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What to Do With an Unsafe Family Member

Welcome to Christmas 2017. It’s an interesting time with intersecting relationships. Blended families and extended families and oddball friends find their way into your living room as the Hallelujah chorus swells in the background. And everyone knows what could happen if ghosts of unpleasant Chri…
By Seth Barnes

Welcome to Christmas 2017. It’s an interesting time with intersecting relationships. Blended families and extended families and oddball friends find their way into your living room as the Hallelujah chorus swells in the background. And everyone knows what could happen if ghosts of unpleasant Christmases past come to visit.

You’ve worked so hard to create a safe place for your family and then during this one special time of the year, you open your doors to people in your life who have been unsafe.

All of us struggle at one time or another with unsafe family members (people who have been emotionally manipulative or abusive, not just those who have hurt your feelings).

Knowing that the stakes are high and that relationships have been fragile in times past, we put on our best behavior and then hold our breath. We hope that no one will transgress the boundaries we’ve set and that we can all exhale at the end of the day. 

Last night I was talking to one of our guests about Pablo Escobar and the Colombian cartel. We had a nice evening and I went to bed, only to wake from a dream where I was running to escape from the cartel who were intent on killing me.

Good grief. How is your Christmas going? Whatever night terrors haunt you, it should be abundantly clear to you by now that your home is under attack from an enemy who wants to destroy you. He wants you to live in such fear that you’ll be consumed with creating a safe place.

Being human is hard. We humans are not superheroes. We are flawed and vulnerable. Not hiding can be hard.

Lots of people are not safe to be around. It’s hard to know if we’ll be accepted or manipulated or in some way used.
 
Unsafe people often lack self-awareness and show up in your home preoccupied. Running at a deficit, with their own needs demanding attention, they are energy drainers. They leave a trail of bodies in their wake.
 
Maybe it’s time to have the conversation that you’ve been dreading. Living with an elephant in the room is stressful. Consider establishing boundaries and moving toward the freedom you were made for.
 
How?
 
How do you do this? First, recognize the history you have with this family member. If it’s been painful, consider that you may need the perspective of someone who can be more objective than you. If you have of a good counselor, they can often help you discern just how dysfunctional the relationship is. Has it gone over into abuse? What do healthy boundaries look like?

Here are three strategies to consider:

1. Assess the cost

Is the relational wreckage in your rearview mirror part of a pattern or was it a one-off? Perhaps you are naive. Perhaps you struggle with discernment. You may need more help “reading people” than you’ve had in the past. Or perhaps you don’t trust yourself. Feel free to ask for help. 

Ask those you trust to discern the difference between a risk worth taking and one that is unacceptable.

Also, assess whether the relationship in question is worth it. Is God leading you in that direction? Take time to pray about it and ask God to direct you.

2. Anticipate a response

We all make mistakes, but when we hurt one another, it’s what we do on the other side of that hurt that will show how much we care about the relationship. You want to trust those who are trustworthy. A friend shows themselves to be trustworthy by caring about how they impact you.

You can look at how you feel after having been with them to know if they care. Do you find yourself rehearsing what you are going to say to them the next time you’re together because you’re afraid you’ll come off in the wrong way? Do you feel accepted?

3. Have the hard conversation

If you sense that there is an issue that needs to be addressed for your relationship with your family member to progress, consider the possibility that you should have a hard conversation. Summon up the courage and say the thing that needs to be said. You don’t have to put up with their dysfunctional behavior. 
 
Apply the principles in Matthew 18:12-35 and if necessary, bring an intermediary to help you communicate what you struggle to share.
 
Moving toward love
 
As you do this, recognize the spiritual stakes. Get friends who you trust to pray for you and to share with you what they sense God saying. You will likely need more support than you currently have to walk through this and share the truth in love.

Part of taking down the big walls around your heart requires that you learn how to say the hard things that protect your heart. Don’t catastrophize. So you had a disagreement along the way. It’s not the end of the world.

Maybe you were just practicing a needed boundary and the person likes you better as a doormat. That’s OK.

Jesus asked us to “love one another.” But love can be hard when we feel wounded. While boundaries are an important part of living a stable life, living with your guard up all the time is stressful. 

God wants you to love and be loved. It’s essential to living a full life. Maybe holding your breath is the best option. Or maybe it’s time to establish boundaries. Or maybe it’s time to move beyond boundaries and seek a breakthrough. 

We worship the Prince of Peace. But peacemaking is hard work. I pray courage for you.

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