Resolution Week: Are Toxic People Damaging Your Marriage?

As part of Resolution Week here on Hot, Hot & Humorous, let’s talk today about the toxic people damaging your marriage.

Gary Thomas, author of Sacred Marriage and Cherish, recently released a book titled When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom from Toxic People. He sent me an advanced review copy with no strings attached, but it’s always nice when that happens and you end up loving the book!

What is a toxic person?

Anyone who’s reached adulthood has interacted with someone who is not merely difficult or frustrating, but genuinely toxic. In When to Walk Away, Thomas defines three characteristics of a toxic person: a murderous spirit, control mongering, and loving hate. Without going through those specifics, see if you recognize this general description:

There are certain people who drain us, demean us, and distract us from other healthy relationships. Long after they’re gone, we’re still fighting with them in our minds and trying to get them out of our hearts. They keep us awake. They steal our joy. They demolish our peace. They make us (if we’re honest with ourselves) weaker spiritually. They even invade times of worship and pervert them into seasons of fretting.

Now before we start labeling people as toxic, recognize that our tendency to diagnose others as the problem before looking at ourselves. The Bible says that we have to look at our own flaws, our own contribution to the problem, and our own sin before we accuse someone else (see Matthew 7:1-5, Romans 2:1-3). Some will read the above paragraph and immediately begin blaming others, when the truth is that they are the toxic one in the relationship.

But others, too many Christians, have spend countless hours trying to figure out what they’re doing wrong or how they could do better or what magic formula might work to get along with someone in their life—when the truth is that they can’t. You can’t appease, reason with, or find peace with a genuinely toxic person. The fault lies with them.

You can't appease, reason with, or find peace with a genuinely toxic person. The fault lies with them. @hotholyhumorous Click To Tweet

But should you walk away?

I’m personally not in love with the phrase What would Jesus do? because oftentimes Jesus would do something that only Jesus can do. I don’t have the divinity or authority of Jesus, so performing miracles and speaking directly for God are off my to-do list. That said, we are commanded to be Christlike! (See 1 Peter 2:21, 1 Corinthians 11:1, John 13:14-15, Philippians 2:5.) 1 John 2:6 puts it most succinctly: “Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.” Our attitude, mindset, and heart should be like Jesus.

That’s the example Gary Thomas uses in determining how we deal with toxic people. He goes into great detail well worth reading, but essentially we set boundaries and see if the toxic behavior will stop or be put into check. If it continues, we do as Jesus did: we walk away.

In fact, Thomas has a whole chapter titled “Walkaway Jesus,” covering Christ’s tendency to walk away from people who couldn’t be convinced and were thus wasting His precious time. Time better spent on people He could, and did, save.

If the Lord and Savior of our world thought it was a waste of time to try to placate, argue, or persuade toxic people, what makes us think we are going to make it happen?

Who is toxic to your marriage?

Since I write about sexual intimacy in marriage, let’s tailor the book’s points to toxicity that affects your marriage and your sex life.

Not everything or everyone that gets in the way of healthy marital intimacy is toxic. Some are simply challenges that come with living in a broken world. Some are due to personality conflicts and character flaws we can work on. Some are busyness, fatigue, or physical obstacles present in certain seasons of life.

But some of you write me about your marriage or your sex life, and it becomes clear pretty quickly that you’ve got a toxic person negatively impacting your emotional, spiritual, and/or sexual wholeness.

Parents

In a chapter titled “Toxic Parents,” Thomas covers a situation I’ve seen as well:

I’ve seen several young women from dysfunctional homes fall into a common spiritual trap. In spite of the negative imprinting of their childhood homes, they end up making a very wise choice for marriage….It’s a delight to see God bring two godly people together out of less than ideal backgrounds and watch a healthy family begin to form.

Then the common temptation follows. It’s a clever spiritual distraction. The woman has escaped a dysfunctional family and is now settled in a functional one. It was be too long (mere months) until she thinks she is supposed to return to the dysfunctional family and try to fix it.

Some don’t even get those few months of healthy family-building, but rather the toxicity of their family of origin follows them into the marriage. Parents who should be helping their grown children settle into a new life do nearly all they can to frustrate it.

They demand your time and emotional energy, deride your spouse, speak ill of marriage and/or sex, force you to choose them or your husband and then become furious if you choose correctly (your spouse), and make it seem that you’ll never break free of the dysfunction they carry around like a badge of honor. You’re exhausted trying to balance your longing to keep them happy or help them get healthy and your need to be present in your marriage and/or godly sexual intimacy.

Thankfully, most of us don’t need to entirely walk away, but rather set boundaries. (Thomas also covers this well.) But sometimes, you do have to walk away. Honoring your mother and father does not involve allowing them to destroy your marriage.

Honoring your mother and father does not involve allowing them to destroy your #marriage. @hotholyhumorous Click To Tweet

As Thomas says, “Trying to fix an unfixable relationship is doomed to failure and simply robs [you] of the time [you] need to grow [your] functional family.”

Grown Children

The chapter on “Toxic Children” discusses adult children who suck the life out of a family. As a mother, it hurts to think there could be a time when you have to walk away from your own son or daughter. But with parent-child, it’s really a matter of them walking away from you.

Again, Thomas looks at Jesus and what He taught:

You would take any repentant prodigal son or daughter back the moment they turn their face toward home. But that’s different from chasing after an unrepentant sinner who despises your weakness and preys on you by taking advantage of it. Remember, the prodigal son’s father threw his arms around his son when the son returned, not when he left. Like Jesus, the father of the prodigal son was willing to watch his prodigal son walk away.

Is your adult child destroying your marriage? Making it impossible to find time or energy for sexual intimacy with your spouse? Painful as it is, you have the recognize if their heart has already walked away.

Church

Church can be provide solace, support, and sound teaching that helps us lead the godly life our Lord desires. Yet, some individual churches have treated a marriage or its sexual intimacy in a way that can only be described as toxic. As Thomas points out, “Toxic people exist inside and outside the church and are those trying to take you down.”

If your church is feeding toxicity into your marriage, it’s time to walk away. The Church is larger than your one congregation. Find a different place to worship that believes in marriage, honors both men and women, values all forms of marital intimacy, and helps you pursue Christ together.


Others may be toxic to your marriage, but these three—parents, grown children, church—struck me in particular, because I’ve heard the stories.

What if the toxic person is your spouse?

I’m about as pro-marriage as one can get and experienced my own marriage coming back from the brink of divorce to a beautiful marriage today. But a few of you married someone who is toxic, and unless and until they allow God to work in their life, nothing will change.

Thankfully, When to Walk Away addresses both “Toxic Marriages” and “Leaving the Toxicity Instead of the Marriage.” If the latter can happen, hallelujah! As Thomas notes:

We don’t always have to lave a marriage at the first sign of toxicity. If both partners are repentant and surrendered to God, we can leave the toxicity instead of the marriage.

Spouses can exhibit toxic behaviors at times, but if they’re committed to climbing out of that pit, they can find redemption and restoration. Yet, some of you are in abusive or destructive marriages, and it’s past time to recognize where are and what needs to happen next. Again, from Gary Thomas:

To be explicit and clear, if a husband or wife keeps acting out in sexually inappropriate ways, he or she needs to know they will lose you. If the abuse they heap on you is shrinking your soul, it’s okay to admit you can’t live with them anymore. If they insist that you lie to cover up their toxic acts, you aren’t just allowed but commanded to resist them.

Let me add that if your spouse belittles or degrades you in the bedroom or rapes you (yes, marital rape can happen, to both genders), that is toxic behavior that must be opposed. You cannot allow yourself, God’s child, to be treated that way, nor are you helping to permit your spouse’s sin to continue.

Get an outside perspective—though not that toxic church, please—and support. Find a way to leave. A healthy, godly marriage will never come of a toxic, unrepentant spouse being given more opportunities to harm their mate. As Thomas so well states, “God loves marriage and he loves people, but do we think he loves people or the institutions more?”

Should you read the book?

Didn’t I just tell you all you need to know from When to Walk Away? Not by a long shot. I simply pointed out issues that struck me intensely. Gary Thomas’s book has a lot more information and insight about how toxic people, unchecked, can damage us.

You may read and decide someone in your life isn’t toxic so much as difficult or that you can manage the situation by setting proper boundaries. Or you might realize that, like Jesus sometimes did, you need to walk away.

But wouldn’t you rather face the new year with new resolve to focus on God’s calling for you? Wouldn’t you rather spend your time building the marriage and/or the life God wants you to have?

9 thoughts on “Resolution Week: Are Toxic People Damaging Your Marriage?”

  1. This was a great article to start our new yr. We have a toxic person in our family. It’s one of our parents and that person spent countless hrs trying to destroy our marriage, split our unity, break our trust in one another and just cause turmoil. They tried getting us to meet other people when we were already engaged. They tried introducing a third person into our marriage at our shock and disbelief. The lies and deceit, manipulation and sabotage were too much strain on our marriage and my husband had the courage to cut ties to protect our marriage. It was the best thing we had done for our marriage and growing family. Without walking away from them I think we would’ve been headed to divorce. It was just too much stress to fight an outside source of destruction daily. I felt protected and valued when my husband stood up for me and our marriage and I think at that point I knew I was his priority and our marriage grew stronger and sweeter. We were talking last night about making contact with that person again but after reading this I feel like our decision was necessary. Thank you. I need to read this book.

    1. Wow, what an onslaught y’all went with! Glad you kept yourselves together. And yes, it would be good to read the book, since it gives a solid viewpoint and more strategies to deal with those toxic people; in your case, if they try to re-enter your life, you’d be better prepared. Blessings!

  2. Yes, she is a child of God,
    and (strangely!) he is, too;
    and like them, we are very flawed
    for sin is nothing new.
    But allowing their deliberate act
    of the burning of our hearts
    is not like Jesus’ sacrifice,
    as an aria’s not a fart.
    It’s our own salvation we must work
    in trembling and in fear,
    and not stand in thrall to some jerk
    who hurts all that he comes near.
    Pray for those you cannot save,
    but do not let them dig your grave.

  3. Thank you for this article. Would you be willing to expand this type of topic and write about the dangers of finding emotional support from another person’s spouse (close opposite gender friendships)? Thank you.

    1. Interesting. I have written about close opposite-gender relationships being problematic, but not that specific angle you mention. Thanks for mentioning it!

  4. “Honoring your mother and father does not involve allowing them to destroy your marriage.”
    WOW. So true!! The demand to honour my parents-in-law has done loads of damage to our marriage as they tried to get between us and control us for so many years.

    I credit one sister-in-law with singlehandedly doing more damage to our marriage than all the other issues we’ve faced in 10 years.

    It was a relief to read Gary’s book this fall and know it’s okay to walk away from these relationships and focus on our marriage and new family nucleus.

    Thank you for promoting it and sharing truth and your perspective!

    1. Thanks, Lois! It’s heartbreaking to think one’s own family would torment one’s marriage, but it does happen. Praying for true peace in your life!

  5. I have found myself the “beneficiary” of my in-laws’ toxic relationship with my father-in-law’s mother, oddly enough…she is passed away now but for almost their entire marriage she was a divisive element in the family, first predicting a failed marriage and then playing one son against another (my FiL being the “good Christian” and his brother being the “helpful” one around the house) such that communication between families was nil and reunions were strained and tense if both families were even present. Walking away was not an option (and for years they were unaware of the manipulation behind-the-scenes), so they simply dealt with the situation as best they could. This woman had also driven her husband to alcoholism so that he simply “went away” for 20 years and his son (my FiL) nearly followed in his footsteps but for my MiL’s salvation and Christlike influence. My MiL promised herself that she would never do to her son what had been done to her own marriage, although given her very different temperament I can’t imagine she would ever behave this way regardless. I am very fortunate to have supportive and godly in-laws and that our families get along so well.

    Ironically enough, God apparently saw fit to send a stroke 20 years before this woman’s death, so that her personality changed almost entirely and the family was given a reprieve from the tension and conflict. But by that time the damage was done and lives had taken a different path from what they might have otherwise. I can’t understand why some people feel the need to manipulate those around them to this extent. At least it seems that the “toxic” personality is coming more into the limelight, in personal relationships and in the workplace (where my own battlefields have been) so that more people can be aware of what to look for and how to either avoid or deal with them.

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