Navigating the Holidays with *That* Toxic Family Member

Holidays are synonymous with food, décor, cozy clothes…and family. For some of us, the idea of gathering with family quickens our hearts. For others, that festive turkey is served with a side of dread. In healthy relationships, it is normal for there to be misunderstandings and occasional disagreements. None of us are perfect; and, try as we might, we can’t cultivate perfect relationships. Some of us, however, have unhealthy relationships within our kin and our exchanges with these individuals are often characterized by conflict and control leaving us anxious and frustrated. Current vernacular calls these types of relations toxic family members.

Within the circle of my friends, my girlfriends collectively have deeply troubled relationships with their father, mother, mother-in-law, adult daughter, teenaged son, or sister. I’m confident that this list looks similar to one that your friend list shares. No bond, even that of parent-child or sibling-sibling, is without the possibility of becoming a source of frustration and anxiety.        

We can look in the Bible and see that it is rife with difficult familial relationships: Cain and Abel, Abraham and Sarah, Esau and Jacob, Jacob and Dinah, Judah and Tamar, Nabal, and Abigail. The conflicts in these relationships bore murder, lies, theft, rape, abandonment, and near-ruin of the whole family. There are some of us whose family trees have branches that are scarred with similar tragedies. There are others of us whose family trees bear lesser wounds but wounds that harm the health of the tree all the same. Destruction and catastrophe are consequences of living in a broken world. So how, as Christian women, do we handle family members who are hurtful in a manner glorifying of God? Before we dive into that answer, please allow me the following disclaimer: abuse is not condoned in the Bible. If you feel that you’re in a relationship that is beyond dysfunctional and might be abusive, please speak with someone you trust or see a Christian counselor.    

What is a biblical response to dealing with our toxic family members? How can we embrace the joy and hope of the holiday season when we’re tensing up over the incoming storm of emotions? I can tell you this with every confidence: the Bible has everything we need to know for daily living. Scripture does give us general guidelines in dealing with family, like “Honor your father and your mother” (Ex. 20:12) and “Fathers, do not provoke your children” (Col. 3:21). But the nuance found in individual relationships might have us looking for something more specific. Those detailed Scriptures show up in the copious verses on how we should treat other people, like Romans 12:18, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

But when living peaceably doesn’t feel possible, it’s not unusual to cherry-pick verses that will allow us to do exactly what our selfish selves want to do, all in the name of “obeying” Scripture. Take Proverbs 13:20 for example: “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.” Properly applying this verse helps us to rightly select healthy, constructive relationships. Misusing this verse lets us off the hook from trying to maintain relations with difficult people the Lord has placed in our lives. How many times have we gone verse-hunting in our Bibles looking for all the validity we need to stay away from people who seek to do us harm?

Walking on eggshells. Tiptoeing through a minefield. The metaphors for dysfunctional relationships share a similar sense of having to take laborious care in every interaction. It can be so very tiring. While the field of relationships is far too vast for me to help you navigate diffusing each bomb you may run across, I can attempt to offer some widely applicable reminders.

Be Realistic

Take a step back from a tense exchange, and ask yourself, “Is this a moment? Is this a phase? Or is this the state of the relationship?” Don’t shy away from asking pointed questions to yourself about how long you’ve felt strained communication with this person. If it’s new, when did it start and does it correlate with a recent life or health change for either of you? I can be quite adept at making a mountain out of a molehill, so this is a question I ask myself frequently as it helps me to craft an appropriate response. If this is a moment, a heap of grace ought to cover the offense. If this is a phase, intentional encouragement and prayers of petition for the difficult relation will help your heart’s posture be one of kindness and courtesy for future interactions. If the phase of conflict has become the state of the relationship, hopefully, you’ll find some helpful tips in the rest of the article.

Be Responsible for Your Half of the Relationship

Setting boundaries is often suggested as a way to rehabilitate unhealthy relationships. And while I think there’s much validity to the idea, make sure that you’re not using boundary-setting the same way that you could cherry-pick a Bible verse—selfishly. You shouldn’t draw whatever line in the sand you deem necessary without consideration for the other person and the benefit of the relationship as a whole, not to mention the other people (I’m thinking specifically of children) who might be affected if the bond is severed. If you’re setting boundaries as a means of avoidance (avoiding a tough conversation or avoiding pointing out habitual, hurtful habits), you’re not holding up your end of the relationship. If your toxic family member is a fellow believer, consider the verse in Proverbs 27:17: “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” Sharpening metal happens through friction, and we become better as our loved ones help smooth out our rough edges through listening to their wise counsel and we in turn should do the same for them. But this doesn’t give permission to go into heated conversations with all guns blazing.

Some believers say whatever they want to say, however they want to say it, and claim they’re speaking “truth in love.” Insert side-eye emoji here. First, let’s get our context from the whole verse: “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:15). Whatever words you choose to use, whether with a contentious person or not, they should make you look more like Christ, the same Christ “who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:6–7). Humility is the name of the game here. Truth with love is often what we end up serving where love is a condiment or side dish to the main entrée; love becomes an afterthought at best. Truth in love is truth that is wrapped in care, truth that is clothed in humility. Truth is still being offered, but in this instance, so very tenderly. When you have a gospel-driven truth you feel compelled to share, aim for truth in love, all the while looking like Christ.

Be Responsible for Your Actions and Words

What does the Bible say about our role when people routinely wound us? Hebrews 13:6 says, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” When we’re dealing with people who frequently hurt or shame us, we’d like nothing more than to retaliate. That’s why the Lord recognizes it is a sacrifice to do good sometimes! Take heart from the example of Jesus and where His confidence came from: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Pet. 2:23). Remember that the Lord alone is our perfect judge and He will be the one to redress any wrongs done to you and you as well will be held accountable for your mistreatment of others. You have an advocate in Christ even if you feel you can’t advocate for yourself. I would encourage you to read Psalm 37 and be reminded that the Lord is trustworthy, He will act on your behalf, He will uphold the righteous, and He is your stronghold and place of refuge. And in all circumstances, try very hard to make the Golden Rule in Matthew 7:12 your gold standard.    

Family dynamics are simply complicated, interwoven with expectations from within our own family’s culture added to expectations from our culture at-large. And holidays can just put all of that in a pressure cooker. Not a new, fancy pressure cooker with built-in safety measures; oh no, I’m talking about the old ones with the rattling weight on top that you know have all the potential in the world to blow the lid right off. I know that dealing with challenging relationships is exhausting and wearying down to the bones. I know that the desire to hit the eject button is a real temptation. So here is what I would encourage: don’t be hasty; do consider long-term consequences. Reconcile if you can. Don’t give up; do keep praying. Nothing and no one is ever beyond the Lord’s redemption. I would, however, encourage you to take a brief step back from the relationship to catch your breath if that is needed. If you’re keeping in step with the Spirit, I feel confident that He will let you know what you need to do. Make it your mission to show Christ and to be Christ in even your most difficult relationships.

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Dana Carrington loves Jesus and words. A southern transplant now living in the national capital region, she reads travel guides for fun and has an extensive song lyric database in her brain which comes in handy for games of Name that Tune on road trips. During the colder months, she pretends there will be an award given for the most treats baked—and she’s out to win gold! Her husband and four kiddos are her greatest delight.