The increased conflict of recent years has put many of us on edge. I’ve seen friendships implode over hurtful words and differing opinions. I’ve watched marriages bend under the weight of mental health challenges and family drama.
When you’re in survival mode, dealing with difficult people can feel like the tipping point. The popular idea of “cutting people out” of your life is tempting when you’re just trying to make it through the week.
Before you throw in the towel, here are 5 things to keep in mind when relating to difficult people.
#1 – Recognize the difference between difficult and abusive.
The words “toxic” and “triggered” are tossed around a lot on social media. These clinical terms are often misused to generically refer to difficult people and circumstances.
But difficult and abusive are not the same thing.
A difficult relationship is one that is overwhelming, emotionally exhausting, or unequally balanced at times. Where people mean well but may not know how to relate to others in a healthy way.
Abusive relationships are different. In these relationships, one person exhibits a pattern of violent, cruel, humiliating, berating, and/or neglectful behavior for the purpose of control. Attempts are made to frighten, manipulate, and isolate you from others.
How you respond depends on what kind of relationship it is. If you are in an abusive relationship, your safety and well-being matters. Please call the national hotline so you can receive the help and support you need.
The following tips are intended for difficult relationships only.
#2 – Reflect on why they are difficult for you.
When relationships are turbulent, it’s easy to believe the other person is to blame. We may notice the flaws of others and assume if they would change, then things would improve.
But difficult relationships are often caused by unhealthy dynamics, not bad people. And dynamics are created by two people, not one.
Which begs the question – why is someone difficult for you? Because the truth is that not everyone finds the same person difficult. We experience people differently because we are different people.
Answering this question helps shift the focus from them to you. Becoming aware of the dynamics that bother you will reveal what you value most, and the life rules you operate by. Reflecting on your part in the dynamic sheds light on the challenges you face and provides opportunities for growth.
#3 – Understand your role and responsibility.
Relational dynamics develop from a variety of factors including childhood experiences, personal worldview, stress tolerance, mental health, and coping methods. What may feel familiar can still be harmful and unhealthy.
It took me years to realize that my difficult relationships reflected poor boundaries. I put up with mistreatment because I thought that was the loving thing to do. But Jesus never condoned sin – he confronted it because that was loving.
Your role is not to save, fix, or change others. Rather, you are responsible for your own well-being and behavior. This means knowing what’s okay and not okay for you. People often treat you the way you allow yourself to be treated. Boundaries are rules and limits you can set for yourself in relationships.
God’s Word provides guidelines for addressing sin and mistreatment. You can’t change others, but you can give feedback on how their sinful behavior is affecting you. You can be honest and direct with humility and grace (Eph 4:15).
If we reject God’s way of dealing with hurt, the alternative is to respond to sin with more sin – whether that’s gossiping, ghosting, nursing a grudge, retaliating, avoiding, hurling sarcasm, etc. But this path only leads to more hurt and heartache (Gal 5:15).
#4 – Know when it’s time to walk away, even if it’s only temporary.
As far as it depends on us, we are to work hard to be at peace with others – even the most difficult ones (Rom 12:18). The key phrase is as far as it depends on you. Once again, God doesn’t ask us to change others but only to control ourselves (2 Tim 1:7).
After we’ve exhausted all options, the Bible gives us permission to walk away.
But this should be our last resort, not the first inclination.
The trend to cut someone out of your life at the first sign of difficulty is gaining popularity. We block, unfollow, or ghost people because we “just don’t need that kind of toxic influence” in our lives.
Yet if we desire to follow Christ, our relationships also need to reflect Him. God doesn’t abandon us after multiple offenses; He is in it for the long haul. If Jesus died for His enemies, may we not give up so easily on those He loves and who are also part of God’s family (Rom 5:8).
But sometimes that’s not always possible.
For healing to happen, both people must acknowledge their part and move toward one another. Building a relationship of trust and safety is challenging if one person refuses to admit any wrong done, lacks empathy over the hurt they caused, or continues to harm.
The Apostle Paul clearly outlines this in 1 Corinthians 5 when, after attempts to reconcile and lovingly confront sin, the person refuses to repent and move toward change. Paul responds by cutting ties so that the person will reap the consequences of their own stubborn ways. Yet in doing so, Paul’s ultimate hope and prayer is for future reconciliation, praying that the Lord will use the consequences of sin to bring that person back to repentance and community. At any point, like the father of the prodigal son, his arms are open wide for the return.
#5 – Choose forgiveness
Reconciliation may require two parties, but forgiveness only takes one.
When you forgive, it means you release another person from the debt they owe you. In other words, you choose not to retaliate, get even, or make them pay.
This is not the same thing as letting them “off the hook” or saying their behavior was okay.
Neither of these things reflect God’s forgiveness toward us. God did not forgive lightly – our sin cost Him something. When you forgive, you are not condoning sin but rather saying, “I was wronged and hurt; I trust that God will give me justice in whatever way He sees fit and at the same time I depend on Him to comfort me and use this injustice for my benefit in some way” (Rom 12:14-21, Rom 8:28, Matt 6:14).
Forgiveness also plays a protective role within your own soul. It prevents the self-toxin of bitterness. Unforgiveness opens the door to resentment, hatred, continued conflict, and a hardening of your own heart (Heb 12:15).
If relationships are one of God’s primary tools for sanctification, then how we deal with difficult people matters. God will use challenging relationships to heal and shape us – if we let Him.
Instead of writing people off, may we see difficulties as an opportunity for personal and spiritual growth. If we are willing to put in the honest, hard work that relationships require, we’ll often reap a connection that’s mature, mutually beneficial, and lasts a lifetime.
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*This article first appeared on the AAC Women’s Blog.