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Magazine > Content

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.

Copyright 2015 In Touch Ministries, Inc. All rights reserved. In Touch grants permission to print for personal use only.

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  • October 28, 2013 03:36 AM


    I have a brother in jail and a sister that is homeless, parents that are elderly. I have done all I am able to do. Surrendering a of this into God's hands has not been easy but I know He does not want me to continue to take on over responsibility for them. They need to work through their own life issues. There has been so much manipulation through guilt. I am more aware when it is happening now and I don't pack my bags for the guilt trip anymore. Stand your ground. They will not like you stepping out of this old role you used to play. Do it anyway. It does get easier over time as you become stronger. Their tactics no longer work on you the way they once did. Praise God! Breakthrough! :) Sabrina :)
  • July 26, 2013 06:09 AM


    this helps with prayer
  • July 22, 2013 01:17 PM


    I was questioning what I should do about a relationship that was restarting after a horrible broken heart. I thank you for the motivation to continue to let God take care of it, and I pray that I have the courage and strength to stay on God's path.
  • July 21, 2013 11:24 PM


    These words speak to me and why I've had so many unsuccessful relationships in my life. It's hard to admit that I can be a "Christian", but not understand the love that God has for me. Hard to admit that I love God, but with certain areas and relationships in my life, I don't trust Him with it. Am I the only person experiencing this? Can't be, but that doesn't matter because I want to be transformed by the renewing of my mind so I can have the kind of relationships God says I can have and experience the love God has for me in a tangible way. I'm turning forty this year, and it's humbling to look back on my life and just admit...I've been doing it wrong. I'm not ashamed though, because I DO believe God will help me, He will perfect this area which concerns me. Thank you to the writer of this article and the counselor interviewed. Embrace honesty.
  • July 20, 2013 12:50 PM


    It is hard to let go. Guilt eats away at your soul. I understand I have to break the cycle passed on for generations but it is a hard fight, yet one worth fighting for. I have been emotionally abused but in turn it has led me to feelings of insecurity that I took to my relationships. Thank you so much. I truly hope to have my eyes wide open and this I pray is a beginning in that journey. I hope for prayers from anyone who will, to shield me in protection from the devil of deception and lies.
  • June 23, 2013 07:08 PM


    This article perfectly describes the conflict we have when we try to fix relationships in our own power instead of trusting God. Thank you for this timely insight in a very common problem with Christian relationships today.

  • June 23, 2013 09:24 AM


    Strange to see the very words you know to be true. It is good to see that God understands it is easier said than done. I pray for him so that he might see the truth and work at the problems before it is too late. I pray for all of you now(and me) that God will bring our hearts peace when the time is right.
  • June 13, 2013 02:16 AM


    Just what I needed today. I've been in overdrive trying to help a loved one make the changes he says he wants to see in his life, yet he won't do the work. It's time for me to "let go and let God." I also need to establish clear boundaries for how I allow him to treat e and what I'll tolerate. Thanks for the revelation.
  • June 12, 2013 05:32 PM


    I really needed to read this. I am in this current situation and am blaming myself with failure because I married this person. Please pray for me!
  • June 12, 2013 02:49 PM


    This was right on time... Thank you to the writer and those who read it...
  • June 12, 2013 06:35 AM


    Thank you so much for this message... awesome!!!! How good is to know God is everything we need!!! Thanks God Jesus!!!!
  • June 10, 2013 02:08 AM


    A timely article for my situaltion especially on setting boudaries
  • June 09, 2013 09:11 AM


    Thank you for these words of encouragement and truth. I am currently in this type of relationship, where the other person is not getting it. I've mentioned, but to no avail that he needs to speak to someone professionally, but he hasn't, and probably never will. I am at the point of no return and have been for quite sometime. I don't see myself turning back. Please pray for me. Thanks and God bless.
  • June 09, 2013 02:21 AM


    This article is so enlightening and timely for me. I've been seeking answer for
    my problem and God led me to read this article. Thank you In Touch!
  • June 08, 2013 06:45 PM


    I was in an abusive relationship for 7 years since I married an unbeliever. For those 7 years, I always believed that I must extend my grace since i'm the Christian. Truly, God is my shepherd as He lead me back home.I learned to say STOP and had the courage to say it's OVER.
  • June 08, 2013 10:37 AM


    So helpful to me in my current situation!
  • June 08, 2013 02:49 AM


    Thank you for sharing this with us! I now know what is right for me and whats not right. I have been a victim of the wrong kind of love and deceiving my self that every thing will be OK yet I would be going back to where I started from. Am so grateful that you shared this.
  • June 07, 2013 06:27 PM


    Thank you for the inspiration by trusting God in all his ways
  • June 06, 2013 07:35 AM


    As we prepare for our daughter to leave for college this is a great time for me to realize I need to back off and just trust God. I do feel like I've "taught her how to fish"! Thank you for this timely article.
  • June 06, 2013 05:23 AM


    This is confirmation to a situation in my personal life. I have been making excuses for a loved ones behaviors. In turn, I have been emotionally abused and feelng guilty for desiring to put distance in our relationship.
  • June 05, 2013 04:01 PM


    What a timely reminder, to set boundaries and to trust God for people's lives. Thank you In Touch!
  • June 04, 2013 09:40 AM


    I can't tell you how much this article has helped me thank you so very much.
  • June 04, 2013 04:33 AM


    Spending time w/God brings about His love. Thank you Intouch for this article!
  • June 04, 2013 12:57 AM


    A timely message for me, I shall pass this onto family members too. Thankyou so much for this message.
  • June 03, 2013 11:49 PM


    Good words! and here on God's clock not mine - as I want to wish that I has seen or read these words before my marriage died.........

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