God created us to be in relationship, and relationships can be hurtful and/or healing. Healthy relationships are essential for us to flourish.

But what are healthy relationships, and how do we find them?

Cloud and Townsend, the co-authors of Boundaries, answer that question in Safe People.

They start by defining unsafe people, who generally fall into three categories: the abandoners, the critics, and the irresponsibles. Here’s a partial list of the twenty traits of unsafe people.

Personal traits (who we are) of unsafe people:

  1. Unsafe people think they ‘have it all together’ instead of admitting their weaknesses.
  2. Unsafe people are defensive instead of open to feedback.
  3. Unsafe people are self-righteous instead of humble.
  4. Unsafe people avoid working on their problems instead of dealing with them.
  5. Unsafe people demand trust, instead of earning it.
  6. Unsafe people blame others instead of taking responsibility.
  7. Unsafe people lie instead of telling the truth.

Interpersonal traits (how we connect) of unsafe people:

  1. Unsafe people avoid closeness instead of connecting.
  2. Unsafe people resist freedom instead of encouraging it.
  3. Unsafe people flatter us instead of confronting us.
  4. Unsafe people condemn us instead of forgiving us.
  5. Unsafe people stay in parent/child roles instead of relating as equals.
  6. Unsafe people gossip instead of keeping secrets.

We may choose unsafe relationships for a variety of reasons, including: isolation, fear of confrontation, romanticizing, rescuing, and familiarity, among others.

Against the backdrop of unsafe people, Cloud and Townsend use Jesus as the ultimate example of a safe person because he embodies dwelling (connection), grace, and truth.

They say churches—as a whole—can be safe or unsafe. A safe church looks like this:

  • Grace is preached from the pulpit and is the foundation for how people are to be treated.
  • Truth is preached without compromise, but also without a spirit of law and judgment.
  • The church leaders are aware of their own weakness and need to grow and are open about their hurt, pain, failings, and humanity.
  • The culture is one of forgiven sinners, not self-righteous Pharisees.
  • The teaching sees brokenness, struggle, and inability as normal parts of the sanctification process.

How do we pick healthy friendships? Several qualities are important:

  • Acceptance and grace
  • Mutual struggles, although they do not have to be the same ones
  • Loving confrontation
  • Both parties have ‘entered in’ to a growth process
  • An absence of ‘one-up and one-down’ dynamics
  • Both parties in a relationship with God
  • Honesty and reality instead of ‘over-spiritualizing’
  • An absence of controlling behavior

But it’s not just about finding safe people. More importantly, it’s about becoming a safe person.

How do we become a safe person? By practicing these six steps:

  1. ask for help,
  2. learn to need,
  3. work through resistances,
  4. invite the truth about yourself,
  5. enter into forgiveness, and
  6. give something back.

And by asking these two questions to your safe people:

  1. What do I do that pushes you away from me?
  2. What do I do that draws you toward me?

As we become safe people, and find safe people, we will flourish in relationship.

(Note: These lists are partial, and often direct quotes.)