FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Stopping a Toxic Relationship: The Truth

with Leslie Vernick | April 8, 2010
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Are all conflicts created equal? Not necessarily, especially if you’re in a toxic relationship, according to Christian counselor Leslie Vernick. Today Leslie talks about changing an emotionally destructive relationship into a healthy one, beginning with your own behavior and response.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Are all conflicts created equal? Not necessarily, especially if you’re in a toxic relationship, according to Christian counselor Leslie Vernick. Today Leslie talks about changing an emotionally destructive relationship into a healthy one, beginning with your own behavior and response.

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Are all conflicts created equal? Not necessarily, especially if you’re in a toxic relationship, according to Christian counselor Leslie Vernick.

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Stopping a Toxic Relationship: The Truth

With Leslie Vernick
April 08, 2010
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Bob:  Leslie Vernick is Christian counselor who remembers very well sitting down with Cynthia, a wife who was in an emotionally destructive marriage relationship.


Leslie:  Her husband was continually deceitful.  He had committed a number of affairs and had no real remorse for them.  He was indifferent to their relationship.  She had to do all the work, all the care of the children, manage all the finances, and he kind of just lived as a single person but with the perks of married life.  So I told her, “Cynthia, change begins with you.  So the question you need to begin to ask yourself ‘Why are you willing to live with a man who treats you this way?’”


Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, April 8th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey and I'm Bob Lepine.  What do you do if you find yourself in that kind of a relationship?  What are the questions you need to be asking yourself?  We’re going to talk about those today. 


And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us.  We’re spending some time this week unpacking what can be toxic relationships.  I guess one of the questions I have as we work our way through this, Dennis is, how can you tell when you’re in a normal garden variety relationship with another sinner, and some of that sin oozes out from time to time, versus being in a relationship that is toxic and destructive and you need to get some real help for it.


Dennis:  Yes, and you need to do some serious dealing with God and how you’re damaging another person, or how you are being damaged.  I want to read a quote that is in a book we’re going to talk about today.  The name of the book is The Emotionally Destructive Relationship, by Leslie Vernick.  Leslie joins us again on FamilyLife Today.  Leslie, welcome back.


Leslie:  Thanks for letting me be here.  I really appreciate that.


Dennis:  Leslie is a counselor; she’s a speaker, author of a number of books.  She and her husband, Howard have two adult children.  Your book is really broken into three parts: seeing it, (that is destructive behavior) stopping it, and then surviving it.  We’re going to talk about stopping it today. 

C.S. Lewis though, this is a great quote, I love this quote.  I have never seen this before, Leslie.  But, let’s see if Bob has.  He says, “It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird.  It would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg.  We are like eggs at present, and you cannot go indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg.  We must be hatched or go bad”.

Leslie:  I love that quote because I think it’s so hard sometimes for people to understand how change works.  It’s a process, but we move from egg to chicken to fly.  We can’t go from egg to fly.  So when we understand the process, then we can stop beating ourselves up.  That maybe it’s not where we want to be, but we can move from where we used to be, and there’s this in-between place.


Bob:  Before we dig in and talk about how we turn the tide, how we navigate change in an emotionally destructive relationship, is it even important whether we identify the level of destruction that’s taking place?  I talked about this, kind of garden variety sinful pattern.  I mean I’ve said things to my wife that I wish I hadn’t said, that have been hurtful, or harmful.  She’s said things to me that she wishes she hadn’t said.  I wouldn’t say we’re in an emotionally destructive relationship.  Is it important to hang a label on that or do we just recognize that wherever we are, we want to get better?


Leslie:  I think that’s part of the key, is to recognize that both of you recognize that you’ve said things that are harmful to each other.  James tells us in James 3:2, “We all stumble in many ways.”  So we aren’t going to live with perfect people, and we’re going to live with people who are broken just like us and say bad things. 

But, a healthy person when they recognize that they’ve sinned against another person, because they see that person’s hurt or because that person has said, that you hurt me, they own it. They take responsibility for it, and they work at changing it.  An unhealthy person won’t see it, they will blame you for it, they won’t take any responsibility for it and they repeat it over and over again. 

The difference between a healthy relationship or a destructive relationship, or a difficult relationship, is one of safety.  I think when you feel safe enough to say “Ouch!” to somebody, “That really hurt me.”  And the other person says, “You know, I shouldn’t have said that.”  I was tired or I lost my temper, I need to get better control of my temper, my words… whatever.  Then you can move on.

But when someone doesn’t feel even safe enough to tell someone “That really hurt me,” or “That really bothers me,”  they can’t express their opinion, they can’t be who they are because who they are is unacceptable to the other person.  Then it becomes a real destructive relationship.


Bob:  We were chuckling for just a minute before we came on the air here, about the fact that your mother called you a “nincompoop” when you were growing up.  Repeatedly right?


Dennis:  Oh yes.  But I was just reflecting, she could have probably done it in a little more respectful manner, but I knew my mom loved me.  My mom and I had a great relationship and it was more of an affectionate term that was saying “Son, straighten up.”


Bob:  You didn’t walk away going, “Ouch,” or you didn’t walk away thinking, I really am stupid.  Did you?


Dennis:  No.  Again, I don’t think so.  I mean, as much as I can tell today.

Bob:  Leslie here’s my question in all of this.


Dennis:  A few years have passed since then, you know.  It’s like we all carry these little words with us that were said to us by our parents, and some of the statements they made.


Bob:  Is it possible that in some relationships there’s playful banter that takes place that in another relationship the same kind of pattern would be abusive but in this one it’s not.


Leslie:  Absolutely as long as both people are in agreement of it.  If both people are okay with it, and it’s not hurting anybody and they’re getting something out of their system and they’re fighting and they can manage that without either one of them feeling like they’re scared or they can’t take it or they’re falling apart, or it inhibits their growth, or that damages them, then it’s okay.  I think everybody’s pain threshold is different, whether it’s for physical pain, or relational pain, or emotional pain. 

I remember when I had my first child we were into the Lamaze.  I was going to have this natural childbirth.  All my friends were telling me, it’s a piece of cake, you can do it, and I couldn’t.  I couldn’t do it.  Ten hours later I was saying, “Give me drugs!  I want drugs now!”  I felt like such a failure, because for whatever reason, my pain threshold was lower, or I was more sensitive or it hurt me more, or maybe they could take it longer. 

I think we do an injustice and we’re very unfair to some people when maybe we could take that, and they can’t.  So we’re saying, “You’re just too sensitive,” but if they’re married to someone who is treating them that way, part of loving that person is to know that they’re sensitive. 


Bob:  There’s part of me, as we talk about this, I’m just a little concerned that some folks are going to go, “You know maybe I am in an emotionally destructive relationship.  I thought I was okay until today.  But maybe it is emotionally destructive.”  And what we’re really done is made them more sensitive to something that they didn’t need to be sensitive to.  Does that make sense?


Leslie:  I hear you and I think that’s a possibility.  If someone is looking to be a victim, they can find it.  But there are times when cancer is growing and you don’t know it’s there.  So we do need to define what it means.  I think by taking the test, that you’re offering on your website, people will have a clear idea.  Is it just small potatoes or is this something that I’ve felt for a long time and now I have a word to describe it.


Bob:  The test you’re talking about is from your book, The Emotionally Destructive Relationship.  Thirty one questions that help somebody evaluate just how bad is this?  It’s on our website at, if our listeners are interested in going there.  This would be a helpful diagnostic tool for them.


Dennis:  It would be good.  I found it interesting, Leslie in your book that you have an entire section that is explaining biblical authority of headship and submission.  Now, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that you have seen as a counselor a number of situations where men have overused their authority and where women have given men too much authority.


Leslie:  I have, unfortunately, and I think some churches endorse that.  I really wanted to be biblical in this book because I speak with so many women and men who are in destructive relationships and they try to go to the place that should give them the most help, which is the church.  And they’ve been misled, they’ve been hurt more, they’ve been told, “Well, that’s just how it is.  God put him in charge, so you just have to obey and submit.”  Even if he’s steering the whole family right off the edge of a cliff.  You’re not allowed to say “no,” you’re not allowed to jump ship, you’re not allowed to do anything but go over, and the whole kids and family and everybody goes over the cliff.


Dennis:  We did a series of broadcasts here on FamilyLife Today a number of years, Bob’s going to know exactly the ones I’m talking about.  We had a counselor from Southern California, and a deputy sheriff from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  We talked about abusive relationships where there was…


Bob:  Where there was domestic violence.

Dennis:  Domestic violence.  You’ll not be surprised at what they said in that interview.  They said, the place that fostered the most of this were extreme fundamentalist churches.


Leslie:  I have seen a number of situations like that.  I could go story after story after story so that’s why I felt it was so important for me to clarify all these things with biblical terms.  Because I want people who are strong believers, who are committed Christians, who are godly people who want to do what God wants them to do, that God has a plan for them, and he has a way for them to deal with this in a biblical way. 

Headship—I just want to define this really clearly—is not just getting your own way, which is oftentimes what men who claim headship scripture passages, “This means I get to make all the decisions.  This means I get to do what I want to do and you have no right to contradict that.”  That’s not what headship is biblically.  Headship is a loving sacrificial service of the other person, and you get to do that first as the head. 

Submission is never something you can make someone do.  Submission—godly submission—is done by the person who is doing the submitting and they do it willingly.  So as soon as someone forces someone to submit, it’s not biblical submission.  It’s called coercion, manipulation, force or rape sometimes.  So it’s not those terms.


Bob:  Yes, I have to tell you a story; I think I’ve shared this on FamilyLife Today.  But, I’ll never forget it.  I was driving along with a friend of mine; he was in his first year of marriage.  I just said, “How are things going with you and Cathy?”  He said, “Oh, we’re doing all right.” 

He said, “She’s just not really submitting to me the way she ought to.”  I said, “Well, that’s interesting what makes you think she’s supposed to?”  He looked at me like, “Well you know the Bible.  You’ve read the Bible.”  I said, “Yes, there’s one in the glove compartment.  Get it out.”

So he got it out and turned to Ephesians chapter five and I said, “So, what does it say there?”  He said, “Right here, it says ‘Wives submit…’”  I said, “Stop, what’s the first word there?”  “Wives.”  I said, “Are you a wife?”  He said, “No.”  I said, “OK, move on, that verse isn’t for you then.  You go onto the one that says ‘husbands’ and read that part.”

My point—he laughed, he knew what I was trying to say—my point is it’s not your job if you’re a wife to get your husband to lead, or if you’re a husband to get your wife to submit.  It’s your responsibility to do what God’s called you to do.


Dennis:  Leslie, let’s say right now, there is a woman who is listening to this broadcast and she’s all of a sudden moved very close to the radio, or to her iPod or her computer.  And she’s going, I think I’m in a relationship where I’m being abused by a husband who is overreaching his authority and he’s abusing me with it.  How do you stop that?


Leslie:  Well, the beginning of change in a destructive relationship starts with you.  You have to begin to identify and own your problem.  You might say, “That’s not my problem that he’s acting that way.”  But when you’re a repeated victim of someone, you have to begin to ask yourself what’s your part?  It might just be that you’re not educated or you’re too passive, or you’ve believed the wrong things.  There’s something about that that’s kept you in that destructive dance.  You’re afraid…  So when you begin to identify your part, then you can begin to make a change, because you can’t change another person, you can only start by changing yourself. 


Dennis:  I want to speak to that for a second, because I’m thinking of a relationship that I endured for the better part of two decades.  What you just described was me.  Now, here I am, I know the Bible.  I’ve written books about relationships, I teach about relationships but I was in a relationship—not a close one, that was like my wife or my children, or immediate family—but I was in a relationship that was not healthy.  I really did keep on allowing that to occur.  So I’ve been there.  It’s interesting how we can continue to walk into this thing and be abused over and over and over again.  It’s almost like sheep to the slaughter.


Bob:  You tell the story in your book about a woman you identify as Cynthia who came to you who was at this end point in her relationship with her husband.  And you had to coach her through how to stop it.  Right?


Leslie:  I had to coach her through how to stop it and she represents so many other women that I talk with.  She wanted to come to counseling for me to somehow give her some magic bullet that would help her to change her husband.  I had to help her to understand that I didn’t have that magic bullet; all I could do was help her to stop herself from putting up with this kind of relationship.  She was afraid to do that.  But she couldn’t begin to change it until she was willing to look at herself first.


Bob:  What was going on in her relationship with her husband?


Leslie:  Well, her husband was continually deceitful; he had committed a number of affairs.  He had no real remorse for them.  He was indifferent to their relationship, she had to do all the work, all the care of the children, manage all the finances, and he kind of just lived as a single person but with the perks of married life.

Bob:  So she comes and says, “How do I fix this?  How do I fix him?”


Leslie:  “God wants us to have a good relationship, and I know that God hates divorce, and I really want this marriage to work, and how can I get him to change, and how can I get him to tell the truth?  How can I get him to love me?”  All the kind of things that every woman longs for.  But you can’t make someone love you.  You can’t make someone be honest.  You can’t make someone change.


Bob:  So what did you tell her to do?


Leslie:  So I told her “Cynthia, change begins with you, so the question you need to begin to ask yourself is ‘Why are you willing to live with a man who treats you this way?’”  And she said, “I don’t know.  Because I think God wants me to.  I’m supposed to stay here.”  It was very difficult for her to begin to look at what her part of it was.  Loving someone isn’t just allowing them to continue to sin against you with no protest.  Loving them well—biblically means that you begin to speak the truth in love into their life. 

It might mean hard words—it doesn’t need to be harsh words.  I coach people through the book on how to speak up the first step of learning to end this destructive dance, is that you need to begin to speak up, you need to begin to say, “this isn’t acceptable. This hurts me.  This is destructive to our relationship.  This is destructive to you and we need to get help to turn this relationship around.  Are you willing?’


Dennis:  Yes, and it’s interesting as we look at the bible, we know we’re commanded to love our enemies.  I think sometimes, and this is what happened in my twenty-year-long relationship, I was doing my best to model to this other person what Christian love was all about.  But as it became clear that I was being manipulated, taken advantage of, and really abused, I realized that there was a time that I had draw a line in the sand and say, “No more.  You’re not going to do that to me anymore.”


Bob:  You’re saying to the other person, “I’m not going to let you do this because it’s not right for you, as well as being hurtful to me.  It’s not loving to you to let you continue in that pattern.”


Dennis:  Right and the key thing was, I had a choice to be able to draw that line in the sand, and then I had to, as you said earlier, Bob, “buck up.”  I had to stand up and be courageous to stick to it, and not keep walking into an abusive situation to be take advantage of.  In my situation, the way I handled it, was I took a friend with me.  I took a partner who went with me into the relationship and in the process helped me stay on the right side of the line in the sand.


Leslie:  I think it would be really helpful right now to talk about what is a healthy relationship.  The difference between a healthy relationship or a destructive relationship is one in which there’s mutual caring, mutual honesty, and mutual respect. 

If we just talk about respect, one of the things that I’ve found in a relationship that’s been destructive in my life is that this person, whenever I say no, there’s this manipulative guilt that comes in.  There’s these boundary pushings.  I’m not allowed to say no.  I’m not allowed to have boundaries or I’m a bad person. 

So it doesn’t lend to a healthy relationship.  The operative word here in mutual caring, mutual honest and mutual respect is “mutual.” 

So, we can have ministry to certain people, who may have needs and God calls us to minister to our enemies.  But, don’t confuse that with healthy relationship, and that’s what you begin to say.  “I can’t have a healthy relationship with this person.  I may be able to minister to them here and there, but I can’t have this relationship.”


Dennis:  I think what you just summarized there is very important because, that was the conclusion I came to.  Number one, I was kidding myself to think I could have healthy relationship with someone where there couldn’t be any mutual love and respect.


Leslie:  Right.


Dennis:  It wasn’t happening.


Leslie:  They wanted you to care for them but they weren’t caring for you.  Right?


Dennis:  Exactly.  But secondly I had to come to the conclusion that I couldn’t have a relationship at all.  Now, it’s one thing, Leslie, if the person I’m relating to is miles away and I’m not in marriage with them.  But speak to the person right now, who’s married to the person who, first they realize they can’t have a healthy relationship and secondly they’re not even sure they can achieve a real relationship with them.


Leslie:  That is the dilemma and you can make a marriage better all by yourself.  You cannot make a marriage work or a marriage good all by yourself.  It takes mutual effort, mutual caring, mutual honesty, and mutual respect. 

So, I think sometimes the burden of making a marriage good has been put on someone’s shoulders as their sole responsibility and they’ve taken it, and it’s not possible.  So, I think one of the things we need to do is just help people understand what it takes to have a good healthy relationship.  If someone is in that situation though, especially in a marriage, what I coach them to do is, if they begin to get healthier, then they can begin to invite their partner into healthy change. 

Because, when you’re in a marriage, you’re sort of like dancing with somebody.  When you’re dancing with someone, and it’s fine with them that they’re stepping on your toes, and they’re kicking you in the shins, but it’s not fine with you, you need to begin to speak up and say, “This hurts me, I don’t like this.” 

And, oftentimes, if you’ve never done that before, and you’ve been in a destructive relationship, if the other person cares about you, they will begin to hear you.  Sometimes they don’t, and you need to up the ante.  That’s when you begin to stand up and say, I can’t allow myself to be treated this way anymore.


Dennis:  You know, it’s really interesting, I’ve now lived enough life that I still have a lot of idealism, but it’s been edited by reality. 


Leslie:  Yes, me too.

Dennis:  Relationships are probably the number one editor of reality in my life.  It doesn’t mean we should lose our hope.  And it doesn’t mean we should revert to fleshly ways of dealing with relationships.  In fact as you were talking, I was thinking about a passage in Romans 12 that says, “Never be conceited, repay no one evil for evil.  But give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.”  Then it adds something that you alluded to a little earlier.  “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”  It goes on to say, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves; leave room for the wrath of God.” 

I think sometimes we lose sight of who God is in these relationships.  It may be at points that we need to take a step back and pray for the person who is abusing us.  And pray that God will not necessarily get even, but get his attention, or get her attention, and begin to take a step back and get healthy in your relationship with that other person.  Because, if you don’t, you’re going to keep on walking in there as I described how I did it for 20 years, and you’re going to keep on getting hurt.  You’re going to leave that relationship going, “Man how can I do a better job of loving?  How can I help this person come to a faith in Christ?”  It’s not all dependent on you.


Bob:  Well, and as we’ve said here, it’s in part about getting help for yourself, for your own physical or emotional safety.  But it’s also about how can I boldly love another person.  Sometimes the boldest way to love is to say, “No.  No more.”


Dennis:  Is to bow up, look them in the eye, or write a letter, or draw that line in the sand, and say, “That kind of treatment of me is not going to happen.” 


Bob:  Yes.  That’s what loving confrontation, which the Bible talks about, speaking the truth in love to another person, that’s what it ought to look like.  It’s what you outline for folks in your book, The Emotionally Destructive Relationship: Seeing it, stopping it and surviving it.  We’ve got copies of the book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center.  I want to encourage our listeners.  If what you’ve heard today sounds familiar, go online to get a copy of the book The Emotionally Destructive Relationship. 

Our website,, you can order online from us if you’d like.  Or call 1-800-FLTODAY, 1-800-358-6329, that’s 1-800 F as in “family” L as in “life” and then the word TODAY.  Ask about Leslie’s book and we’ll make arrangements to get a copy sent out to you.

I want to say a word of thanks, if I can to those listeners who by their support of the ministry of FamilyLife Today, make it possible for us to tackle subjects like this here on FamilyLife Today, and to try to provide hope and help for folks who are in very difficult relational situations. 

We are listener supported.  As a ministry almost two-thirds of the revenue that we receive comes from donations from folks like you.  So obviously without those donations, we wouldn’t be on this radio station.  There’s a lot that would get shut down, and we appreciate those of you who do stand with us and help support us with your donations.

This month, if you’re able to help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today with a donation of any amount, we’d like to send you as a thank you gift, two copies of the brand new, recently revised and updated HomeBuilders® study guides on Building Your Marriage to Last

These are study guides the two of you can go through as a couple, or you can use it in a small group setting with other couples.  When you make your donation online at, if you’d like to receive the HomeBuilders® study guides on Building Your Marriage to Last,just type the word “BUILD” in the key code box that you find on the online donation form. 

Or call, 1-800-FLTODAY, then make your donation over the phone and just ask for a copy of the study guides we talked about on the radio.  We’re happy to send those out to you, and we do appreciate your partnership with here in the ministry of FamilyLife Today

Tomorrow Leslie Vernick is going to be back with us, and I think our listeners are going to be encouraged by some of what you have to share about your relationship with your mom.  But we’ve got a lot more to talk about as it relates to emotionally destructive relationships.

I want to thank our engineer today Keith Lynch and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, 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. 

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