Help! I’m Married to a Toxic Spouse!
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Gary ThomasGary Thomas is a writer in residence at Second Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, and an adjunct faculty member teaching on spiritual formation at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon and Houston Theological Seminary in Houston, Texas. He is the author of 20 books, including When to Walk Away, Sacred Marriage, Sacred Pathways, Cherish, Sacred Parenting, and the Gold Medallion Award-winning Authentic Faith. He has a master’s degree from Regent College, where he studied u...more
Gary Thomas explains that when a spouse is controlling or has a murderous spirit, it might be necessary, in some circumstances, to walk away. Thomas contrasts a toxic marriage from a difficult marriage.
Help! I’m Married to a Toxic Spouse!
Bob: There are people in our lives, who thrive on division and dissension; Gary Thomas says they are toxic people.
Gary: They love anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language, and lying. They come alive when they are in a battle. They come alive when they are whispering about someone. They come alive when they are attacking someone. It makes them feel like they have purpose/like they have mission. Those are things where my senses go up now, and I’m realizing, “I think I may be dealing with a toxic person.”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, February 16th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. When you heard that description of toxic people, you may have thought about people you know. So what do you do if there are people in your life who are toxic? We’re going to talk today with Gary Thomas about what the Bible says we ought to do. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I think probably all of us can look back on relationships in our lives, where we would say: “This relationship was draining,” “This relationship took life from me; did not give life to me.” There are marriages—
Bob: —where husbands and wives do find themselves [where] a spouse is draining another person of life—is controlling or, as we’ve already heard this week, has what we described as a murderous spirit: with words and assault, they are just attacking another person. What do you do in that situation?
Well, that’s what we’re exploring this week with our friend, Gary Thomas, who is joining us again on FamilyLife Today. Gary, welcome back.
Gary: Thank you.
Bob: Gary is an author. He is the writer-in-residence at Second Baptist Church in Houston, where he preaches from time to time and is also freed up to think, and write, and speak into the lives of—not only that congregation—but that’s a gift, really/Second Baptist has, not only given you a gift, buy they’ve given the body of Christ a gift by giving you the time to write these things and helping to support that so that we can benefit from this.
Gary: I am so grateful for Second and Dr. Young, and what they’ve done and what they’ve allowed me to be able to do. I am so, so grateful. It’s a tremendous gift that I think they are giving out.
Bob: Gary has written a new book called When to Walk Away that is all about how we find freedom from toxic people. We’ve spent some time defining that this week. You’ve already talked about how these are people, who are controlling; people who will—you use the term, “a murderous spirit,” who are attacking/they are taking life from you in emotional ways; and people, who are energized by hate and anger, and are drawn to it, and add fuel to it.
When those qualities are in another person, we can say, “That’s not going to be a healthy, life-giving relationship.” I’m thinking of what Jesus said about the thief coming to kill and steal and destroy. Some relationships we have kill and steal and destroy, and Jesus came to give life and give it abundantly.
I think the question, Gary—and you get into this in the second half of your book—“What do you do if you are in a marriage, and you look and you go, ‘This marriage is draining life from me.’” You’re not advocating that you wake up one morning and diagnosis: “I think my spouse is toxic, so I guess I should walk away”; right?
Gary: No; but I believe there are times when, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, we may have to walk away. Bob, this was the most difficult part of me understanding this idea; because I have devoted my life to holding marriages together to see healing; but when a toxic person continues to be toxic, and is destroying someone’s soul, it’s not just the marriage that is at issue.
If we value someone’s mission—if we are all called to seek first the kingdom of God; that’s Matthew 6:33 from the Sermon on the Mount—more than I am to seek first a marriage, more than I am to seek first maintaining a relationship with a child, more than I am to seek first anything—God has equipped me; He’s called me. He’s called all of His children into a certain thing.
Once I saw the concept of Jesus walking away, and looked at the Scriptures where Jesus addresses this, my eyes were opened. There may be a few circumstances—and I think we need to be careful, but there may be some—when we have to walk away, even in parenting and marriage. One for me is Matthew 10:34-39, when Jesus said this: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household. Anyone who loves their father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. Anyone who loves their son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. Anyone who does not take up their cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me.”
While faith does hold families together—and shared faith in Jesus creates an intimacy that nothing else can match—Jesus says our allegiance to Him is such that, if somebody is anti-God, they are going to become anti-us if they won’t surrender to the Lord.
There was another occasion in Luke 14 that’s even more explicit to marriage, when Jesus said, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even their own life, such a person cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not carry their cross and follow Me cannot be My disciple.”
Now, the word, “hate,” there in the Greek is a comparison word that means: “In comparison to any other allegiance in your life, it’s not even close; our faith to Jesus is above our relationship with our kids, our parents, our in-laws, and even our spouse.”
Bob: It’s the pearl of great price. We’d sell everything to have that pearl.
Gary: So, if a man or if a woman is destroying someone, where the life is being sucked out them, where they are opposing their efforts as God seeks to serve them; usually, what I’ve found is, eventually, the toxic person will go. But in some circumstances, what I’ve found is that people who are particularly evil will know enough of the Scripture—usually, “Judge not and you will not be judged.” [Laughter]
Gary: It’s 90 percent of the Bible they know. They’ll use it to keep somebody in the marriage, not because they want to renew their marriage, but they want to preserve the platform for abuse. That’s where I think, as pastors and leaders, we need to have our eyes open: when people love hate/when they get a sick thrill out of abusing someone and squeezing the life out of a fellow believer.
There came a point in my understanding when I said, “My call as a Christian is first to oppose evil and, sometimes, in rare circumstances, but necessary circumstances, divorce can be a tool.” I hate divorce as a weapon; I hate when divorce is used inappropriately—it leaves somebody devastated; it hurts someone. And that’s where I think it is used most of the time.
Gary: But in a few cases, where there is true toxicity and certainly where there is abuse, I believe that divorce can be a tool to remove that platform of abuse and toxicity.
Dave: But you’re not saying I could walk into a pastor’s office and say, “I think I have grounds for divorce, because my wife is toxic.”
Gary: No; I think that’s where the church gets involved. And I’ve seen some churches that have done this really well. My understanding—Tony Evans’ church—they have a counselor whom they can go to in the church. And the church counselor can say, “You know, this is a normal conflict in marriage. He’s not acting like a toxic person. He’s acting like a guy.”
Gary: Or they can give her objective truth, and say, “You know what? This is not how a guy acts; this is a toxic act.” Or the same thing with the wife, because some guys have torn their hair out. If the marriage goes wrong, a lot of people assume the guy is at fault.
Gary: There can be toxic women as well as toxic men.
Bob: This is so important; and I think we need to just stress this, both for individuals and for churches. First of all, for individuals: “You don’t make an isolated, independent diagnosis of toxicity and act on it. You get the community of faith; you get church leaders/godly men involved. Let them speak into this; let them help diagnose. Let them help guide you in this situation.” That’s so critical.
By the same token, we’ve got to say to church leaders; because I’ve heard the stories of women, who come and say, “My husband is being abusive,” and the church leaders say, “Well, you just need to submit.”
Bob: We have just got to say to church leaders: “No; guarding, and guiding, and protecting the sheep who come to you—the vulnerable sheep—and putting somebody back in both physically and emotionally dangerous situations, without coming alongside and being a protector to that person, is an abuse to your responsibility as a shepherd of the flock.”
If the church is functioning the way it should, a husband or wife should be able to come and say, “Will you help me here? I don’t know what to do. This is my circumstance…” You come alongside, and you help!
Gary: The first question I ask is safety: “Do you feel safe?” If they don’t, immediately, you’re getting the person out of there.
A situation where it worked—where the threat of divorce became a tool—was a very controlling couple I mention in the book, where he controlled every aspect of her life. He started tracking wherever she was, and he would ask her if she went out of her routine. She was losing her mind. I could go on more; but anybody would recognize it as extreme control, where she felt oppressed.
Gary: She just said, “I’m going to lose my mind.” I looked at him, and I said, “Is this true?” I was shocked; he said, “Everything she told you is 100 percent true.”
Gary: Well, she had already gotten papers in order with a lawyer. She’d rented a little apartment. I looked at him, and I said, “If you want to see things change, you need to go to the apartment not her.” He loved his house. I said, “You did this; you’re the one who needs to sit in the little apartment. She gets to be in the house. Control is over; you cannot contact her unless she contacts you.”
They did it. He told me, “Gary, when you said that to me, that will be the hardest thing I’ve ever done,”—because when you are used to controlling someone—
Dave: Yes, right.
Gary: —and they get to determine when and where you meet, and how you talk, and whatnot. Today, they love each other. They have an entirely new marriage. She said, “Every aspect of our marriage: our friends, where we go out to eat.” She is able to minister in a way she hasn’t before. She said, “It has improved our sexual intimacy,” because the control was stopped.
Now, the difference is that was a guy, who was truly repentant: holding himself accountable; putting himself before the Lord, on his face—he said “Lord, remake me; renew me,”—and then, the toxic behavior was rooted out. We have to make a distinction, I believe, between toxic behavior and a person who has given themselves over to toxicity. In this case, he was able to address the behavior with extremes.
Bob: And in this case, it was the threat of possibly losing his marriage that finally woke him up to: “This is serious”; right?
Gary: She had been asking him for ten years, and what happened is, it got worse and worse. When she found out about the tracking, that’s when it was just, “Wait a minute. I feel like I’m living in Big Brother’s world,” and she was. She did him a favor in the sense that he would say, today, he so much happier; he is so much renewed. It’s brought joy, because toxic behavior destroys us. Again, if we enjoy being toxic; we have dark souls.
Dave: Here is a question I think that that story raises: he was changed, so a toxic person was transformed.
I’m a person married, or in a close relationship with somebody that is toxic. I hear that, and I’m like, “I’m never going to lose hope. I’m going to keep staying in. I just heard a story of this man and this woman changing, so I’m not going to give up,” even though it’s getting worse and worse. What do you say to that person?
Gary: Well, I’ve seen some people being destroyed, inside-out. When they go through the divorce, they become a new person. There is a flood of ministry on the other side; there is a light and a life. There is a difference in their countenance, because they’ve [been] under this oppressive, evil situation.
One of the signs of toxicity that we didn’t really talk about is gas lighting, where a toxic person can make a Christian feel like they are crazy for honest, clear, and true observations: “Of course, I’m not having an affair! There is something wrong with you that makes you think I’m having…” Then, of course, you find out they were. You’re murdering the person’s sanity when you are doing it.
When some people don’t repent, it’s hard for them to understand. It wasn’t until I got into the chapter about the skeleton of Scripture about the reality of evil. The Fall has affected us in every way. For some people, they want that platform of abuse. They don’t care about repairing the marriage; they don’t care about their spouse. They care about having a platform to terrorize someone.
That’s where I think a pastor, a friend, or a Christian leader has to be the shepherd that says, “You’re being preyed upon. I see it; here is what others see…a professional counselor can see it,” and encouraging them to find refuge, and pastors, and health.
Bob: We did an interview years ago; and in fact, this is available on our website at FamilyLifeToday.com if folks want to listen to the podcast. This marked me and helped me think about these kinds of relationships. Dan Allender and Tremper Longman wrote a book called Bold Love. In that book, they said there are really three kinds of people who will sin against you.
They said there is a garden-variety sinner. We’re all married to sinners; so you can expect your spouse is going to sin against you, because you married a sinner and you’re a sinner. Then the second person is a fool. A fool is kind of one grade up from a garden-variety sinner. This is somebody, who is in patterns of sin and acting out their foolishness, and it just continues. But they said there is a third person, and that’s an evil person. We have to recognize that some people go beyond foolishness, and they’re consumed with evil.
I think, when you’re talking about toxic behavior, we’re not talking about a garden-variety sinner—a husband, who is listening, going, “You know, my wife is annoying me. Maybe she’s toxic,”—okay, we’re all annoying; right? That doesn’t mean we’re toxic.
There is a difference between a garden-variety sinner and being a toxic person. There’s even a difference between somebody who is in foolish behavior, over and over again, and a toxic person. [With] a toxic person, there is an edge of evil that is associated with that. This is not something that is cured by subtle means. This is something that you need drastic action to try to intervene. Sometimes, your best efforts are going to fall short.
Gary: Scripture makes room for what you just said. There are Scriptures that say, “Obey the government, because God respects authority,” but there are times when we can’t obey the government.
Gary: “Children obey and honor your parents,” “Fathers don’t exasperate your children,” “Wives submit to your husbands,” “Husbands never be harsh with your wives.
Gary: “Love them always.” Whenever Scripture says, “You respect this sort of authority,” it follows along with, “as long as it’s not soul-destroying,”/“as long as it’s respecting the ultimate authority of God.” Our allegiance is to our Creator-God first and to how He set things up.
We oppose evil when it enters every situation. The skeleton of Scripture—I’m leaving a few things out—but it is creation, fall, and redemption. God created a good world: government, His creation; marriage, His creation; church authority, His creation; parenting, His creation. The evil penetrates every one of those. The Bible recognizes that and says, “Okay; but in those cases, we oppose the evil. We don’t let the institution abuse the person.”
Even something like the Sabbath. God instituted the Sabbath; and when Jesus came along, He said, “You’re using the Sabbath to hurt people, not to help people; so we’re going to reclaim what it means to have the Sabbath.”
Gary: I completely agree with what you say, and I think Scripture backs that up. We respect authority, but we resist evil. That’s a tension that we can’t let go of.
Ann: Well, Gary, I love all that. That’s so profound and important for us to know, but why do we marry these toxic people? When you say the word, “evil,” do we not see that evilness before we get married? Does premarital counseling help us? What are the steps that we can take that we make sure that we don’t marry a toxic person?
Gary: That’s a great question, but there is more than one answer to that. The challenge is—toxic people are better at being toxic than we are at dealing with them, because they have been toxic their whole lives. They can fool people. They can look like a Casanova; he can look like a wonderful one. She can look like a woman that answers all of his dreams. Then, when they get that platform, you see what it was all about.
Some—I have compassion; I just think they were fooled—you’re in your early 20s or something; you don’t have the experience in life. Somebody sweeps you off your feet—you have a silly marriage within three months of meeting each other—and you can be in that situation where you have been fooled.
Other times, it’s just psychological conditioning. If you had an abusive parent, sometimes, that’s what feels comfortable in your relationships. You feel comfortable with a guy that’s a little abusive or a woman that’s a little bit abusive, and you were set up for that. Again, I feel for those people.
Others, I think, you just miss it; we don’t think of toxic people. I have to admit, I thought it would be a sin to label people, “toxic,” earlier in my life until I realized the importance.
Ann: —because Jesus loves them.
Gary: Right, or I think I can change them. Or I think, “We can make this work,” or =“These feelings are so strong that we’re out of our minds.” It’s what neurologists call idealization. When we’re infatuated, we create somebody who doesn’t exist. We’re blinded to their weaknesses, and we create strengths that they don’t really have. I think there are a lot of reasons like that, which is why we want to make a distinction between a difficult marriage and a toxic marriage.
In one sense, we are all incompatible; we’re going to have difficulties to work through. That is the message of Sacred Marriage; it’s the message of Vertical Marriage. That, basically, God grows us through the challenges of marriage. The difference is that you can grow in a difficult marriage; you can become more patient, more understanding, humbler, gentler. Toxicity is not where you’re growing; it’s where you’re being destroyed. You feel like you’re losing your mind. You wake up in fear; it’s impacting your health; you can’t have other healthy relationships.
You know what I’ve seen in so many people married to toxic people?—the spouse that’s toxic ends up making that almost their only relationship. They cut them off from their friends; they cut them off from their own parents; they cut them off from people at church. It takes years, but they realize they are just sort of like that wolf isolating the sheep to have their evil pleasure with it. That’s where we need to, as friends and leaders, recognize what the toxic symptoms are and say, “Okay, I need to speak some truth to you. This isn’t a difficult marriage. This is a toxic marriage, and we need to figure out where you go from here.”
Dave: I think that’s so key. You could be listening to this right now and thinking, “Oh, my goodness! I’m in a toxic marriage. I’m out. I didn’t know it until I heard this program. Now, I am.” I would say/I think we’d all say; right?—“You need to go get community—
Dave: —“to help you make that decision. Don’t make that decision by yourself. Even if it is extremely toxic, still bring some friends in; bring the church in. That’s why God gave us the church, to say, ‘Give me your eyes. Is this what I think it is?’ and get really wise biblical counseling.”
As a pastor, I say this all the time: “You need to get safe, first, and community. You need to remove yourself so that you’re safe and, then, get wisdom from others.”
Bob: I know you had to feel, even in writing this book, you didn’t want to write something that causes people to easily say, “I’m annoyed; therefore, you’re toxic.” There is a danger in that for somebody, who is self-focused, to just think any annoyance is toxic behavior. You’re describing something much deeper/much more aggressive. It’s at the evil level that we talked about earlier.
I’d just encourage people to get a copy of the book to read through it prayerfully; read through it in community; read through it so you can get help. If you’re in a relationship that you think is toxic because—as you say in the book and as we’ve already said this week—we’re talking about your kingdom impact and what Jesus put you on the earth to do. If toxic relationships are inhibiting kingdom impact, then we have to look and say, “The kingdom of God is what we’re here for, and we need to clear away those things that are keeping us from kingdom purposes.”
This is tricky; and again, Gary, you’ve handled it well in your book, When to Walk Away. We’re making that book available this week to FamilyLife Today listeners who can help support the ministry with a donation. Your financial support—as you support the ongoing work of FamilyLife Today—is vital. You make, not only not only this daily radio program possible, you make everything we do at FamilyLife® possible: through our website, through our events, our resources; all that we’re about as a ministry. You make that happen when you support this program. If you could make a donation today, be sure to ask for a copy of Gary Thomas’s book, When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom from Toxic People.
You can donate, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call to donate: 1-800-FL-TODAY is the number. Again, go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com, to make an online donation, and request your copy of Gary Thomas’s book, When to Walk Away; or you can request the book when you call to donate. Our number, again, is 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Now, tomorrow, we want to talk about the very delicate subject of how we handle family members who/the relationship might have gotten toxic. Do you just cut yourself off from those family members? How do you handle that? Gary Thomas joins us, again, tomorrow. I hope you can join us as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, who got some help from Bruce Goff on today’s program, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We’ll see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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