Reflection: Obstacle Courses


So, in honor of the 12 Days of Christmas, and the behaviors we often exhibit and encounter in our families and communities, I’m continuing my exploration of toxic behaviors from an article called “Toxic People: 12 Things They Do and How to Deal With Them.” (, by Australian psychologist Karen Young.

Today I want to talk about relationship tests: The toxic practice of making you prove yourself.

Toxic people, Young says, will “regularly put you in a position where you have to choose between them and something else – and you’ll always feel obliged to choose them.”

This poison may be especially familiar if you were raised in a culture of guilt. It may be a faith culture. It may be an ethnic culture. Or it may just be that you grew up with parents with their own fears of abandonment, who instilled in you a strong sense of obligation. They took care of you as children. You need to take care of them as adults. But they don’t even mean as elderly adults in need of support. They mean as vibrant healthy adults who just don’t want you to leave. They may insist you to stay close to home. They may expect you to join the family business. They may want to choose your career, your mate, or your life for you.

Plenty of parents leverage the specter of their eventual death long before it comes. “You never know how much time I have left.” And that is true for every one of us. That is why we need to reconcile conflicts quickly and tell people that we love them often. If you choose to remain estranged from someone you need to forgive, you are playing chicken with time. And you will almost inevitably lose.

But relationship tests are problematic no matter who sets them. “Toxic people will wait until you have a commitment, then they’ll unfold the drama” Young writes, giving the example ‘If you really cared about me you’d skip your exercise class and spend time with me.’.

And that’s a curious formula. Because the onus is on you alone. Love means you change.

And it’s progressive. Once you skip your exercise class, you will probably not hear “Now I know you love me!”. Because it’s not just a test. It’s a demand. Once “if you loved me you’d do x” succeeds, it will be applied elsewhere, because the result it seeks to achieve is changed behavior. It could just as easily be argued that if the person demanding change of plans really loved you, that join you at that exercise class. Or they’d recognize that it was important to you, and honor it, because love is generous.

Healthy relationships should not position themselves in opposition to important parts of our lives. Doing life together means sharing. It means sacrifice. It does not mean control.

“If you really loved me, you’d give up your plans” prioritizes my plans over yours, without consideration to their importance to you.

“If you really loved me, you’d give up your habits” demands that you change your lifestyle because of my preferences, without consideration for the value it holds for you.

“If you really loved me, you’d give up your friends” places me in opposition to the community that nourishes you.

“If you really loved me, you’d give up your dreams” puts my happiness over yours and establishes that my happiness is only achieved when yours is not. It says that I want you, but first, I want something ripped from you. I want a stable, secure, fragment of you that will never leave, but also never live.

Healthy relationships should not include tests: we should not constantly demand that people prove their love.

Healthy relationships should definitely not include tricks, that seek to catch people in the stances we’re afraid they might hold, or the acts we fear they’ll commit.

Some people engage in deliberately hostile practices as a loyalty test. How much junk are you willing to accept from me? It is a twisted take on love. For one, love trusts, so the test should be unnecessary. For two, love is kind, so the cruel acts should be off the table. But fear and trauma will motivate us to mistreat people.

Gangs have initiations. Fraternities haze. If this practice exists on your job, in your family, in your marriage, or in your church, that’s a problem. You should not have to prove your value in any of these places. Your value was settled at “you’re hired.” Or “I do.” Or “I acknowledge my sin, believe that Christ died and rose again to pay the price for it, and confess him as Lord.” Or whatever other scripts of entry match your particular group.

Anything beyond that is a perversion.

“You joined the club, now prove you belong” is toxic.

If my boss hired you, I don’t get to abuse you until I think you’ve had enough.

If Jesus accepts you into his Kingdom, I have no business demanding you prove yourself worthy of my castle.

In most of these, what we see, are people corrupting the values of an organization, to add to it the priorities of their clique.

And that’s a dangerous game.

I pray, today, that we would stop playing games.

Because messing with people does not make stronger ties.

It just makes a mess.

(Photo Credit: Ann H)


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