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Keys to Discerning Emotionally Safe Relationships

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By Dr. Lisa Steiner

Throughout my almost two decades of practicing as a professional counselor, I have encountered countless fellow believers who have been painfully wounded in relationships. Often, there is little understanding of what went wrong or what can be done differently. In this article, I hope to shed light on this topic.

God’s Word reminds us that He designed us to be in relationships, first with Him, and then with others. Jesus identified the two greatest commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and then, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37,39, NKJV).

The first commandment pertains to our vertical relationship with God; He is to be our “first love” (Revelation 2:4). Many believers have the vertical relationship intact; However, their horizontal ones have led to heartache. Notice that Jesus did not say to love others more than yourself. Instead, He said “as yourself,” meaning it needs to be centered in Christ.

I have observed two key factors leading to unhealthy relationships. The first comes from not loving oneself enough − low self-esteem. This often results in unwise friendship choices. The best way to improve self-esteem is to meditate daily on Bible verses that remind us of what God says about us; They are known as the “I am,” “I can,” and “I will” Scriptures.

An easy way to find “I am” Scriptures is through an online search (e.g., https://celebrationcity.net/wp-content/uploads/celebration_city/i_am.pdf). From such handouts, we can meditate on truths, such as, I am a child of God (Romans 8:16), redeemed from the hand of the enemy (Psalms 107:2), forgiven (Colossians 1:13-14), saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8), justified (Romans 5:1), sanctified (1 Corinthians 6:11), a new creature (2 Corinthians 5:17), and delivered from the powers of darkness (Colossians 1:13).  One of the key “I can” Scriptures is “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). Lastly, the “I will” Scriptures include: “I will both lie down in peace, and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8), and “I will fear no evil” (Psalm 23:4).

The second factor in unhealthy relationships is overlooking what Jesus modeled for us in His relationships. He had an inner circle (Peter, James, and John), a next tier (the other nine disciples), and then outer circle − everyone else. Jesus revealed the most about Himself and spent the greatest time with His inner circle; moderate time with His middle tier; and limited time, if any, with His outer circle. For example, who was led up to the mountain where Jesus would be transfigured (Matthew 17:1-2)? It was His inner circle: Peter, James, and John. Who, in the Garden of Gethsemane, did Jesus separate from the rest, expecting them to pray for Him (Matthew 26:37)? His inner circle.

Jesus’ middle tier included the other nine disciples, and He spent a moderate amount of time with them. Lastly, He spent nominal time with everyone else. What’s interesting is that one in His inner circle (Peter) denied Him, and one in his middle tier (Judas) betrayed Him. Therefore, we should not think it strange when this happens to us.

As we consider how Jesus modeled these relationship circles, I encourage Christians to be intentional with whom and how many they allow in their inner circles. We should fill them with only emotionally safe people. In their book, Safe People, two Christian psychologists (Cloud & Townsend, 1995) describe the key qualities of emotionally safe people, including:

  • Keep secrets vs. gossip
  • Relate as equals vs. stay in parent/child roles
  • Earn trust vs. demand it
  • Positive influence on us vs. negative
  • Consistent vs. unstable
  • Admit their faults vs. believe they are perfect
  • Open to feedback vs. defensive
  • Change their behavior vs. just apologize
  • Spiritual vs. religious
  • Humble vs. self-righteous
  • Take responsibility vs. blame
  • Growing vs. stagnant
  • Tell the truth vs. lie
  • Deal with their problems vs. avoid working on them

If your inner circle is filled with emotionally unsafe people, then it is time to set firm boundaries and intentionally restructure it. Be cautious with whom you share your deepest thoughts and spend the most time.

In summary, close and fulfilling friendship can bring tremendous joy and lighten the load of everyday life. Yet, having unhealthy inner circle relationships can lead to the most painful of human experiences. I hope the tips above help.

Dr. Lisa Steiner, Ph.D., LPC, LMHC, is the Leader of Wellsprings Counseling Center, LLC.