Editor's Note: The following is a report on the practical applications of Leslie Vernick's new book, The Emotionally Destructive Relationship, (Harvest House, 2007).

Physical injuries like bruises or a broken arm are visible, presenting obvious evidence that something’s wrong with a relationship that causes them. But emotional wounds are often hidden beneath the surface a relationship that seems fine at first glance.

Although emotional injuries aren’t as easily seen as physical ones, they’re just as real and painful, and just as worthy of your attention.

If you or someone you know is suffering from an emotionally destructive relationship, here’s how you can break free:

Recognize when a relationship has become destructive. Understand that a relationship is destructive when: One or both parties commit physical, emotional, verbal, or sexual abuse upon the other; One person is regularly overprotective, overbearing, or both toward the other; One person is overly dependent upon the other to affirm his or her personal value, to meet all of his or her needs, and to make most of his or her decisions; One person demonstrates a pattern of deceiving the other through lying, hiding, pretending, misleading, or twisting information to make something appear other than what it is; or One person exhibits chronic indifference, neglect, or both toward the thoughts, feelings, or well-being of the other. Know that, while we all can sin against others in these ways occasionally, what makes a relationship destructive is a repetitive pattern of sin, and a lack of awareness, remorse, or significant change.

Understand the qualities necessary for relationships to flourish. Know that, in a healthy relationship, the people involved should care about each other enough to be committed to each other’s well-being. They should care about each other’s thoughts and feelings, and pay attention to issues that the other person in the relationship considers important or urgent. They should be completely honest with themselves and with each other, and not hesitate to be themselves when they’re together. They should respect each other, and have the freedom to lovingly challenge, confront, and strengthen each other.

Face problems when you encounter them. Even though it seems easier to ignore problems or try to get by with them, realizing that avoiding problems in the relationship will only cause the damage to grow. Decide to acknowledge and tackle problems whenever you notice them.

Take responsibility for your part in the problems. Besides being honest about how the other person in the destructive relationship is hurting you, realize how you’re allowing yourself to be hurt and hurting the other person. If you’re not sure what specific issues are going on in your heart and causing you to relate in emotionally unhealthy ways, pray for God to reveal them to you, and ask others who are close to you for their input, as well. Admit your own brokenness and ask God and the other person for forgiveness. Make an effort to change by turning from your wrong attitudes and behaviors through repentance and learning how to relate differently, in healthy ways.  

Step away from living in a destructive cycle. Take these steps to begin walking away from the emotionally unhealthy relationship’s destructive cycle: Pray about your thoughts and feelings, asking God to rescue you from people who want to hurt you, and asking for His help to make healthier choices yourself. Disclose what’s happening in your destructive relationship to a few people you trust to listen to you and support you as you try to make changes – perhaps a family member, a close friend, or the person who leads your small group at church. Identify what specific fears are holding you back from taking action about this destructive relationship, and write them down. Decide to take the risk of facing each one of those fears, relying on God’s help to defeat them. Pay attention to what you’re telling yourself and what the other person in the destructive relationship is telling you. Then hold that up to the truth of God’s Word to see whether or not it aligns with it. Recognize the lies you’ve been believing, and replace them with truth by choosing to think about what God says is true, good, and right. Recognize that you’re not powerless; you do have the power to make choices. As you make new choices in your destructive relationship, ask yourself: “Does this choice I’m making right now lead me toward greater growth and maturity or more destruction?” Understand that you can’t change the other person in the relationship, so stop wasting time and energy trying to do so. Instead, focus on putting an end to your part of the destructive cycle.

Speak up about how you feel and what you want to change. Pray about the destructive relationship, asking God for the wisdom to speak the truth in love to the other person involved. Prepare what you want to say and how you want to say it. Practice out loud as many times as you need to feel confident. Plan to talk with the other person in a safe place at a good time. Persevere in your efforts to make changes to the relationship, knowing that even if you don’t receive a positive response from the other person, you can become healthier and more mature just by changing yourself.

Stand up to the other person involved. If the person ignores, dismisses, mocks, manipulates, or emotionally batters you, decide to stand up to him or her. Tell the person that he or she must consistently work on healing until he or she consistently demonstrates changed attitudes and behaviors. Urge the person to submit to church discipline and counseling to get help for the problem.

Step back from the relationship if necessary. If the person refuses to change, communicate clearly that you’ll no longer participate in the destructive cycle and distance yourself from the relationship so you can stay safe and pursue healing. This may mean separation in the case of marriage, or limiting contact with an unsafe friend or family member.

Ask God to help you see yourself as He sees you. Choose to believe what God tells you in His Word about how He sees you, and decide to trust in that rather than a distorted view of yourself that comes from an emotionally unhealthy person.

Let go of things that are holding you back. Let go of unrealistic expectations. Accept reality and truth over fantasy and wishful thinking, even when it’s painful. Acknowledge what your destructive relationship is really like, stop trying to change things you can’t change, let go of your disappointment, and move on. Let go of negative emotions like anger and sadness. Journal about your feelings, and pray about them, releasing them to God. Choose forgiveness to cleanse yourself of toxic emotions. Let go of lies you’ve believed and practice walking in the truth, relying on Christ’s strength to help you.

Build a strong support system. Ask many people you trust to help support you, encourage you, be honest with you, help you, hold you accountable to your goals, pray with you, teach you, comfort you, celebrate with you, and help you see more clearly.

Handle conflict wisely. Learn the basic rules of managing conflict well: Define the problem or conflict to be discussed and stick to the issue; When possible, plan a time for the discussion; Listen carefully to the other person’s perspective; Aim for a solution that works for both of you; Commit to do no harm; Tame your tongue; If you’re unable to fight fairly, or the other person is attacking, stop; and If the other person breaks these rules, don’t react in kind.

Recognize and nurture your good qualities. Make a list of the strengths you have as a person because of what you’ve endured in your destructive relationship (such as resourcefulness, patience, tenaciousness, or a sense of humor). Then further develop those strengths.

Interact with destructive people without letting them get the best of you. Before you encounter emotionally destructive people (like the person with whom you had a destructive relationship), pray for seeing them that God would help you refrain from retaliating if they hurt you. Practice healthy things to say before you interact. Trust that God will always help you overcome evil with good.

Adapted from The Emotionally Destructive Relationship, copyright 2007 by Leslie Vernick. Published by Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, Or., www.harvesthousepublishers.com.

Leslie Vernick is a licensed clinical social worker with a private counseling practice. She received her master’s degree at the University of Illinois and has completed postgraduate work in biblical counseling and cognitive therapy. Leslie and her husband, Howard, have been married 30 years and have two grown children.