it’s legitimate.” It’s not like she was being hyper-sensitive; he knew this was going on. It wasn’t his wife being too sensitive; it was his mom being toxic toward his wife.
Here is what I say to couples in this situation—because he said: “Gary, how can I do this? I’m supposed to honor my father and mother.” I said, “You honor your mom by acting as if she’s healthy. If my son called me and said, ‘Dad, for the sake of my marriage, we just can’t spend Christmas with you,’ I’d be devastated; but I hope I would say: ‘Son, I’m proud of you. You’re a husband first. You’re putting your wife first. You’re doing what you’re supposed to do. You’re being a good husband. Good for you. We’ll miss you; but I’m proud of you.’”
That’s what I think a healthy parent would say. The fact that she didn’t respond that way, in any remote way, I think, proves that she was acting in a toxic way. For that holiday, they had to walk away.
I tell younger couples—I speak with the sentimentality of an empty-nester: “It’s shocking how few Christmases you have when the kids are young. Then, when they get older—and they start to go away, or they are on trips, or then they are bringing in boyfriends or girlfriends or, now, spouses or whatnot—it’s very few. To sacrifice the wonder of a holiday with kids in a healthy situation, to appease a toxic parent, I think it’s a poor life choice. It’s not your fault; you’re walking away from toxicity—not out of meanness/not out of disrespect—but out of wanting to give your kids a healthy and, even, happy childhood.
Dave: I can’t imagine. I mean, Gary, I know NFL players that I worked with for
33 seasons, who could not do what you are saying right there.
Ann: —in terms of saying, “No” to their family.
Dave: “There is no way I can call my mom and say, ‘I’m not coming to Christmas.’ It isn’t going to happen. I just can’t do that,”—you know?—“I’m just going to endure.”
I know counselors, who would say to that person: “Oh, just fake it. Just go there for a couple days. Fake it to make it and move on”; but you’re saying, “You’ve got to make the hard choice.”
Gary: I think we need to protect our family members from evil. When our kids were growing up, we talked a lot about Jesus; and I am thankful for that. I wish we had talked more about evil and how to deal with evil and evil people that might prey. You can overdo it.
Gary: You should emphasize Jesus ten times; but to not mention evil at all is to leave people ill-equipped. Jesus said many times: “Watch out. Be on your guard.” I mean, He told His disciples: “I’m the way, the truth, and the life. These are liars, murderers, and thieves.” We need to, I think, model and speak the reality of evil in a fallen world.
Bob: We speak at the Weekend to Remember® marriage getaways about God’s plan for marriage. What’s step one in God’s plan for marriage? “For this cause—
Bob: —“you will leave father and mother, and you will form a new priority relationship.” When another person is not letting you leave and cleave, they are attacking your marriage relationship. They are doing harm to what God has said: “This needs to be the new priority relationship.” That’s where husbands and wives need to say—and I’ll just say moms and dads need to say—“That ought to be the priority.” As you said, the healthy parent ought to say: “You’re making your marriage a priority. Good for you.”
Bob: If you can’t say that, as a parent, you’re the problem.
Ann: Yes; and yet, to come and say: “Hey, I just heard this radio broadcast. I’ve discovered, after listening to it, that your mother is evil. We’re not going to go to Christmas this year,”—help us to know: “How do we say that if we feel that about our spouse’s parents?” That’s kind of tricky.
Gary: Well, here is the thing—I think you can recognize whether your spouse is up for it, and it’s a good thing. You’re recognizing: “For this Christmas, we’re united in heart and mind. We both feel like we’re in a good place, where we believe God is calling us to this as a mission.” It is an art, where you’re figuring out: “Okay; are my spouse—do I need to protect my spouse? Is this something we can do?” But then, you’re also bringing in your kids.
Another circumstance is where a guy—he had an abusive dad and an abusive mom. She was verbally abusive; his dad was physically abusive. He became a Christian; and they ridiculed him: “Yes; we’ll see what happens when you’re in high school,” “We’ll see what happens when you’re in college.” Then they had kids, and his parents realized what they had missed; and they thought they would get a do over with their grandkids.
Now, his dad was still drinking too much; his mom was still talking the same way/in the same caustic way. The question came: “When are the grandkids going to spend the weekend with us?” He said: “They are not. They will not be at your house without us.” They’ll pulled out the card that toxic people use against Christians: “You haven’t forgiven us. The Bible says you’re supposed to forgive. You haven’t forgiven us; have you? Otherwise, you’d let us watch the kids.” They didn’t care if he was acting like a Christian; they were trying to use Scripture to control him: “We want the kids,” and he knew it wasn’t safe.
He knew that he couldn’t guarantee they wouldn’t be exposed to something harmful or treated in a harmful way. It wasn’t disrespectful to his parents. He just said: “No; they are not spending the night. You know what? If you go behind our back and you try to manipulate the kids into spending time with you, we won’t even be here with them; so you’re going to respect our authority.”
I think, in some ways, that’s the most loving thing to do to a toxic person. Because when you call them out on their toxicity, you may be the first person that says: “There is a price for the way that you’ve become. I’m not going to be manipulated.” Jesus did that. Jesus was so loving to the repentant; but He didn’t play games with the non-repentant.
Bob: I can imagine somebody standing up to a parent and saying, “We’re going to put some boundaries here.” I’m turning the table now and thinking: “What about the parent, who says, ‘We’re having everybody home for Christmas; but the one child in our family, who has been manifesting toxic behavior, doesn’t get to come and join the family for Christmas?’” It now, all of a sudden, feels really hard, as a parent, to say, “I’m going to put boundaries around a child, who is toxic,” because, as parents, we’re supposed to be the ones who can fix that and make that all better.
Gary: You know Jack Deere?
Gary: He mentioned this in his life, where he had a son, who is now deceased, was into drugs. He was toxic beyond his addiction—it wasn’t just addiction—and he had given him chance after chance. Finally, on this last chance, he brought him back. He was acting in such a toxic way that Jack—they were on a trip—the younger daughter hid herself in the bathroom and locked the door. He [Jack] realized: “Okay; here is the thing. You are in rehab today, or you’re out on the street; and everything is done.”
The words he said are so severe for a parent, but they are necessary words. They are words of love. He said: “I can’t save you from yourself, but I can protect others from you,”—and pretty much—“What you have forced me to do.” I can’t even imagine having to say that to a kid, but it’s what you have to say. It’s the most loving thing you can say; because ultimately, you are confronting them as Jesus did: “You are destroying yourself. This is not an acceptable way to behave. I’m not going to cooperate with it. I’m not going to enable it. I’m saying, ‘This stops.’”
In the end, we’re doing what Jesus did. That’s where I think we have to be as parents; I think it’s where we have to be as children. Sometimes—as spouses, and friends, and workers in the kingdom—at times, people will say, “Please leave.” We’re not controlling in return; we say, “Okay.”
Bob: Let’s come back to what’s at the heart of your thesis. Why do we make the choice to walk away?
Gary: The reason I make the choice to walk away is because my life is set up on seeking, first, the kingdom of God and His righteousness and finding reliable people who I can invest in—it’s Matthew 6:33; 2 Timothy 2:2. It’s to have the positive life of offense. It’s not because I’m worried about being drained or being disturbed; I live to be drained and disturbed in kingdom work.
What I don’t want to do is have unfruitful work. I don’t want to try to plant flowers on stone. [Laughter] I want to go to the plowed fields that God has set up. The four words that have guided me so often in ministry: “No conviction, no counsel,”—if I don’t think there is spiritual conviction there/if I don’t think the heart is prepared, I’m not wasting my time.
Bob: That’s pearls before swine; right?
Gary: That is.
Gary: But it’s that focus that: “I believe this is urgent work. It’s a good work, bringing the kingdom of Jesus Christ—His light, His love, His Lordship, His authority, His influence—is so important. People will oppose it; people will hate it; people will resist it. My job is to have that extra-sensitive x-ray radar to find those that are reliable/that will receive it, and pour generously into them so the kingdom work will go on, from generation to generation, until Christ returns.
Dave: I actually read this line in your book, out loud to my wife. I mean, it’s just what you just said; but you said it so well—you said: “If you are in Christ, you aren’t just saved; you’re enlisted. You have been called to an important work, and there is no time to lose.” It struck me again: “We forget that. It isn’t just this little, ‘I’m a follower’; I’m enlisted. I signed up. I’ve got a job to do. I can’t waste a minute, and I’m not going to allow somebody to get me off course.” It just inspired me as I read that. I’m like: “Man, this makes sense. There are times that you have to walk away to do the greater good.”
When I was a much younger dad and husband, I worked with a toxic guy. What I regret most about that season—I would come home; and I would be thinking about weird stuff, trying to make sense of weird stuff, trying to defend myself against weird stuff. I look at how young my kids were; and I would go back to me, as a father and a husband, now: “Gary, leave it at the office. Walk away mentally. Find out about your kids’ day. Love on your kids. Share with your kids. Find out what your wife is thinking. You can’t fix a toxic person. You shouldn’t fret over a toxic person. Invest in the healthy relationships. Invest in the God-ordained relationships. When a relationship is distracting you from what God has called you to do, learn when to walk away.”
Ann: So good.
Bob: This is where you need wisdom; you need godly counsel; you need prayer. These are not decisions that you make casually, and you don’t make them based on self-interest. You make them based on kingdom-interest.
Gary, that’s what’s at the heart of your book. I’m grateful you wrote a non-Gary Thomas book like this—[Laughter]
Ann: Me, too.
Bob: —and gave us a lot to think about, and a lot to pray about, and a lot to help guide our relationships, and to promote healthy relationships, and to ask ourselves, “Are there ways that I’m being toxic or I’m draining other people?” I think that’s a good diagnostic question for any of us. Gary, thanks for being on FamilyLife Today.
Gary: Thank you so much. This place is a home away from home. I’m so grateful for the ministry of FamilyLife Today.
Bob: Well, we’re grateful for you and grateful for this new book. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com to order Gary Thomas’s book, When to Walk Away. You can order it from us, online; or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to get a copy. Again, our website is FamilyLifeToday.com to order the book, When to Walk Away, online; or call to order at 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
David Robbins, who is the president of FamilyLife, is with us today. David, the conversation this week with Gary Thomas has been a reminder to me of the fact that so many of our listeners are dealing with very real and very difficult family issues and trying to figure out, “How do I honor God in the midst of this kind of family issue?” That’s not always an easy question to answer.
David: No doubt about that, Bob, but we have never been shy about addressing hard subjects on FamilyLife Today. I just received an email from a FamilyLife Today listener, who told us: “I love easy discussions, even when the topics are difficult. I feel like your guests are sitting at my kitchen table with me, having a cup of coffee. I love the variety of subjects you take on. They are so bold; yet, they are also often so friendly. I don’t even know how to name all that I’ve learned from FamilyLife Today. Even when I think the upcoming show won’t be that interesting to me, it turns out it always is. It’s my favorite radio show, giving such godly wisdom in such a cozy, relaxing sort of way.”
Bob: Oh, cozy?
David: Bob, yes; you know, there’s an element, Bob, where you do invite us into comfortable, yet, hard things all the time. It’s a beautiful word for you there, Bob.
Bob: I like it!
David: I want, though, to take a minute and just say how thankful I am for those of you who stand with us in the ministry of FamilyLife Today. Thank you for enabling us to reach into the lives of husbands and wives and moms and dads all over the world and talk about the real, difficult things that surface in families. As you just heard, your investment is making a significant difference in people’s lives.
Bob: Well, I hope you feel cozy enough today to go to your phone or your computer and connect with us and make a yearend contribution to the ministry to FamilyLife Today. Again, your donation is going to be matched, dollar for dollar, up to a total of $2.5 million when you donate today. Donate online at FamilyLifeToday.com, or call to donate at 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.” And thanks, in advance, for whatever you’re able to do in support of this ministry. We appreciate you.
Also, will you pray for the folks who are attending our final Weekend to Remember® of the year this year? This is happening this weekend in Charleston, South Carolina. Pray for the couples who will be joining us in Charleston this weekend.
I hope you have a great weekend. I hope you and your family are able to worship together in your local church this weekend, and I hope you can join us back on Monday when we’re going to talk about how we stay connected to our teenagers and young adult children as they go through that season in their life. What do we do, as parents, to walk alongside them in the midst of that season? Steve Argue joins us for that conversation on Monday. I hope you can be here as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you Monday for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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