Brian’s wife Angie and his mother don’t get along, though Angie has tried. Angie is a sensitive Christian who earnestly prays for her mother-in-law, but every holiday the passive aggressive (and sometimes not so passive) abuse she gets from her mother-in-law takes weeks to recover from.
One year she had finally reached her limit. “I really can’t even stomach the thought of spending this Christmas with your parents,” she told Brian.
Brian’s mom regularly preaches the “gospel of family” above all else, especially when it comes to holidays. Not showing up for Christmas would be seen as a declaration of war.
Brian asked me what he was supposed to do.
I didn’t think “the right thing to do” was that difficult to understand, though it might feel difficult to put into practice.
“Treat your mom as if she was healthy, spiritually speaking,” I said. “If my son called me and said, ‘Dad, I’m sorry, but for the sake of my marriage we can’t spend Christmas with you this year’ it would break my heart. But I hope I’d reply, ‘Son, you’re making the right choice. Your wife comes first. In fact, I’m proud of you for making what I’m sure is a tough decision. You’re a good husband.’ Any healthy person would tell a husband to back his wife. So treat your mom like she’s healthy, explain what’s going on, and invite her to respond like a healthy person would. If she doesn’t like that, that’s on her, not you.”
Christians need to stop worrying about the unhealthy fallout of unhealthy people who are challenged by healthy decisions. We can’t control (and God doesn’t hold us accountable for) the way someone responds. We control trying to be as loving, true, honest, gentle, and kind as our God calls us to be as we live with healthy, God-ordained priorities.
It helped Brian when I explained how few holidays he and Angie had left with his children. His oldest child was twelve, his youngest eight. “Once your kids move out and get married,” I told him, “holidays will never be the same. There is a finite number of Christmases when the kids are young, which makes each one of them precious. Sacrificing your wife’s and kids’ relatively few Christmases together to placate an abusive person doesn’t honor God, and it won’t help the toxic person. Who knows, maybe losing a family Christmas together will help your mom face how destructive of an influence she’s become and motivate her to seek some help.”
“But what about the commandment to honor your mother and father?” Brian asked.
“You most honor your mother when you treat her like she’s healthy. It’s dishonoring to give way to toxicity. You’re accommodating her evil and that’s not helpful to her and it’s destructive to your family. Besides, the same God who said to honor your mother and father is the God who said, ‘This is why a man leaves his father and mother and bonds with his wife’” (Gen. 2:24).
My life (and counsel) changed when I did an in-depth study of how Jesus spoke to and then treated toxic people, which became the basis of When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom from Toxic People. Well-meaning believers can let false guilt open the door for toxic people to assault our personal peace and wreak havoc in our families, especially when it comes to holidays. When we realize how often Jesus walked away from toxic people and hard-hearted encounters, or let others walk away from Him, we’ll realize that walking away isn’t always a sign of defeat; sometimes, it’s a sign of courage, wisdom, and discernment—even if that means walking away from a toxic family member.
But what if the toxic family member isn’t a parent and will still be at the family gathering? I wouldn’t want one toxic member to steal my kids’ joy and happiness at seeing their grandparents or cousins. In that case, I’d apply walking away by walking into the next room. When the toxic relative starts spreading their toxicity, I’d take it as a call to go spend time with the kids, help my parents out, or ask another sibling how life is going. I’m not there to be the hero who can finally get through to the toxic person and make him/her want to stop being toxic. As God leads, I may throw out one or two sentences to get him/her to think, but I’m not going to get into an argument and I’m not going to let that one person’s behavior steal the opportunity of spending a joyous holiday with loved ones. I’d choose instead to walk into the next room.
My prayer is that you spend Thanksgiving Day this year truly giving thanks. I hope you spend Christmas marveling at the gift of God becoming flesh. I pray that you leave (or go to sleep in) whatever house you celebrated these holidays in encouraged, strengthened, and renewed by the glorious truth both holidays represent.
Nothing is gained by sacrificing these two noble days in a sure-to-fail brawl with a toxic relative. You’ve likely tried that before. If you’ve already read When to Walk Away, maybe now would be a good time to skim those pages again just to remind you of why you’re going to make this year different. If you haven’t, there’s plenty of time to get the book before you enter another holiday season.
Join me Thursday, November 19th at 7:30 pm CST on Facebook Live for more on toxic relationships during the holidays.