SAFE PEOPLE- How To Find Relationships That Are Good For You And Avoid Those That Aren’t


How To Find Relationships That Are Good For Your And Avoid Those That Aren’t

By Dr. Henry Cloud & Dr. John Townsend

            While I am a fan of Drs. Cloud & Townsend’s writings, and frequently recommend their other books, especially “Boundaries”, in my ministry for Adult Children of controlling or abusive birth-families (Luke 17:3 Ministries) , I was very disappointed in “Safe People”.  The first time I read it, I found the first half of the book to be of value, but the second half seemed confusing, weak, and difficult to understand.   I have since read it twice more and it hasn’t gotten any better.  “Unsafe people” as defined by the authors are basically those who are selfish or narcissistic.  But this is definitely not a book for those who are dealing with REALLY unsafe people- abusers (physical, emotional, verbal, etc.), liars, control freaks, manipulators, treacherous or destructive people, etc.

            The book starts out great, listing for us the personal and interpersonal traits of unsafe people, such as being defensive instead of open to feedback, only apologizing instead of changing their behavior, demanding trust instead of earning it, resisting freedom instead of encouraging it, staying in parent/child roles instead of relating as equals, being a negative rather than a positive influence on us, and being unstable over time instead of being consistent.

            The book then goes on to analyze what it is about us that attracts and is attracted to, unsafe people.  It also describes the characteristics of safe people and tells us why we need safe people.  So far so good.  But then we start to lose it.

            There is a chapter on “False Solutions” to our problem of becoming involved with unsafe people- they include “Doing the same”, “Doing the opposite”, “Doing Too Much”, “Doing Nothing”, “Doing for Others”, “Doing Without”, etc.  The explanations make sense, but we are left wanting more out of this list of “don’ts”- like maybe a corresponding list of “Do’s”.

            The chapter on “Learning How To Be Safe” offers very little in concrete advice or specifics- only abstract, mysteriously vague and esoteric ideas .  We are told to “Confess your inability to need”, “Don’t fake it”, “Confess the need that you can’t experience”, “Pay attention to what evokes your hunger”, and other suggestions which are confusing and difficult, if not impossible, to understand, much less put into practice.

            We are told that it is important to develop our “character discernment”  (which is really a gift of the Holy Spirit and not something we do ourselves), but the book does not address the fact that most of the traits of unsafe people, which the authors themselves list,  only become apparent over time, not at the very beginning of a relationship.  In fact, one of the traits of unsafe people that the book lists is indeed, “being unstable over time instead of being consistent.”  There is obviously no way to know this about a person until the relationship is already somewhat established.

            Now for the big problem.  Although the premise of this book is being able to recognize and “avoid” unsafe people, it’s really weak on telling us what to do when we are already in a relationship with an unsafe person.  Most abusers are clever enough to hide their true nature when they first meet someone.  They usually don’t let their true colors show until they have their victim where they want her- dependent on them and less likely to ditch them than she would have been before she had become  involved.  Since we can’t always tell if someone is unsafe until we’re already involved with them, if we didn’t manage to “avoid” them right from the get-go, we’re now more or less stuck with them, if we follow the rest of the advice in this book.

            The authors openly discourage leaving an already established relationship with an unsafe person.  It’s as if you missed your chance to get out if you didn’t recognize that this person was unsafe right in the beginning. Being in physical, mental, or emotional danger from an abuser is never addressed at all.  For the most part, the suggestions for continuing to suffer through such a relationship are vague, cryptic, confusing, and sometimes a bit weird- such as “start from a loved position”, “accept reality, forgive, and grieve your expectations”, and “be long-suffering”.  The authors do not address the stress of continually battling over boundaries with a true abuser, and only very briefly acknowledge that some people are not going to respect boundaries and will continue their unacceptable behavior no matter what we do.

            At the very end of the book, a mere two pages are devoted to “separation” and “divorce”.  The authors reluctantly admit that sometimes “the necessity of separation is a grim reality”. Although they ask the question, “how long is long enough?”, they don’t answer it. 

            In my ministry, I emphasize accountability and personal responsibility.  Abusive or toxic people need to be accountable and pay the consequences ( reap what they sow) for their own behavior.  Having people leave them is one of those consequences.  The Bible is full of scriptures instructing us to stay away from, leave, shun, and not associate with evil people. (For more on this subject, check out Luke 17:3 Ministries’ website)  I disagree strongly with the authors’ heavy emphasis on the victim needing to be “long-suffering” and their tendency to put the entire responsibility on the victim, for staying in a toxic relationship and making it work   While the whole idea of this book is for us not to enter into relationships with unsafe people in the first place ( although an abuser’s tendency to be deceitful and manipulative and hide his true nature is never acknowledged), the authors’ disapproval of a victim protecting herself  by leaving a relationship once it has been established only serves to re-victimize the victim.  People who are suffering through destructive relationships have enough problems without the burden of this guilt as well.

            In the last paragraph of this book, we are told, “The message of this book is a lot like the message of the gospel.  It has good news and bad news.  The good news is that you can be saved from a life of relational hell with unsafe people.  The bad news is that you must take up your own cross and do the hard work of dealing with your own character problems.”  While I agree that introspection and counseling is important for victims to understand that they do tend to make some poor choices, I disagree with the book’s relentless premise that the victim ALWAYS causes all of her own problems by not recognizing an unsafe person before she has really gotten to know him.  I just can’t shake the uncomfortable feeling that there’s just a little too much “blaming the victim” going on here.

             I take further issue with the idea that once she has gotten to know him, and he turns out not to be the person she thought (or was misled into thinking) he was, the burden for doing “everything possible” to continue the relationship is on her shoulders.  It is contradictory to admit that being with unsafe people is “relational hell” and then discourage a victim from leaving that hell.  It is usually not in the victim’s power to fix a relationship that is “hell”.  It is never too late to get out, just because you didn’t in the beginning.  Patience and “trying to work it out” with the authors’ idea of unsafe people (selfish, narcissistic, self-centered, etc.)  might be okay for a while, but patience with a REALLY unsafe person, a true abuser, is not appropriate and could be downright dangerous.