No surprise here: There’s no such thing as a perfect family. Sin affects every part of life. People that we expect to love us perfectly will let us down at some point, and we’ll let them down, too. Nevertheless, there’s a difference between to-be-expected hurt and intentional harm.
We’ll get to some decision-making steps for event attendance in a bit. First, let’s be sure we’re on the same page when it comes to the difference between hurt and harm — between awkward and unsafe. Without more details about your family dynamics, it’s good to touch on some basic points.
There’s a difference between hurt and harm
We all experience occasional hurt in family life: misunderstandings, disagreements, selfishness, busyness … the list is long. But for a healthy family committed to each other, those bummer moments don’t last.
These family members build strong communication skills, and they resolve conflict quickly and effectively. They make time for each other, they sacrifice for each other, and they show appreciation. And even when they don’t agree, they let each other be.
What about the cousin who picks at every little thing you wear, or the uncle who demeans your career — while not holding down a job of his own? Yes, those interactions can be awkward and annoying, but they’re not unsafe.
However, harm causes lasting damage. These relationships are genuinely unsafe (sometimes described as toxic). This is where we see emotional, physical, sexual, or spiritual danger and/or abuse.
In these relationships, “love” has strings attached. There’s no tolerance for individuality. Emotions aren’t allowed — or they’re mocked or dismissed. Pride means apologies and remorse are rare or nonexistent. Bullying and emotional blackmail can be obvious, or they might be veiled threats (like, I was only joking).
In an unsafe relationship, there’s always negative fallout when the healthy person tries to establish boundaries against the one causing harm.
Picture the fence around your property — or the front door of your home. It protects what’s important to you. It delineates what you’re responsible for. And it limits others from encroaching on your personal space. Without it, you’d have difficulties with careless neighbors, stray animals, and anyone who wanted to take advantage of what’s yours.
Personal boundaries mark where we end and where someone else begins. They are limits we set and defend in life and relationships. Boundaries define who we are, protect what we value, show what we’re responsible for, and keep us safe. We have the right and the obligation to safeguard our own well-being.
When we have healthy personal boundaries, we enjoy relationships characterized by respect and fair treatment. However, if we don’t voice and enforce our boundaries, we’re vulnerable to being used or abused.
In any type of dysfunctional relationship, one person lacks boundaries, and the other lacks respect for boundaries. Keep in mind the following three terms when it comes to understanding boundaries:
- Safety: A sense of safety is a personal perception of physical, emotional, verbal, sexual, spiritual, and mental safeness. We never assume that family members are safe and supportive just because “they’re family.” A safe person is someone who takes responsibility for their actions and readily encourages you in your own journey.
(One note on this point: Don’t take the idea of emotional, verbal, and mental safeness too far. It doesn’t mean, for example, that differences of opinion are necessarily “unsafe.” Instead, it means that actions or words have an overt or covert purpose. They are intended to hurt, inflict pain, intimidate, threaten, damage, or destroy.)
- Enforceable boundary: The key behind setting a good boundary is that only you can enforce it; it doesn’t need another person’s participation. In other words, you tell someone what you are going to do if a specific situation happens. (For example, If you criticize my career choice again, I’ll walk away from the conversation. Or, If you don’t stop crowding my space, I’ll call for help.)
- Support system: Your support system is a group of people who can and will defend your choices, encourage you, and help you during stressful times. They might not always fully understand or agree with you, but they will validate and stand behind your decision because they know that’s part of providing a sense of safety for you.
Safety is the foundation.
When relationships might be awkward — but are still safe
Before you decide to write off a relationship or avoid a specific situation, make time to decide whether a relationship is legitimately unsafe or just awkward.
Not sure? Psychologists Henry Cloud and John Townsend suggest three things to look for in a safe relationship:
- Draws us closer to God. (Matthew 22:37-38)
- Draws us closer to others. (Matthew 22:39)
- Helps us become the person God created us to be. (Ephesians 2:10)
“The best example of a safe person is found in Jesus,” Cloud and Townsend point out. “In Him were found the three qualities of a safe person: dwelling, grace, and truth” (John 1:14).
No family member is perfect. However, if they aren’t unsafe — if they’re just unpleasant — give them the benefit of the doubt and pray about spending time with them. God can help you manage your expectations and deal with difficult people.
Based on what you told us, though, we’ll guess that your story falls on the harmful end of the spectrum. So let’s take a look at how to navigate events when relationships aren’t safe.
When relationships are unsafe
It doesn’t matter whether pressure to go to a gathering comes from your own internal sense of obligation or because family members demand it. In the end, you have the right to make your own choices.
But that truth is easier said than done because there will be times when it’s appropriate to show up for the benefit of someone else — your parents’ 25th anniversary, for example, or the imminent death of a sibling or parent.
Some situations are worth the potential fallout from unsafe people. Yet even then, there are steps you can take to lessen the impact. When the next get-together rolls around, ask yourself these questions to help decide if you should attend:
- What’s my reason for going? If you’re thinking about going into an unsafe setting to appease an abuser, take a step back. You do not have to go. Prepare yourself for fallout — like people talking badly about you either behind your back or to your face — and don’t let it throw you. Remember: Even Jesus walked away from toxic situations in many instances.
But if you want to go to an event to support the guest of honor, ask the next question:
- Are the other guests safe?
Yes? Then be present and make every effort to enjoy yourself!
No? Ask yourself this:
- Do I have a support system in place? Have I prepared enforceable boundaries?
Your support system can back you up in different ways: You might call these individuals ahead of time to help you decide whether to go or help you develop a plan for your participation. You might have them on standby in case you need them to phone you with an exit excuse. Or one could be your wingman at the event and run interference.
So, if you have a support system, ask for their help, and make a list of the boundaries you’ll enforce if needed. Attend the get-together but be ready to leave if you reach your limit.
If you don’t have a support system or haven’t developed enforceable boundaries, ask yourself:
- Am I still willing to put myself in a potentially unsafe environment?
If you are, our first recommendation is to talk to a licensed counselor who can help you get to the root of why you’re willing to put yourself in a potentially unsafe situation when it’s not necessary for you to be there.
On the other hand, if you’re determined to go:
- Get as much sleep as possible before the gathering.
- Realize that there might be toxic, manipulative interactions while you’re there.
- Make a list of coping skills you can use to get through the event.
- Be ready to leave if anything becomes unsafe.
If you’re not willing to put yourself in that position, then don’t go. You might have to deal with lingering effects (such as blaming and shaming calls or texts), but at least you’ll be safe.
Keep things in perspective
When it comes to family dynamics — whether they’re just awkward or are truly harmful — one of the wisest choices we can make is to grieve the imperfections well.
On this side of heaven, we will feel the pain of broken relationships. But the Lord will sustain us as we trust Him with our present and our eternity. We can admit that our family isn’t what we’d like it to be. We can grieve the loss of the family we want and choose to accept the family we have.
Still, we know that can be a complicated and sensitive undertaking. Would you let us help? Our licensed or pastoral counselors would welcome the chance to hear your story and talk with you in more detail.
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Healing From Emotional, Verbal, Physical, & Spiritual Abuse (resource list)
Healing From Sexual Abuse (resource list)