Learning to Love in a Toxic Relationship
Written By Lynn Lambert, USA
It was my worst nightmare. The phone call that my mom was in jail and I needed to bail her out. There had been an intense argument between her and her husband. Deep down I knew she was probably the root cause. As far back as I could remember, most of my childhood memories were of my mother yelling. It didn’t matter if it was my dad or later, my stepdad—she would pick fights constantly.
So when I got the call about the fight that led to her arrest, I knew she wasn’t completely innocent. On the ride home, the jabs started right away. “I didn’t do anything wrong! I was wrongly accused! You should be supporting me!” As if making bail and allowing her to stay with me wasn’t enough, I needed to take sides. But it would never be enough.
I didn’t know how to love my mother, much less lovingly support her as I bailed her out of jail and brought her home to live with me. I’d never felt a close mother-daughter relationship with her; I was always scared of her and had developed resentment and bitterness toward her after my childhood. Nevertheless, I felt that I had to help her because she is my mother.
Love without Fear
“This is exactly what I’m talking about! Can you believe her?” I told my husband after her verbal attack on the ride home.
I truly believe that God was speaking to me through what my husband said next: “Just be nice to her; she needs us right now.” At first, those words infuriated me. But looking back, they were the best thing. Had my husband “supported” me in my anger toward my mom, it would have only fed my negativity. He was able to see the situation with a supernatural love that can only come from God. This is where it began—God planted a desire in me to love someone whom I thought was unlovable. As 1 John 4:19 says, “We love because he first loved us.”
My mom shortly returned to her own home, and I tried having a relationship in any way I knew how. But at the time, part of me wanted to earn my way to normal treatment from her, and I feared that if I didn’t give her a good enough Mother’s Day gift, or meet some other unknown expectation, she’d call me in the middle of the night yelling that I didn’t care enough. I felt like I needed to work hard to keep things even-keeled.
But God began to show me that’s not love. Love isn’t earned. Love is freely given. Just as we cannot earn love and salvation from God (Ephesians 2:8).
Though there was never any apology or open resolution, and although I still had intense fears of midnight phone calls from her, I knew I needed to pray for her and find a way to love her instead of work for her approval. I began to pray that God would work in her life, and for God to heal her mental health issues, alcoholism, and even potential past abuse in her own life. I thanked God for our relationship, and asked for help to build it stronger.
Over time, our relationship began to improve. It began to feel more natural to give her Mother’s Day cards and celebrate holidays with her. She has a good relationship with my son, and that has helped to bond us closer. As God showed me how I was letting fear define my relationship with my mom, He also began revealing scripture to me about overcoming fear. I saw myself actually caring about my mother on a deeper level—for healing and for the ability to help her however God willed. As the Bible says in 1 John 4:18, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear. . .” God taught me to overcome the fears I had that were keeping me at arm’s length.
Love with Healthy Boundaries
Unfortunately, after all the progress that was made (in my mind at least), there was another explosive, abusive incident between my mother and I. The next day, my efforts to calmly discuss our explosive phone call were ignored. Yet again, my husband offered his calm, kind words of advice: “You have tried, and I wouldn’t go any further.”
I knew that he was right. In the week that followed, I battled panic and anxiety, and processed a mountain of emotion. I saw myself breaking down in simple conversations as a result of the emotional wear from my mother. It was then that I realized this was not okay. My focus on my mother’s reaction was not healthy, and it was now poisoning my relationships with others.
With God’s strength, I offered the best resolution possible, but accepted that I could not control what my mother did with it. Sometimes, God’s love looks a little different—Jesus even told His disciples to “shake the dust” when they were rejected while working to spread the gospel (Matthew 10:14). Likewise, if I use up all my energy on someone who only abuses me, I’ll continue to grow weary, and it’ll break me down, leaving me too exhausted to keep laboring in love for others in my life.
My love for my mother still exists behind the boundaries I set in place—such as limited contact only as it directly relates to her visiting my son, and the preset boundary of further limiting contact if communication continues to be abusive. This has allowed me time to process the emotional healing needed after a lifetime of our toxic relationship.
My anxiety that existed due to our relationship has lessened, and I have been able to focus more on healthy relationships with my husband and son. My love for my mother is now more of a nuanced love, rather than an active one. It is maintaining peace by not using harsh words, which provoke anger (Proverbs 15:1). Rather than speaking loving words to her directly, I often speak those words through prayers that God would work in her life.
Just as God allows each of us to have free will to make our own choices, we cannot control what people do with the love we give them. But we can continue to look to God to teach us how to love without fear. Let us pray for wisdom to love well in different seasons, and ultimately, we hope that by loving people who need it the most, they will see the love of Christ through us, and turn to Him for healing.
I have a toxic relationship with my mom. Unfortunately, I still live with her now in her house. I have no house, no job, no money to survive since i was diagnosed with PTSD and quit my job for some times. I am exhausted.
Hi Dhianty, I am no bible expert and I don’t have all the answers but I’m going to ask you to look to God’s word for the answer. He wants to know how you feel (1Pet 5:7) (1Thess5:17). I’ll be praying for you.
I am sorry to hear! I pray you are able to find a solution that is free from the toxicity.