How Do You Love Toxic People?

The most common question people ask me when we talk either in person or virtually, is essentially a variation on a single theme:

“How do I love someone I no longer like?”

They’ve recently realized something about a friend, family member, or partner that they simply cannot reconcile with the person they once knew and loved: a theological belief, political affiliation, or stance on a social issue that is so far beyond what they consider within the bounds of decency.

In many cases, these people have attempted for years to navigate these differences with difficult conversations or with the holding of their tongues. They’ve tiptoed around the moral landmines laid out during tense holiday exchanges. They’ve allowed a thousand small compromises. They’ve given the benefit of the doubt.

After years of honest dialogue, genuine attempts at understanding, and a true desire to bridge massive chasms of belief, they’ve now come to the conclusion that the fractures may be too great to mend. They have learned something about these people that feels like a deal breaker.

They ask me, “How do I love this person, knowing what I know about them?”

I tell them that they may now have to love them from a distance.

Loving another human being doesn’t necessitate you placing yourself in harm’s way, it doesn’t demand you sustaining repeated wounds, and it doesn’t require you to make peace with what you cannot abide. The biggest misconception people have about love is that they owe people they care for, permanent proximity. They don’t. That isn’t love’s expectation, despite the way we are guilted into believing it.

You aren’t required to stay closely tethered to anyone simply because you once were. As you and the other person you love evolve and grow, and as you learn more about who they presently are, your shared past does not bring the expectation of staying now. It is perfectly acceptable to decide, “This person is toxic to me, this relationship is unhealthy to me, and I need distance in order to be emotionally healed and to live my full convictions.” Ultimately, you owe people you care deeply for authenticity and decency, but not permanence.

All this to say, religious beliefs and political positions are sometimes worth separation. If a person close to you has welcomed conspiracy or denied science or embraced hatred or applauded inequity or trafficked in stereotypes to the point that you feel morally incompatible—admitting this and responding to it isn’t unloving. Loving someone means honoring their humanity, and you can do that from a distance. You can do that without physical proximity. You can even do that with disconnection.

The relationships in our lives are not all designed to last for the duration of our lives. Marital and relational separations come when the reality of the differences between us and other human beings are actively injuring one or both of us, and to stay is an act of violence or self-harm.

As a Christian who fully believes in loving God, self, and others, I’ve come to have peace with the idea that this doesn’t burden me with having intimacy with harmful people, even if I have for years or even decades before. Jesus’ teachings come with the responsibility to offer compassion and seek peace and traverse reasonable differences—but they don’t come with the responsibility to stay when all efforts to do so have proven not only fruitless but hazardous. Then, I can shake the dust off of my feet and move on.

Our families, friendships, and casual relationships are all being stretched to the point of breaking right now, and though we as people of love should do everything we can to weather that turbulence and navigate relational disconnections, we are not required to sustain repeated damage in the name of love. We don’t have to stay in harm’s way in order to prove our empathy or our goodness.

Loving ourselves often means moving from toxic people and loving them from a safe distance.

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