FamilyLife Today®

Signs of Toxicity

with Doyle Roth | March 17, 2021
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All loving parents want healthy relationships for their children, but what do we do when we see red flags? On FamilyLife Today, hosts Dave and Ann Wilson talk with author and counselor, Doyle Roth, about how to know when someone is toxic and what to do about it.

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All loving parents want healthy relationships for their children, but what do we do when we see red flags? Doyle Roth talks about how to know when someone is toxic and what to do about it.

Signs of Toxicity

With Doyle Roth
March 17, 2021
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Bob: If your son or daughter is married to someone who is, for whatever reason, a disruptor of family harmony, what do you do about that? Doyle Roth says you have to be very careful about potential confrontation of that issue.

Doyle: A toxic person doesn’t want to be exposed; they want to keep it all private. They want to keep their spouse private, and they don’t want her or him having friends. They don’t want intrusion from any other person. They won’t go to a counselor; they don’t want to talk to anybody else. They want to have their lives private. Exposure of the toxic person scares them to death, because they know their behavior is really bad.

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, March 17th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You can find us online at Navigating our way through disruptive, destabilizing, extended family relationships—that can be really tricky—we’re going to give you some counsel on that today. Stay with us.

Bob: And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. One of the things I don’t think I ever even stopped to think about, when Mary Ann and I were dating/thinking about marriage—even when we were engaged—I don’t know that it even came on my radar: “How do I feel about her family?” You know I wasn’t stopping about thinking, “I’m going to spend the rest of my life with her family.” Because we don’t spend, day in and day out; but when you marry somebody, you are going to spend the rest of your life with their family at some level; right?

Dave: I’m wondering—

Ann: Right; you’re saying “I do,” to their family.

Bob: That’s right.

Dave: I’m wondering if Ann thought that about my family—we’ve never talked about that—because I thought, “I can’t wait to be a part of that family.”

Bob: Really?

Dave: Because her family was just—first of all, they’re married; they stay married, and I loved the joy. I loved her brothers and sister, and I was excited.

But thinking about what you were thinking—about walking into my family.

Ann: This is so terrible. We got married when I was 19, so I was young.

Doyle: That’s me and Nancy; we were both 19.

Ann: I thought, “I am going to save his family. [Laughter] I am going to bring them back together; I am going to bring them to Jesus.” It didn’t quite work that way. [Laughter]

Bob: The other 19-year-old, who got married, in the room is Doyle Roth, who is joining us again on FamilyLife Today. Doyle, welcome back.

Doyle: Well, thank you. Thank you so much.

Bob: He was 19 a few years ago—

Ann: That’s right.

Bob: —because today Doyle is a writer; he’s a counselor. He’s a rancher in Colorado; he is a father to four.

Dave: He’s a Renaissance man.

Bob: He really is.

Ann: We all want to be friends with him.

Doyle: —rather old/whatever. [Laughter]

Bob: Doyle has four adult kids; he has twelve grandchildren; he has six great-grandchildren. He spends several hours each week talking to husbands and wives and moms and dads, mostly about marriage- and family-related issues, doing counseling with these folks. He’s written a book called Toxic Sons- and Daughters-in-Law.

We’ve been talking about how we handle this situation, as parents, when we see our kids in a relationship that we think: “Danger, Will Robinson! Warning!”—[Laughter]—you know, that kind of thing.

I think we should pull back here and say some parents can attach a toxic label to something that is just a flawed human being. Your daughter is not marrying Jesus, so [whomever] she’s marrying is going to have sin issues in his life. Your son is marrying somebody, who’s going to have sin issues in her life. We’ve got to be careful not to attach in our own minds: “Oh, well, they’re toxic; because they have sin issues in their lives”; right?

Doyle: Oh, exactly right. I have wonderful sons-in-law, daughters-in-law—but we’re all sinners—so is mom and dad.

When we talk about toxic, we’re talking about people with very, very serious deep emotional issues that come from addiction and can come from insecurities. It can come from a lot of different places that make them very, very difficult to deal with.

Dave: As a parent, let’s say your daughter or son is dating somebody; and the question would be: “When do you know it’s toxic?” My daughter—I’m making this up; I don’t have any daughters—but my daughter is dating a guy, who says he struggles with pornography a little bit. Is there a point, where you’re like: “Oh my goodness! This is not just a little problem with sexual temptation; this is toxic”?

Ann: —or even drinking.

Doyle: I think a lot of the toxic behaviors gradually find themselves in the control and manipulation side. They come in very strongly, controlling their spouse—whether it be a daughter or son—and they control them/cause them to be away from their families. They don’t want intrusion from any other person: they won’t go to a counselor; they don’t want to talk to anybody else. They want to have their lives private; exposure of the toxic person scares them to death, because they know their behavior is really bad.

But you could have a son-in-law that’s really open about things in his life. He really wants to grow, himself, spiritually. He’s just one of us guys and gals that struggle. I mean, that’s just the way it is. But a toxic person doesn’t want to be exposed; they want to keep it all private. They want to keep their spouse private, and they don’t want her or him having friends. There’s a big difference.

Bob: Yes; so if you see some humility and some transparency—

Doyle: Sure; yes.

Bob: —that doesn’t mean they’re toxic; that just means they’re normal human beings.

Doyle: No, and they’re growing in Christ. They’re growing: they’re reading their Bibles; they’re really applying Scripture—those are good signs—but when a person is toxic, they are a long ways away from that emotionally.

Dave: Talk about that. When it’s toxic—you know, you look at the flag and it’s:—

Ann: —or even dangerous.

Dave: —“Danger,” “Danger,” red—it’s: “This young man has a drinking problem.” We can see it.

Bob: —or an anger problem.

Dave: —or an anger problem.

Ann: Could be abusive.

Bob: Yes.

Dave: —he’s hit my daughter once or twice, but he doesn’t often. You see that, and your daughter or son can’t see it. What does a parent do when it’s toxic/toxic red?


Doyle: It’s hard, Dave. These are hard times; these are hard decisions, because you don’t want to go too fast too hard. It gets a parent in a very, very particular spot that’s dangerous.

I think the protective resources that I mention in my book are really important. You’ve got to think in terms outside the box: “Who can come into this?” “Who can protect me from hurting my relationship with my son or daughter or hindering me from seeing my grandchildren ever?”

The only way that’s going to happen is if I can stay out of this a little bit and use the protective resources: have a good mentor, have a good coach, have a good person in your life that you can refer them to/a good counselor. It may even come to a point, where you can refer them to an attorney, if there has to be legal things. There’s other people that can step in here.

What can happen is that it may not ever end in divorce; it’s just going to keep going like this. If you want to see your grandkids, and if you want to have a relationship with your son, you better be very careful and bring other people into the loop that can speak truth to them and speak about their lives; or we’re going to be in serious troubles.

Ann: You’re saying: “Let somebody else be the bad guy.”

Doyle: Somebody else needs to be the bad guy and bring the bad information. I think that’s where we get—it’s dangerous for us to say those things—because, like we said before, they’re never going to forget what we say.

Ann: And if your child isn’t open to hearing that, or getting any kind of help, or mentoring or counseling, then what?

Doyle: Well, listen to this: “You are good parents, Dave and Ann. You are trying to be good parents. We have trained our kids. We’ve helped them make decisions. In some respects, you’ve got to trust your parenting.”

Ann: And we have a good relationship with them.

Doyle: You’ve got to be able to set—yes; “We have a good relationship,”—you’ve got to be able to trust their maturity and trust their insight.

Asking the questions: “How?” “When?” “Why?” “Where?” are an easy way for us to deflect our opinions; we can ask them to really dig deep into their own souls. We’ve taught them; we’ve trained them. Rely on that and rely on God to help them.

Bob: There are principles of conflict resolution that we talk about at the Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway for married couples, where we say, “If you’re going to have to have a hard conversation with your spouse about an area of conflict, you need to think about: ‘What’s the best time to say it?’ ‘How do I want to make sure I say it?’” Maybe you write down what you want to say; maybe you need to give them some time to process rather than just dumping on them and expecting a response right away.

If we need to, as parents, have a hard conversation with our kids, we need to follow some of those same guidelines; don’t you think?—where we need to pre-think: “What is it I want to say?” “When’s the right time to say it?” “Let’s make sure I choose my words very carefully,”—so that, if you do need to say—“Sweetheart, I’ve seen some things that are troubling to me; because I’m concerned about you. I’m concerned about your relationship. You know we love you; we care about you and would do anything for you. Here are the things I’m seeing...I want you to just hear this and process it. Maybe we can talk about it later,”—I think there are ways to have those conversations appropriately.

But the point you’re making, Doyle, in all of this is, if we sabotage the relational foundation and blow up that bridge, then we’ve got no access left at that point.

Doyle: That’s right.

Bob: We have to make sure we’re doing everything we can to preserve that relationship so we can continue to interact and try to bring help and healing here.

Doyle: Right; you can say what you just said, Bob, in a very kind and loving way. And you can close that statement by saying, “What do you think?” That changes the whole thing of me asserting on you versus asking you what you think/drawing them out. I think it’s a lot safer.

Ann: One of the things I didn’t realize until later—my best friend was my sister—when she was engaged, it was a very tumultuous relationship. My parents could see this. We talked about it, as siblings, to my sister. My sister told me this later: that right before the wedding, my mom went to my sister; and she said, “Honey, it feels like you’re having second thoughts. I see that you’re anxious; and I just want you to know that, if you feel like you need to step out of this because it could put you in a situation that’s not healthy, we will back you. It doesn’t matter about the guests; it doesn’t matter about the money we’ve spent. It doesn’t matter about any of the gifts you’ve received. We will back you, and we will help you with whatever you decide to do.”

Doyle: Did she get married?

Ann: She did.

Doyle: Does she have a good relationship with her mom?

Ann: —a wonderful relationship.

Doyle: That’s the answer to the way she approached it.

Dave: It was truth in love.

Doyle: That’s right.

Dave: The truth was there. As we’ve said so often, I think it’s so hard to be that parent, especially when you see your son or daughter is in danger because of the toxic relationship. That’s when you want to give grace; you want to ask the question: “So what do you think?” When they answer it wrongly—[Laughter]—you know, like, “I think he’s fine; I think it’s okay. I’m not in danger,”—it’s so hard; isn’t it?

Doyle: Oh, it is.

Dave: Because you can’t control it.

Bob: You tell one story in the book about a son whose wife was physically abusive toward him: “Our son is being kicked and—

Ann: —“battered.”

Bob: —“battered by his wife, and she has threatened to kill him.” Is there a time when parents step in and say, “This is not going to happen with our kid,”—and they don’t be gentle, and keep their mouth shut, and pray—they go in and say, “Alright; we’re here to save the life of our child.”

Doyle: Bob, I just don’t think they can save the life of their child. They can make their opinion known; this is a very dangerous thing to this young man. “Is there a time for you, on your timeline, that this is: ‘We need to get some help,’ ‘What do you do about this?’”

Well, that particular couple is still together; and they’re thriving; they’re doing well. But initially, this was a very dangerous place for this family to be; and they couldn’t see the grandchildren. The parents’ patience—and he would call me, and they were so angry and upset about the danger that their son was facing—they now have a continuing relationship with their son. Their daughter-in-law and them get along; they’re able to see the grandchildren. It’s all worked out, but time is on your side. I think there’s a place for us to be concerned, but we’ve got to be careful.

Bob: Let me ask you about that grandchildren-grandparent issue because, in the last political cycle, I was talking to moms and dads, who were saying, “Our kids are saying, ‘You can’t see your grandkids anymore, because who you are supporting for President.’” If the situation is such that—whether it’s politics or there’s any other wedge issue that causes the kids to say, “If that’s what you believe/if that’s what your church believes, we’re cutting off the relationship completely,”—do parents just have to say, “Well, I guess that’s what we’re stuck with?”

Doyle: I’ve got one family very close to me, that I love dearly, and they’ve been not seeing their grandchildren for, probably at this point, 15 years. They cut them over religious reasons. This particular person was an extremist/had extreme legalistic convictions; and because the parents were not that way, they have not seen their children for 15 years.

I think, most generally, those things heal themselves if the parents are careful; because the kids are going to want babysitting/they do want them to come by. There’s things that happen naturally, away from the argument and away from the fighting, that goes on sometimes. Those things will often heal themselves, but they don’t always do that.

Bob: And those grandkids, when they turn 15 or 20, may be thinking, “I want to meet my grandparents.”

Doyle: Well, and that can happen; yes.

Dave: I’m also thinking of the grandkids, who are in danger. It’s one thing if I feel like my daughter or my son is in danger—maybe physically because maybe their spouse is abusive—but now, I’ve got grandkids [who] are two and three years old. As a grandparent, I’m like, “I want to go in there just to get them safe.” What do we do?

Ann: Yes, Doyle; I am like going to knock down the door and save my grandkids. Like everything in me is: “I’m going to rescue them.”

Dave: I didn’t mean to get her stirred up. [Laughter] I guess I did.

Ann: But I think most, especially moms and dads, that protective element of grandkids. Our kids are adults, but these grandkids are innocent. Even though they’re not our children, what do we do with that?

Doyle: I just think you have to trust your kids. You’ve raised them to be responsible; you’ve raised them to be good kids.

Ann: But what if our kids are just dumb kids? Come on!

Doyle: Then there’s going to be other people that come in the loop. Social services are going to come in the loop. Other people/neighbors are going to pick up on this. There’s a lot of people that can pick up on it and, I think, asking those right questions.

Dave: I’ve heard you say several times in our conversation: “How big is your God?” And in many ways, it comes back to there is a God that knows, and sees, and is huge, and He—

Ann: —He sees the small.

Dave: —He’s intimately involved in the small details of our life, and He can be trusted.

Doyle: Right.

Dave: It’s hard times, at times, but it’s true.

Bob: You, in the end of your book, you talk about safe people and unsafe people—borrowing from the work of Cloud and Townsend, who wrote the book on safe people—but you say that unsafe people are people, who think they have it all together rather than admitting to their weaknesses. If you see a son-in-law or a daughter-in-law, either before or after marriage, and they’re like, “Yes; I got this,”—there’s an arrogance/a pride there—there should be a flag go up.

Doyle: There’s a flag that goes up; yes.

Bob: You say unsafe people are religious instead of spiritual. Explain what you mean by that.

Doyle: They might go to church faithfully, and they may go to men’s meetings; but they’re not spiritually inclined. They’re not really in a relationship with Christ that’s life- changing/character building; and that’s a big difference, Bob.

Bob: Yes; we should point out—you talked about this earlier, Dave and Ann—you talked about the fact that, when you started dating, you were a new Christian.

If my daughter’s dating a new Christian, I want that new Christian to have a little bit of a track record before that relationship goes too far; because sometimes, that new Christian is somebody, who’s there for a couple of months, and then not around anymore. You do want to have some time to see: “Is this really proving itself out in behavior?”

Doyle: That’s right.

Bob: You say that an unsafe person is somebody, who’s defensive, instead of open to feedback. We’re back to humility as a fundamental current.

Doyle: That’s right; that’s right.

Bob: Unsafe people are self-righteous instead of humble; they only apologize instead of changing their behavior.

Doyle: Yes; apology is a quick solution to everything. It’s: “All I have to do is apologize; and hopefully, you’ll forgive; and that’s it”; but go right back into it.

Bob: And as we often say at the Weekend to Remember marriage getaway, an apology will not include the words: “if” or “but.” You don’t say: “I’m sorry if…” and you don’t say “I’m sorry but…” You just negated the “I’m sorry” part when you say either of those words.

Doyle: Right; and oftentimes, you don’t even explain the depth of what you’re actually apologizing for—the hurt that you’ve caused/the depth of what you’ve done—they don’t apologize for the whole thing. They want to just say, “I’m sorry I said that”; and go on. But they don’t realize what that does to the person they said it to/the child they said it to, or whatever.

Bob: You say that unsafe people avoid working on their problems instead of dealing with them. What’s the difference between working on your problem and dealing with it?

Doyle: One’s recognizing it. Working on it means I’m investing in it; I’m really investing in change. I’m really trying to make the adjustments that I need to: I’m changing my habits; I’m changing the direction I drive to work; I’m really working on it, day in and day out.

Bob: I read that; and I thought, “There was a point, where I was recognizing in my own life, how self-focused I was about things and how much everything I needed to have the spotlight on me.” I would tell people for a while, “Yes; I’ve recognized this about myself, and I’m working on it.” I learned that those people respected me more if I said that, so I just kept saying that. I wasn’t really working on anything; I was just saying—

Dave: The spotlight was on you so—yes.

Bob: That’s right; it became a new—so there’s a difference between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow; right?

Doyle: Right; yes.

Dave: In Psalm 51, David prays for a contrite heart. I remember studying years ago, “What’s a contrite heart compared to a trite heart?” Here’s how I ended up: a trite heart is: “I’m sorry I got caught”; a contrite heart is: “I’m sorry I did it,”—

Doyle: That’s good, Dave; that’s good.

Dave: —it’s true repentance. You want to see that, obviously, in your sons and daughters and who they’re dating. You’re never going to see that perfectly; but man, when you see true humility, which says, “I am broken that I did this,”—godly sorrow—that leads to working on it and saying “God, You’ve got to change me.”

Ann: I think for listeners, that have kids in their home, we teach our kids these things when they’re under our roof: of who to marry/of what to look for in a spouse. I know that when our kids were little, and when our kids are below 12, they’re sponges; they’re soaking up everything that we’re saying. I remember saying, “What kind of girl are you going to marry?” I’d kind of train them, like, “I’m going to marry, not just a Christian, a woman who loves Jesus.”

Doyle: Yes!

Ann: You know, I’m teaching them that. And the “Whys?” when they get older: “Why is that important?” “What does that look like?” To have those conversations, at bedtime/around the dinner table: “What is marriage?” and “Why does it matter who I marry?” “What am I looking for in a marriage?” and legacy. These are great conversations to have, and kids want to hear. They want to have instruction of what to be looking for, of who to be looking for, and character qualities of people that are following Jesus.

Dave: And by the way, I’m sitting beside Ann, thinking, “I watched her do this for 20-some years. She was a genius at this.” I’d just sit at the dinner table, like, “Go girl.” The boys would soak it up, and they married three incredible women. Again, I’m thankful to God for that—and you can’t really control that—but they/I mean, Ann really trained them; and that’s our job as parents: “Let’s step up.”

Ann: I’ll say: you know, what Dave did—which I would encourage everyone and anyone to do—that he would take Fridays/every Friday morning, he would fast until dinner time—and you started doing that when, Dave?

Dave: When CJ was born, so 34 years.

Doyle: Wow.

Ann: And he would be praying for their spouses, and it’s never too late to start that. I have a couple of women that I have fasted with and prayed for on Wednesday—that we’re praying for our kids, their spouses, our grandkids—that is a great principle to put into practice.

Dave: And when you sit—or in my situation, got to stand and be the pastor and the father of these three weddings—and you look at your future daughter-in-law. She doesn’t know this; but you know it: “I prayed for you before you were born. I’ve been praying for you, without knowing your name, your entire life; and now, is an answer to a prayer that my son would marry a godly woman.” Again, we’re not sitting here, saying, “We have perfect families,”/”We’re perfect,”—but they’re amazing women—and God is big.

Doyle: Right.

Dave: He can be trusted.

Bob: And you, Doyle, have given us encouragement, and hope, and counsel. This subject, I know, is heart-wrenching for so many of our listeners. Thank you for taking time to share; thanks for the book.

Ann: Yes; “Get the book!”

Bob: Absolutely; thanks for being here.

Doyle: Thank you for having me. I appreciate the work of FamilyLife®; appreciate you guys/love you guys. Thanks for laying the foundation: Bob, you, for many years, have been here; Dave, you and Ann, stepping up to the helm. We just praise God for you; keep it going.

Ann: Thank you.

Dave: Thank you.

Bob: We are, of course, making your book available this week to FamilyLife Today listeners who are supporting the ongoing work of FamilyLife Today/those listeners who can help advance the mission of FamilyLife Today. Doyle’s book is our thank-you gift to you. It’s called Toxic Sons- and Daughters-in-Law: Untangling Difficult Relationships. You can purchase a copy on our website at; or we’ll send you a copy as a thank-you gift when you support FamilyLife Today with a donation of any amount.

Your donations extend the reach of this ministry and help us connect with more people, more regularly, to effectively develop godly marriages and families. That’s our goal; that’s what you’re investing in when you invest in the work of FamilyLife Today, and we’re grateful for that. You can donate, online, at; you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to make a donation by phone. And again, be sure to ask for Doyle Roth’s book, Toxic Sons- and Daughters-in-Law, when you donate.

Now, David Robbins, the president of FamilyLife, is here with us today. David—

David: You know, I want to take a moment and talk about one of our newest resources at FamilyLife that you probably have heard us talk about. We’re starting to hear from people, who are doing the Dates to Remember box. It’s really an experience: three different moments that you can have with your spouse to really develop closer connection—not just spend time together on a date—but really have intentional conversation that’s also really fun.

I’ve just got this email that shared the impact that the Dates to Remember experience had on this couple. The husband said: “It gave us a Christ-centered way to focus on one another on a date night rather than just focusing on a movie or an event, where we may end the conversation in the evening with very little connection actually happening. It really provided a way for us to connect deeply.”

I just want to encourage you: “If you are continuing to look for creative ways to have connection with your spouse, the Dates to Remember box has been designed for you. I hope you’ll check it out.”

Bob: And of course, there’s a link on our website at with more information about Dates to Remember. Thank you, David; thanks for that.

Now, tomorrow, we’re going to talk about just how critical it is for all of us to be living our lives with an extended community around us. Sharon Hersh joins us to talk about the power of belonging to one another. I hope you can tune in for that.


I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch. We got some help from Bruce Goff and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas; a Cru® Ministry. Help for today. Hope for tomorrow.


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Episodes in this Series

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Praying for Untangling
with Doyle Roth March 16, 2021
What does it look like for parents to wait on the Lord when they see toxic tendencies in their child's spouse? Doyle Roth talks about preserving relationships as you navigate difficult patterns of behavior.
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FLT Podcast Cover
Word to the Wise
with Doyle Roth March 15, 2021
How can a parent respond when their child is married to a toxic person? Author and counselor Doyle Roth describes ways to wade through the difficulties that come with those hard relationships.
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