The word toxic means “poisonous.” Toxic relationships are those that poison our peace and our ability to enjoy another person. A toxic relationship will leave one exhausted, frustrated, and, in some cases, depressed. Toxic relationships can affect business partnerships, sports teams, and, of course, families. Some disharmony in a relationship is normal; however, some people inject poison into every relationship, making healthy give-and-take impossible. Those are toxic people, and the Bible has some advice for us in dealing with them.
There will be some people whose company we don’t prefer, but that doesn’t make them toxic. We may be polar opposites in ideology with someone but can maintain a comfortable relationship. Democrats can enjoy the company of Republicans, a New York Yankees fan can have a friendly relationship with a Boston Red Sox fan, and Christians can engage in healthy interactions with non-Christians. But when a person is toxic, he or she is unable to maintain a healthy relationship with anyone. Only those willing to suffer the selfish demands of the toxic person can endure such a relationship for long.
Several factors determine whether or not a relationship or a person is toxic:
1. The relationship is completely one-sided in favor of the toxic person. Toxic people are incredibly narcissistic and can think only of themselves and what they want at the moment. This is a direct violation of Philippians 2:3–4, which says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” Toxic people may pretend they are doing something for someone else, but there is always an ulterior motive that will benefit them.
2. There is continual drama in toxic relationships. Ironically, toxic people are often the ones who proclaim for all to hear how much they “hate drama.” Yet they instigate it everywhere they go. They seem to thrive on it. They cannot go from point A to point B in a simple, straightforward manner. They are a constant tangle of excuses, lies, fabrications, and crazy situations that weary everyone else in their world. They enjoy complicating otherwise simple situations because it keeps attention focused on them.
3. They are always right. Always. Toxic people look with disdain on anyone who dares correct or disagree with them. They mask their extreme pride with fake humility, but there is rarely any true repentance because they don’t believe they are wrong. It is everyone else’s fault. Proverbs 16:18 says, “Pride goes before a fall and a haughty spirit before destruction.” Haughtiness dominates toxic people, even when they try to hide it behind self-pity or groveling. If you are in a toxic relationship, the “destruction” the toxic person has earned due to pride often lands on you, too.
4. Others dread confrontations or interactions with a toxic person. They may appear delightfully charming to outsiders, but those in relationship with a toxic person know the real story. Every interaction, no matter how innocent it may begin, ends with the twist of a dagger. Everyone else is left with the fallout while the toxic person skates away seemingly unfazed. If you become anxious at the thought of another interaction with someone in your life, through no fault of your own, you may be in a toxic relationship.
5. Toxic people relish victimhood. Everything happens to toxic people, and the world should take notice. They shouldn’t be held responsible, they think, because it wasn’t their fault—even though it was. Self-pity practically drips from them, even though they may mask it with a facade of strength. They love to appear as martyrs and will even construct situations that portray them in that light. Those in relationship with a toxic person usually end up looking like the bad guy. Outsiders often silently judge the friends or family members who are “intolerant” of this poor victim, which creates division and misunderstanding in peripheral relationships.
6. Toxic people lie. If their mouths are moving, toxic people are probably lying. They lie more easily than they tell the truth and are so convincing that even those who know better question their own perceptions. Toxic people justify their lies by telling themselves that they had no choice. When caught red-handed in a lie, they may feign remorse, but all the while they may be concealing a dozen more lies no one has discovered yet. Scripture has harsh words for liars. God has a zero-tolerance policy for liars, and He is not fooled by any of their excuses (Revelation 21:8). Proverbs 6:16–19 lists seven things the Lord hates, and lying is on the list twice.
King Saul is an example of a toxic person. He began well, but power, pride, and jealousy crippled his soul. His furious jealousy of young David manifested itself in a confusing array of moods. One moment Saul was calm and enjoying David’s music; the next he was trying to kill him (1 Samuel 19:9–10). Saul would appear to show remorse, but soon he was hunting David again (1 Samuel 24:16–17; 26:2, 21). Later, Saul violated a serious command from the Lord so that people would think well of him (1 Samuel 15). That sin cost Saul his kingdom.
We have been called to peace (Colossians 3:15), but a toxic relationship destroys peace. Some people are so abusive that they will not allow us to seek or broker peace in any area. When the relationship is continually filled with unwanted drama, when you find yourself dreading the next blowup, when you cannot believe anything this person says, or when someone is destroying your reputation and sanity, then it is time to create distance in the relationship.
Psalm 1 gives specific instructions about keeping away from wicked fools. We are blessed when we do not seek out friendships with them or listen to their counsel. Toxic people fit into that category. They are not content to destroy their own lives; they must take others with them. It helps to remember that you cannot change a toxic person, especially from within a toxic relationship. You cannot help toxic people unless they want to be helped.
People-pleasers are the most frequent victims of toxic relationships because they want the toxic person to like them. But there are times when closing the door on a relationship is the wisest thing you can do (Proverbs 22:24–25). If you are married to a toxic person who has turned your relationship into a toxic marriage, then a separation may be in order, along with some focused marital counselling. If you are not married, then it’s time to say goodbye.
In every situation involving a toxic relationship, take the matter to God in prayer. Cry out to “receive mercy and find grace” to help in the time of need (Hebrews 4:16). “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). Petition the Lord unceasingly to change the heart of the person bringing the toxicity. There is hope and healing in Him.