When I visit my friend’s house for basketball games or just to hang out for the evening, I sometimes chuckle at the similarities between her relationship and mine. Her husband and I are laid back, non-confrontational people who prefer to spend much of our lives in our phones; whereas, both she and Eric are okay with confrontation and they have an inner fire which keeps them motivated and moving.
They say opposites attract and aggravate (I can attest to both); I would also say that certain personalities attract the same type of person repeatedly. Soft-spoken, healer types often attract sad, broken, angry types. Kind, forgiving people often attract self-centered, manipulative types. Of course, these examples are not always the case, but most of us can think of at least one couple which consists of a controller and a controlled, a giver and a taker, or an addict and a co-dependent.
It is heartbreaking to watch a gentle soul be trampled by an uncaring or deeply wounded significant other. It is especially sad (and frustrating) to watch the same gentle person enter the same negative relationships over and over again – hoping against hope that this next attempt at love will be better.
Last week, we talked about breaking free from the lie, I Am Not Good Enough to Find a Quality Spouse. Along with that, we want our readers to also break free from cycles of bad relationships. Before being free to find a quality spouse, we must first break free from bad dating habits which land us in the same toxic relationships.
If you or someone you love has been in one negative relationship after another, stay tuned. The following advice comes from my personal experience. By God’s grace, I broke out of a ten-year cycle of unhealthy relationships. I used to blame the problems in my dating life on the men I dated; but, in reality, I was the common denominator to those relationships – not them. I needed to repent, mature, and heal.
- Get to know yourself. Until we know who we are, what we like, and our lifelong goals (or, at least a general direction), it is easy to settle for partners who are poor matches at best and abusive at worst. At times, Eric feels like I lied to him about who I was before we got married. Did I lie, or did I simply not know myself well enough? (Definitely the latter from my point of view.) Get to know yourself very, very well. God made you to be someone – not just to fill up space. You are here on purpose by the divine design of a sovereign God. “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.” (Psalm 139:13-14, ESV) Really take the time to identify and investigate your personality from multiple frameworks (MBTI, Enneagram, DISC, StrengthsFinder, etc.). The better you know yourself, the easier it will be for you (and your partner) to navigate common pitfalls your personality (and their personality) brings to the relationship.
- Repeat the following phrase out loud daily: “I teach people how to treat me.” What I put up with is what people will expect from me. If I allow him to speak harshly to me, he will keep speaking harshly to me. If I give in to her nagging and manipulation, she will continue nagging and manipulating me.
- What are my boundaries? Read Boundaries in Dating by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. Eric and I favor this version of the Boundaries series over both the original Boundaries version and the Boundaries in Marriage Determine your personal boundaries, and also your boundaries as a couple, and then have the courage to enforce them even if you need help from others to do so.
- Listen to your heart, and then tell it to shut up. If someone advises you to follow your heart, stop taking advice from that person and find someone who knows his or her Bible. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9, ESV)
- Read Your Bible. It may sound trite or dismissive, but diving into God’s Word, learning it, and hiding it in your heart (cf. Psalm 119:11) is primary in breaking negative patterns and creating healthy ones. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2, ESV)
- Take advice from wise people. Who is living the type of life you want? Who do you admire? “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.” (Proverbs 13:20, ESV) Invite them out to a meal – on you – and ask them about how they would handle various issues in your life. We recommend finding a couple who have children older than you are now as an age reference. If it is a good match, take them out once per month.
- Purchase a journal for self-reflection and start it by answering the following three questions:
- How did my past relationships begin? When I was quite young, my “relationships” usually started with sitting together in church, talking on the phone, and then eventually holding hands. Yay for twelve-year-old love. Later, however, I noticed my relationships began with a sharp focus on physical affection and less of a focus on learning about the other person. No surprise, these relationships were not healthy and did not last. Do you find patterns in how your relationships began? Were they healthy or unhealthy?
- What were my past relationships like after the newness faded? Are there patterns here? Does your interest (or his or her interest) seem to fizzle out when the thrill of the new is gone? Is there a common point at which insecurity, neediness, or abusive behaviors rear their heads?
- How have my past relationships ended? Are there patterns here? My relationships often “ended” in stages. There was break up, part one. Followed by a season of wishy-washiness. Then break up, part two, where the man in question started feeling frustrated and angry, and far less trusting of me. Break up, part three (or four or five) was usually the “for real” break up, but considering all the false alarms, even the final break up did not feel final for a while. I admired friends who could end a relationship as kindly as possible without going back – a clean break. How have your relationships ended? Are there a lot of similarities?
- Turn any lingering fractures into clean breaks. If you are still “on again, off again” with someone who is using you, mistreating you, or with whom you have no future, let those “relationships” go. If you need help in doing so, it is okay to ask for prayer, advice, and support. We know it is not easy, but it needs to be done for your healing and to prepare your life for someone special.
- Learn from history. Now that you have analyzed the beginning, middle, and end of your past relationships, what do you need to change? Which behaviors and beliefs do you need to tackle?
- Behaviors follow beliefs, so start by identifying your beliefs. What do I believe about myself which leads me to make certain unhelpful decisions? (e.g., I need to always be kind no matter how I am treated; I have to control every person in my life or someone will hurt me; if I treat a woman tenderly, I am whipped; etc.) Are those beliefs healthy and true? What is the truth about them?
- Tackle your unconstructive behaviors. Now that you are aware of your faulty beliefs and have replaced them with the truth, how will your behaviors change as a result? Will you answer your phone at 3 am? Will you keep loaning your money? Will you continue responding to unflattering nicknames (and pretending it is normal)?
- Start conversations with people – all kinds of people. Get comfortable talking to the most gorgeous creature alive to the homeliest. Become genuinely interested in other people and let romance come later. Every approach does not have to be fueled by the question, “Could this person be the one for me?!”
- As we mentioned in the last post, make changes to your life and appearance which aid in building your confidence. Something as simple as filing and painting your nails might make you feel like a new woman. Will men notice your nails? Maybe not, but they will notice you holding your head high and making eye contact. And men, the ladies may not realize you hit a new goal in the gym, but they will notice the confidence. (We despise arrogance, but we love confidence.)
- Always, always, always have a goal. Whether it is a huge goal (such as making partner in your law firm) or a small goal (such as losing five pounds in two months), always be working towards something important to you. When we do not set goals, life starts happening to Toxic relationships seem to find us when we are sitting idly by, waiting for good things to find us. (And we will keep on waiting.)
- Expose your critical side if you have one. When we move out of a bad situation or ditch a negative pattern, we sometimes swing to the other extreme. Remember, just because your former relationships were not good for you does not mean every person with flaws is off the table. Some marry in haste and others turn away in haste. While seeking a good relationship, do not avoid quality people because of minor imperfections. Character counts much more than other traits.
- Create a space for quality. Think of your life as a hotel. What type of hotel do you want to be? A quick, inexpensive place for one-night stays? A comfortable place, simple but clean? A luxurious experience for the classiest of guests? Create the space you want for the type of person you want.
- Pray daily for your future spouse. Given that you are not going to marry someone far younger than yourself, your future spouse is a real, alive person. Pray for his/her safety, growth in righteousness, help with decisions, and anything else the Lord lays on your heart. When you invest your time and emotions into daily prayer, it is harder to settle. I remember my good friend looking at a man she had grown to care about and thinking, “This is not what I prayed for.” Without all that investment, she might have allowed herself to fall for someone who would have broken her heart, complicated her life, and strained her relationship with God.
- More than anything, love God first and love God most. “When I have learnt to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now. In so far as I learn to love my earthly dearest at the expense of God and instead of God, I shall be moving towards the state in which I shall not love my earthly dearest at all. When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.” – C.S. Lewis
Freedom from bad relationships is not just a dream. It can be your reality. It will take some time, purposeful reflection, effort, and healing. But, breaking a pattern of harmful relationships is worth the effort. It is worth being alone for a little while so you can heal. It is worth the discomfort of building friendships with those who can support and build you up after years of pain.
The following is not just a sappy passage set aside for weddings. It is the biblical definition of love. Read it. Memorize it. Get to know what real love looks like so you can quickly spot counterfeits.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (I Corinthians 13:4-7, ESV)
Keep breaking free!
Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. – C. S. Lewis
Do you find yourself in a pattern of negative, toxic relationships?
Gretchen Bullock says
Thank you for this wise advise! Our daughter is considering engagement with a young man who we do see as controlling and toxic. She’s been pulled into the lie, “I need a boyfriend to be happy.”
This whole blog is helpful! I’ll be praying for you to continue to speak the Truth in God’s way.
Thank you! I pray our words help her!