When to Limit a Relationship With a Toxic ParentI am a Christian and Christians are supposed to have perfect families. However, I don’t. Of course, that first statement is not true but sometimes we feel like it is. In my imperfect family, I had to figure out when to limit a relationship with a toxic parent – my Mother.

I know that there are others like me who have had to make similar decisions whether it is with a parent, a sibling or another family member. I share because I believe it’s important to talk about the areas of our lives we cannot always fix. As an adult, setting absolute boundaries with your parent is hard to do. We all want a perfect family – the one where everyone gets along and loves each other. However, when that doesn’t happen, the disappointment is real.

The pressure for perfection is not isolated to the world, it deeply affects Christians. We are supposed to have perfect families because we are people of faith who claim to be made new in Christ. Right? Actually, that’s not right, but it is the myth that floats in the air all around us. It is the lie whispered to us by the world and our enemy. The screaming whisper – ‘If you and your Christian family aren’t perfect, then you are a hypocritical liar.’

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Wondering When to Limit a Relationship With a Toxic Parent

For years, I struggled with how to manage the relationship with my Mother. As a child, I had no idea that she was a Narcissist. I only knew that she could never be pleased and was a cruel parent. It is only in the last few years that I realized the depth of her problems and how it has affected my entire life!

My Mother became an alcoholic after separating from my Father when I was 11. My life changed dramatically for the worse. After several years, I ran away and ended up living with my Father. I did not see or communicate with my Mother for many years – it was a mutual choice.

After I had children and accepted Christ, I knew that I did not want my children to be exposed to her lifestyle at that time. She did not want to be part of our lives anyway, which made it all easier. With one exception – now that I was a Christian, I carried guilt because I thought I was supposed to be able to fix this and have a wonderful, loving relationship with my Mother. How do you know when to limit a relationship with a toxic parent?

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Christian Guilt

Christian guilt is a heavy burden. It’s heavy because we aren’t supposed to be carrying it around! Jesus said His yoke was easy and His burden was light (Matthew 11:30)! But, Christian culture and the pressure of the world’s view of Christians, combine to make us believe that screaming whisper I mentioned before. Guilt can make it almost impossible to deal with toxic situations. But, the Holy Spirit is our guide and He will tell us when and help us with the ‘how’ as well,

Later in her life, my Mother accepted Christ as her Savior, stopped drinking and wanted a relationship. So, very slowly, we reintroduced ourselves to each other. She lived out-of-state and our visits were limited. At one point, she left her husband and came to live with us for a few months. She told us he had held a gun to her head and was physically abusive, so we welcomed her in (only to find out later that this was also a lie). After 3 months, we started to urge her to get a job and find a place to live. Instead, she went back to him. Our infrequent visits continued.

False Hope

A few more years passed, her husband died, and in 2005, she decided she needed to move to where I live and be closer to family since her health was failing. We all went down to help her pack everything she owned and drove trucks and cars back home.

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The first couple of years were wonderful. For the first time in my life, I believed I had a normal relationship with my Mother. She used to tell me all kinds of negative and terrible things about almost everyone in the family, including her own parents – with the exception of me and my children. She made comments about my husband that I tried to just ignore. I believed most of what she said because I had no reason to disbelieve.

Manipulation and Lies

Slowly, her conversations became more demanding and derogatory, sometimes hate-filled toward others. Then, I began catching her in lies. Some I tried to ignore or put off as her simply growing older. However, she began to direct her hate toward her own siblings. I have an Aunt who is only 5 years older than I am and we are good friends. She helped my Mother and had done many extremely nice things for her – paying off a dental bill, buying a television, and more. But my Mom began trying to get me to turn against her. The manipulation had always been there but now it was intense and ugly.

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Slowly, my eyes were opening. When my husband died, she said more things about him that caused me to draw a line with her, making her very angry. Previously, she had been able to manipulate me and now I wouldn’t let her. Then her hatred of everyone else grew stronger as did the lies I caught her in. I had to draw another boundary line and told her that if she spoke negatively about her sister or her neighbor, I would leave or hang up on her if we were talking on the phone.

One day, she began screaming at me over the phone about my Aunt, and I hung up. This infuriated her and, since that day almost two years ago, I have only seen her twice. This was by her choice. She called to let me know she had changed her phone number and would not give it to me so I couldn’t call her and made it clear that I didn’t need to come see her.

The Truth Can Be Painful

Throughout this process, my Aunt, one Uncle and I began discussing things my Mother had told all three of us about other family members and friends over many years of our lives. We discovered she had been lying since she was very young. After comparing what she had told each of us separately, I realized that there was almost nothing my Mother had told me which was the truth. My Aunt and Uncle found the same thing. Almost all of what she has said over the years has been untrue.

The horrible things she has said about each of our deceased spouses made it clear that our contact with her would be quite limited. We saw how she had twisted our words and manipulated each of us altering our family relationships, most of which could not be fixed because those family members were gone.

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Discovering a Narcissist

I am not sharing these things lightly, nor am I trying to discredit my Mother in any way. However, as I said at the beginning, others live with similar issues and need to know that we can cope and have peace.

My Mother, as I have realized, is a Narcissist. I don’t say it to be cruel. In addition, I don’t feel guilty anymore about that or my lack of relationship with my Mother. It does make me sad but I have had to stick with my boundaries. Because she can no longer manipulate me, she has no further use for me. Unfortunately, this is typical of Narcissists. Typical can be quite painful.

Setting Boundaries

My Mother has always been a victim, which is also a Narcissistic trait. In fact, she made a statement to me one day that I chose not to respond to. She said, “I just don’t understand it. For my whole life, no matter where I lived I have had a neighbor who harasses me and tries to kill me.” This was sparked by her current neighbor with whom she has screaming fights out on the sidewalk. They constantly call the Police on each other! I wanted to say that the common denominator was her but refrained. What I now know, is that, to her, this is the truth. She believes she is always the victim and nothing I say can change it.

I have come to have peace about it at last. I have also stopped carrying Christian guilt about it. Unless you are the cause of division in your family, there is no reason for any type of guilt.

Boundaries Are Necessary in Toxic Relationships

My Mother’s problems are her own and I cannot fix them or make up for them in any way. The boundaries I have set are necessary. I love my Mother and I pray for her. If she needed me, I would be there to help her. I check on her with people who see her occasionally – like our hairdresser! However, I do not have to be verbally abused or manipulated by her.

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What I learned about my Mother helped me to understand many of the things I had struggled with for so long – fear, is a big one. I never considered myself to be a victim and still do not. When I ran an outreach to victims of domestic violence and other crimes, I learned all about the characteristics of abusers. Then, as all of this came to light, I realized that my Mother fit those characteristics. I still know I am not a victim but I could see the effects in my life.

As everything began to fall into place for me in regard to my Mother, I knew I had to start speaking out and saying no. It wasn’t easy. She’s my Mother and I want to respect her. Sometimes respect and love are shown through boundaries.

Refuse to Live with Guilt

My Mother is very functional and people on the outside of her life see a lovely and sweet little old lady. I would never tell them differently because she can be wonderful at times. There is something broken inside of her that causes her to hate, manipulate, lie, and believe her own lies. Now, at age 88, she is alone except for one neighbor who takes her shopping. She has driven off all who tried to be her friend or help her, and she has driven off her own family. I am sad for her but maintain my boundaries.

If your family is broken, do not carry guilt. It isn’t your fault and you may not be able to ever do anything about it. You must, however, follow Jesus’ command to love one another. Loving someone does not mean allowing them to be abusive to you or your family in any way. If there is a genuine opportunity to mend the break, that is wonderful. However, if not, then live your best life and let others do so as well.

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Getting Through the Holidays in a Broken Family

The holiday season is often a very stressful time for broken families, and can also be guilt-inducing. After all, if you’re a Christian, you think you should be above all those feelings of frustration, hurt, or outright anger. The thing with emotions is this – you are going to feel them. The key is that either you control them or you allow them to control you. That is the choice you have to make.

It might hurt that your brother snubs you or makes cutting remarks to you at Thanksgiving. What will you do with that hurt? Will you feel sorry for yourself and allow anger to grow inside? Or, will you take the emotion captive, along with the negative thoughts, and forgive? Then, maintain your love for the person and pray for them.

‘We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.’ 2 Corinthians 10:5 NIV

Knowing When It is Time

Of course, we must take those thoughts and emotions captive. We may also need to do more. It is fully acceptable to create and maintain boundaries with certain people whether they are family or not. When your family is toxic, this exactly what you may need to do. There is a difference between a toxic family member and an irritating one. You know the difference and you will also know when to end or limit a relationship with a toxic family member or parent.

I knew when it was time. My Mother actually did me a favor by cutting off the relationship in a more formal way. I had already started setting the boundaries, but she simply stopped trying to cross them once she saw that I was firmly maintaining them. That is a big key. If the person sees that they can continue to manipulate and hurt you, they will. You are the one who has to set and maintain the uncrossable boundary. You have to know when to limit a relationship with a toxic parent or anyone else. Once you know, you have to follow through. It’s hard but you can do it.

Beginning to Set Boundaries

  • Depending on the situation, you may be able to start small as I did. I limited one subject only, my late husband.
  • You will need to stand firm no matter what the reaction is.
  • If things do not improve, you may need to expand those boundaries. Narcissists don’t give up. So, I had to expand the boundaries of what I would and would not listen to or be dragged into by my Mother.
  • You will have to counter the accusations against yourself when you fail to comply.
  • You must continue to love, not hate.

Jesus Set Boundaries

I can’t tell you how or when to do this. It is a matter of prayer for each person. I simply want you to know that, if it is necessary, you do not have to feel guilty about it. You do need to deal correctly with the emotions that may arise from this action. We are to honor others, which is love, but we can set boundaries. Jesus did.

  • When He saw the tax collectors in the temple – He made a whip and ran them out of there! He didn’t pat them on the back and ask them politely to leave. He flipped their tables over and told them to go with a whip in hand. John 2:13-17
  • Jesus also told his disciples this, “And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” Mark 6:11 NIV
  • Paul and Barnabas got into a very public argument and parted ways. Acts 15:36-39

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Love Can Set Boundaries

The fact is that there are circumstances in which separation is the best and most loving choice. Love does not mean you become a doormat. Sometimes love must correct and if correction is not possible, then we set a loving boundary with the person who is harming us and/or our families.

Check your own motives:

  1. Are you simply holding on to unforgiveness and too proud to admit you are wrong?
  2. Are your thoughts toward this person filled with hate or bitterness?
  3. Have you spoken with that person about what’s happening and tried to reconcile?
  4. Is it getting worse?
  5. What effect is it having on you and others?
  6. Can you pray, forgive, take those thoughts captive, and repent?

Boundaries – the Book

Next, I would highly recommend a book called Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life.

Don’t allow guilt to keep you in a situation which does harm and brings no benefit to anyone.

  • Don’t let guilt cause you to enable someone to continue in their abusive patterns.
  • Control what you can. You can’t change the other person.
  • It is the job of the Holy Spirit to convict (John16:6-15).
  • Your love may not be what changes them.
  • Continuing to accept their abuse definitely will not change them.
  • Get out of the way and let the Holy Spirit do His work of love.

Paul knew about setting boundaries

Rather, you are filled with grief because I have said these things. But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because people do not believe in me;  about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer;  and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned. John 16:6-11 NIV

Scriptures about setting boundaries

‘Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them” Titus 3:19 NIV 

“Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while—yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us.”  2 Corinthians 7:8-9 NIV   

“Do not make friends with a hot-tempered person, do not associate with one easily angered,” Proverbs 22:24

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I want to encourage you as you find your way through this difficult part of life. God completely understands so remember:

  1. You are not a martyr being harmed because of your faith so don’t take up that mantle.
  2. Setting boundaries is a loving act. You can love someone and still set firm boundaries for yourself.
  3. You are not telling them what to do. Instead, you are telling them what you will NOT do.
  4. Boundaries are personal. You are not telling anyone else how to deal with this person.
  5. Practice loving and sincerely praying for the person’s best interests and for them to be free of whatever is causing their behavior.
  6. Put away guilt and self-pity.
  7. The Holy Spirit is the best person for the job of changing hearts!

I maintain hope that my Mother will find her way out of this darkness and I will maintain my boundaries until then.

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Fleda Bennie