Book review: The Emotionally Destructive Relationship

By Pauline Doerksen

Over the last while, Focus on the Family Canada’s Clergy Care counselling ministry has had more frequent calls on the topic of destructive or abusive relationships.

This includes relationships within marriage, leadership teams, parent and children, and friendships. Of course our counsellors never give any specific details regarding the content in their counselling conversations, but it did challenge me to get a better understanding of the types of behaviours that would be considered destructive within any and all types of relationships. Along with that, I wanted to source some resources that would help to break those patterns and bring healing to individuals, which would in turn bring healing to relationships.

The Emotionally Destructive Relationship. These are very strong words that evoke a particular image in my mind. When this book by Leslie Vernick came across my desk, I have to admit that I began reading it with some preconceived assumptions regarding the content. Having just finished reading the final page, though, I am grateful that this book challenged those assumptions and provided direction for the very thing I was researching: defining the behaviours and providing help to change those behaviours.

Allow me to give you a very brief overview of the content of this book. I do so in the hopes of whetting your appetite to grab a copy to read it for yourself.

Leslie Vernick is a licensed clinical social worker with a private counselling practice. However, she has chosen to write this book from a biblical rather than psychological perspective. She prefaces the heart of the book by explaining her approach:

“I do this purposefully. When advocating for people wounded or trapped in destructive relationships, at times I have experienced resistance by Christians and church leaders. They are suspicious (perhaps rightly so) of anything sounding too secular or psychological and therefore find it difficult to hear. If you are in a destructive relationship, I want you to have a biblical understanding and vocabulary of what’s happening, so you can figure out what’s wrong and what God’s solution is.”

True to her word, Vernick continually points the reader to Scripture to illustrate destructive patterns and how we are instructed to address them.

The book is divided into three sections: Seeing It, Stopping It and Surviving It. In each of these sections,

I appreciated the fact that she not only helps the reader to identify destructive behaviours in others, but she also emphasizes how important it is to see how our own behaviours may be destructive. This is what challenged my preconceived assumptions the most significantly. It is not only in the extreme usage of these patterns that they become destructive – even when they are done unintentionally and we think we are helping someone, they project control over someone that is not our place to have. Plenty of room for introspection there!

Seeing It

In the first section, Seeing It, there is a description of five relationship patterns that are always destructive:

  1. Abuse
  2. Overprotection and overbearingness
  3. Overdependence
  4. Lying
  5. Indifference and neglect

Some of those patterns are very obvious, but some are more subtle and may be easily masked as trying to be helpful. In contrast to patterns that are always destructive, the author describes foundational elements that are necessary for relationships to flourish:

  1. Commitment and care
  2. Honesty and integrity
  3. Mutual respect

Seeing It not only helps the reader to identify if they are in a destructive relationship due to being on the giving and/or receiving end, but it also does a very thorough job of explaining the consequences of a destructive relationship and why those relationships are so difficult.

Vernick explains it in this context by quoting Romans 1:

“‘Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, murder, quarrelling, deception, malicious behavior and gossip. They are backstabbers, haters of God insolent, proud, and boastful. They invent new ways of sinning, and they disobey their parents. They refuse to understand, break their promises, are heartless, and have no mercy.’ (Romans 1:29-30)

 “Relational destructiveness is the indirect consequence of our inborn tendency to reject God as God and truth as truth, Paul says. His teaching is cticial if we are to understand some of what happens in destructive relationship patterns. He says that our problems are caused by the things we do, not only by the things that are done to us.”

 Throughout the book, there are very practical steps for the reader to pursue to assist in applying the principals being explained. By the time the reader has completed reading the first section, they will have been challenged to reflect on the relationships that they are in to assess if they are destructive or healthy.

Stopping It

The second section, Stopping It, moves the reader into what is necessary when they find themselves on the receiving end of a destructive relationship. The author gives several illustrations of various types of scenarios to help point out the truth versus the lie in each situation: truth about change, choices, speaking up and standing up. The message that comes through loud and clear in this section is that a person does not need to be stuck in a destructive relationship. They may feel like they have no choice, no voice and no options, but that is not the truth.

Vernick writes:

“One of the reasons that we get so stuck in our destructive relationships is that we work on fixing the other person, which requires us to take responsibility for something we cannot control. You can’t stop other people’s destructive behaviour. You can influence them and invite them to change but you can’t control or change them. All you can do is put an end to your part of the destructive cycle.”

As I was reading this section, I couldn’t help but reflect on the magnitude of change that needs to take place in the heart and mind of the person that feels abused and trapped in a relationship. This change will not come easily and it requires a great amount of work, but it is extremely powerful in bringing healing to a broken heart and spirit. A key component is searching the Scriptures to replace the lies that have beaten a person down through words and actions. It is through the truth of Scripture that we all find our true value and worth and it is from that place of truth that gives us the strength to speak against the lies and confront those that mistreat us.

Through the principle of Stopping It, Vernick clarifies a significant part of why we need to stand up to being mistreated:

“Submitting to mistreatment is destructive to you and to those who treat you in such a devaluing way. They not only diminish your personhood, they diminish their own. This is not what people were made for.”

This is not a selfish act. When we stand up to a destructive person, we are standing up for goodness, righteousness and peace and we are inviting the other person to do so as well. Having said that, it is very helpful that the author does not present this section as an easy formula to follow that will always produce the best outcomes. She does, however, encourage the reader that they can still become a healthy person even when the one they are in relationship with chooses not to. That is what takes the reader into section three of the book.

Surviving It

Using the story of Abigail and her husband Nabal in 1 Samuel 25, the author gives insight into how Abigail was able to live and grow in a relationship where her husband was very toxic. From this illustration, Vernick draws our attention to how careful we need to be when handling toxic, hazardous materials. We must become very intentional to make sure that we prepare well and put on protective clothing before exposing ourselves to it. The same is true when we need to move into conversations with a destructive, toxic person. This section gives great insight and practical steps into how to do that.

The primary emphasis is on the truth that God desires to bring healing, he is ever present, and we need to build a support team that continues to pour that truth into our lives.

I found an unexpected bonus at the end of this book. The author includes three short chapters almost like an appendix. One is a great list of resources for support, counselling, shelters, etc. The second gives space to clearly define the different categories of abuse. The third is a special word to people helpers. Here she points out very insightful things for us to be aware of as we come alongside as a caregiver. This is definitely something that is worth reading.

As I mentioned at the beginning, this book turned out to be different from what I had expected. I have found it to be very challenging, educational, sobering and hopeful. I encourage you to source a copy of Leslie Vernick’s The Emotionally Destructive Relationship and see for yourself where it takes you.

I would also encourage you to remember that our website is also a wonderful resource for you. Whether you need to speak with a counsellor, find books or articles that may be insightful, or just get some encouragement, take some time to check it out.


Pauline Doerksen and her husband, Sam, are the program directors at our Manitoba Kerith Retreats location. For more information about our retreats, visit KerithRetreats.ca.


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