“Healthy distance” is a phrase that has been on my mind a lot lately as I help people grapple with difficult relationships.
My mom always used to say, “some people are loved best from a distance.” I never really understood this saying until I began to think about the parts of ourselves that carry conflicting feelings toward others, especially those individuals who have hurt us, rejected us, or even abused us. One part of us may desire to show Christ’s love and forgiveness toward a difficult person; while another part of us recognizes the need to self-protect. The idea of “healthy distance” allows us to love in a way that honors both desires. It allows us to honor the part of us that wants to love as Christ loves, even as we take necessary precautions to mitigate harm by limiting, containing, or even ceasing interaction. When we take such steps from a wise, grounded place deep inside, we create space for God to work where we cannot.
For example, I once worked with a client who decided to stop talking by telephone with her mom. The calls were laced with subtle manipulation and insidious abuse that had gone on for decades. They left her feeling guilt, shame, and anger—emotions that she then took out on her own kids.
My client knew the dynamics were likely not going to change. Not wishing to cut her mom off entirely, she started writing her short letters each month instead. She shared brief updates about the kids and general information about work, weather, and national events. This proactive strategy allowed my client to honor her mom and yet protect herself, and her own children, from being harmed.
How do you know when you might need more distance from someone—even someone that you love?
Here are some questions to as yourself:
- When I interact with this person, am I constantly fighting feelings of anger, guilt or shame?
- Is my guard always up with this person, almost as if I have to calculate every response?
- Is this relationship—though sometimes difficult—helping me become more like Christ? If so, then you should notice fruit in your life as a result of working through the challenges.
- Do I constantly feel disappointed with what this person is able to give me?
If you notice a relationship that repeatedly brings out the worst in you or doesn’t seem to bear fruit in your life, ask yourself if there’s an opportunity to address the issue directly. If not, what keeps you from taking a step back?
How to Get Healthy Distance
There are several ways to gain distance from someone. It doesn’t always mean that you simply never speak to them again. And, in some cases, that’s not possible. Here are some things to think about as you consider establishing more space:
1.) Frequency: Reduce how often you interact. Consider shifting from a daily check-in to one that is weekly, monthly, or even yearly. Decide what level of commitment feels healthy to you and stick to it.
2.) Medium: Change the way that you communicate with this person. Ask yourself what medium (phone, text, email, in person, large events, small events) best facilitates the level of communication you desire. For example, can you be alone with this person, or do you always want someone else present? Is it best to stick to written communication (e.g. emails) vs. a phone call? Just because someone wants a daily text relationship with you, doesn’t mean you have to comply. You can work to create the frequency and medium that keeps the relationship at the right distance.
3.) Content: Make a list of topics you will and will not discuss. For example, is this a relationship that is primarily about work, or is it one in which you will discuss personal topics? Do you want this person to know intimate details of your life? If not, stick to general topics that are safe. Decide how much information you want this person to have about you, and how much of their personal information you want to steward.
Remember, prayer knows no boundaries. Even if you need to establish great distance in a relationship, you can always pray that God will do the work that you cannot.
Keep vigilant watch over your heart;
that’s where life starts.