The Wrong Kind of Love
Managing unhealthy relationships isn’t good enough—what you need is a breakthrough. We asked Dr. Tim Clinton how to stop the cycle of destructive patterns.
by Erin Gieschen
As a practicing counselor for 25 years, Dr. Tim Clinton has seen every kind of broken relationship. Among the unhealthy patterns he’s observed, there’s one he sees over and over: people who try to “fix” their family and friends under the guise of loving them.
But according to Clinton, our efforts to rescue loved ones often add to the problem. “Somewhere down inside,” he says, “we believe the lie that we’re responsible for fixing their mess. Somewhere in the midst of good intentions, what starts to take place isn’t really love. And it may have as much to do with us as it does the other person.”
In Touch spoke with Clinton about the shift of perspective needed to transform these unhealthy relationships.
In Touch: In your experience, how do these negative patterns of relating usually begin?
Tim Clinton: Every day I see people caught in relationships in which they feel trapped and exhausted, and honestly don't know what to do. Of course, God made us to love and be loved, so it’s amazing to be in relationship with someone who mutually loves and cares for you. But everyone has experienced relationships in which we wind up breaking a lot of healthy relationship rules.
Often, the person we love is living in denial and refusing to get the help they need, yet we feel driven to “help” them, even when we know better. The issues may range from outbursts of anger to frivolous spending, from withholding love to justifying a porn addiction. Yet we feverishly defend our actions to “protect” the other person and tolerate the craziness in the name of “love.” The hurtful behavior, manipulation, and games may be taking a huge toll on everyone, yet sometimes we’d rather have this negative relationship than none at all.
What are the signs that indicate we’re entangled in a relationship that needs a breakthrough?
Tolerating abuse, threats, or chaos. Keeping secrets and making excuses for that person, lying to yourself or others, or justifying their bad behavior. Closing your eyes to irresponsible behavior, enabling an addiction, or repeatedly sacrificing to cover up his or her mistakes. Caving in to a raging person’s demands, catering to a lazy person’s whims, or accepting the blame for something you never did.
If we continue in these types of behaviors, we stay stuck. For example, take the mom who covers for her son, even though she knows he’s on drugs. She won’t tell her husband what he’s doing and how he keeps taking money from her, for fear he’ll kick Joey out. But when the bank account gets overdrawn, she has to face the reality that something’s not working. Think of the girl who’s in an abusive relationship, but refuses to break it off because her boyfriend says, “You’re all I have. If you leave me, I’ll kill myself!” But her heart can last only so long, and the bruises show that he really doesn’t love her.
How can we learn the difference between what’s truly best for someone from what we think is best?
As Henry Cloud and John Townsend point out in their classic book, Boundaries, we’re responsible to others and for ourselves—not the other way around. If you don’t put boundaries in place and make some hard choices in your relationship, things aren’t ever going to change. In psychology, we say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and over and over again, expecting different results. It never happens. The truth is, you will end up exactly where you don’t want to be: more tired, more frustrated, more angry, in more chaos. Eventually, the whole thing will blow up and you’ll wind up in a state of brokenness you never dreamed of.
What’s the first critical turning point in an unhealthy relationship?
It begins with becoming aware of the patterns being lived out in our lives and in our relationship. When you realize that you’re tired of someone behaving a certain way, it’s time to take action and say, “I love you, and I just can’t do things this way anymore. This is not the way it should be.” That “aha” moment can be the genesis of change. That’s your moment for new life to bloom.
That doesn’t mean it will be easy. For most of us, change is a sometimes long and difficult process. But one of the reasons I wrote Break Through was to help people develop a tangible plan. You can understand yourself better, gain insights about why you act, feel, and love the way you do—and then develop a strategy for bringing about necessary steps of change.
Christians want to practice unconditional love. But how can we learn to do so without enabling or perpetuating abuse?
“Turning the other cheek” doesn’t mean being a doormat. Other peoples’ behavior is not our responsibility. Sometimes, loving means taking our hands off the situation, letting go, and trusting God with the outcome.
Think about salvation. God gives us the opportunity to accept Him, but He doesn’t force or manipulate us. He loves us unconditionally, but there are natural consequences when we choose to sin. It hurts our relationship with Him, it hurts us, and often it hurts those around us. That’s why He establishes clear boundaries for our own good. It’s no different in our everyday relationships. There are healthy and God-honoring ways to love and treat each other, but when we choose to live in a selfish and hurtful way, it causes pain. We have to understand that sometimes love says, “This isn’t working; what we’re doing is hurting you and hurting me…and it is going to have to change.”
Saying no and having boundaries that honor what’s right and holy allow a relationship to heal. Often, however, fear paralyzes us—that he’ll get into serious trouble, go bankrupt, kill himself. Or that she’ll hate me forever, that she’ll never call me again. I get that. And I’m not saying we should be reckless. But change, we must. We have to begin to shift our perspective to trust God with the people we love, rather than continuing these same patterns of trying to fix, manage, or rescue them.
Why do so many people confuse pushing back in a destructive relationship with pushing back against God’s will?
A number of elements can fuel this confusion. First of all, some of us are naturally gifted as people-helpers, and we may actually find pleasure and sometimes power in rescuing. Secondly, a misunderstanding of grace can sometimes lead us astray. We think, I’ve been graced in my life, forgiven and helped, and I feel like it’s my responsibility to give back to God because of His goodness to me. While this is true, extending grace doesn’t mean playing the victim. Thirdly, guilt can cause us to confuse God’s will. We feel overly responsible toward someone else, and so we struggle with not taking responsibility, fearing that something terrible will happen if we don’t.
Sometimes the reality is that people are in such a mess that they will have to bear consequences for their actions. But it’s not your responsibility to continually rescue them. There’s an old saying that also works here: “Give a man a fish and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you’ll feed him for a lifetime.”
How can we start seeing our relationships and ourselves more clearly?
Committing to delight in the Lord can be that window through which you begin to see everything differently. When you press in and learn more about His love—who He is and how He sees you, you’ll understand, first of all, that you are to love God first and others second. Not the other way around. Often, the other person has taken precedence over your relationship with God. And you almost act as if you’re their savior, not Jesus. The truth is that He loves and cares for them far more than you do. He wants you to realize your powerlessness to fix or control them, and is calling you to appropriate responsibility: to first let Him work in you.
Delighting in the Lord changes us. And the more we become like Jesus, the more we trust in Him and His power—which enables us to change further. We begin to gain the courage to tell people the truth and take responsibility for our part, while putting them, their decisions, and their lives in God’s hands.
Look for part two of Dr. Clinton’s interview in our July issue.
Dr. Tim Clinton is president of the American Association of Christian Counselors and co-author of Break Through: When to Give In, When to Push Back.