Interpersonal Traits of Unsafe People

We want to continue speaking about relationships. We just finished a short series on the inner character traits of an unsafe person. Now let’s look at the the interpersonal traits of an unsafe person. In other words, the relational trends you will see when in relationship with an unsafe person. Personality traits (see the previous blogs) describe “who we are,” interpersonal traits describe “how we connect.” These interpersonal traits are about how people operate in relationships, how they move close or pull away, and how they build up or destroy.
1> Unsafe people avoid closeness instead of connecting

We were created for intimacy, to connect with someone with heart, soul, and mind. Intimacy occurs when we are open, vulnerable, and honest, for these qualities help us to be close to each other. We know each other at deep levels when we share our real feelings, fears, failures, and hurts. This kind of sharing helps us to feel that we are not alone in the world. We are meant to have intimacy with God and with people. If we do not, we experience isolation, even if we are in some kind of relationship.
Time with someone does not a connection make. Only true sharing and intimacy create a connection. You need to question long-term relationships in which you do not get to know the other person. If you spend significant amounts of time with an individual and still feel far away from him or her, something is wrong. You do not have a connection that is nourishing to the soul. Furthermore, this can be a signal that real danger is present. People who are not able to get close often act out that isolation in affairs, two-faced betrayals, broken confidences and trusts, addictions, and a whole host of other problem dynamics.
This isolation is like “a vacuum in the inner parts of the relationship.”
Many marriages have this dynamic at work. Like a silent killer, this lack of intimacy eats away at the foundation of the relationship. Because there are no apparent overt problems, nothing is said. Things are “fine.” But then one spouse discovers that the other one is having an affair, or has an addiction that surprises everyone. When this happens, the external structure of the relationship – the one everyone thought was good – breaks down.
Usually spouses know deep inside that things were not really all that good. They had a nagging feeling of disconnection, but they did not know exactly what to do about it. So they continued to go along the same direction in life, until  the catastrophe brought everything tumbling down.
If you are uneasy about a relationship, ask yourself, “Does this relationship breed more togetherness or more isolation within me?” If you feel alone in the relationship, that’s not a good sign. But remember: the first person to look at is yourself. Your sense of detachment may be from some block inside of you. Sometimes our own fears and conflicts make it difficult for us to feel connected to someone. The problem can be ours. It can be theirs. And it can be both,
2> Unsafe people are only concerned about “I” instead of “we”
If unsafe people are self-centered, safe people are relationship-centered. And that priority shows itself in the all-important action of empathy.
Safe people are empathic … a genuine connection is a mutual give-and-take of caring that flows between individuals. Both people bring their lives, loves, joys, and sorrows to the connection. Each brings his needs – yet has a deep interest in the life of the other person.
In safe relationships, empathy is a large part of the equation. We literally “enter the other person’s head” and attempt to understand how he feels, what he believes, and how he thinks. Empathy is walking in the moccasins of another person, and not judging them until we can see what suffering he has been through to get to the point he is at.
Empathy is not easy. It involves letting go of your opinion and what you are needing in the relationship so that you can enter the world of the other person, if only for a brief time. We can’t stay in the empathic position permanently, because we would lose ourselves. But empathy is what makes a relationship real – and safe.
Jesus taught about empathy, but in a surprising way: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12) This is a startling teaching, because He didn’t condemn our needs as selfish. Instead, He used them as a starting point for learning how to love. In other words, He was saying, “You know how terrible you feel sometimes? That’s also how others feel. You know how being loved and understood by another person helps you deal with those feelings? That’s also what helps others. Give them what you’re also needing.”
If we are all taking our needs to safe people, and those safe people are taking their needs to us, love is created – and the Law and the Prophets are fulfilled.
Here we say that empathy is an important factor in any safe relationship. We need to be able to engage in the other person’s life, feeling what they are feeling and understanding what they have gone through and where they are at currently in their journey. We saw that ‘safe people are empathic.’ Let’s continue that today by looking at the fact that ‘safe people act on their empathy.’
Empathy leads to action. When you see the pain of others, you want to help. God created you that way. We spend time listening to a friend’s struggle not because that will make them like us, but because they need to be understood. We help someone with a problem not so that we will feel better, but because they are in trouble and can use our help.
If you want to know how safe someone is, ask yourself: “Is this person with me for him – or for us?” It is no sin to bring your needs to the connection. But it is a sin to exploit the relationship for your own ends only.
Look for these warning signs:
When he helps me, he uses it later to get something from me
I never hear from her unless she is in trouble
I feel like a mirror, as if my job is to listen and approve
I’m constantly on the giving end (financially, time, resources)
When my needs come up, he treats them superficially and then comes back to himself
When there’s trouble, it will generally show in one person being the chronic “giver” and the other being the chronic “taker.”
Love seeks the good of the other: It is “not self-seeking” (1 Corinthians 13:5). When you evaluate your relationships, look for people who show genuine concern for your welfare, then make that concern known in concrete actions.
We have looked at two interpersonal traits of unsafe people…People who are not the best to be building a relationship with and who will not permit the relationship or friendship to be beneficial to both you and them.
Jesus was a “safe person” and like all safe people He did three things:
1> He drew people closer to God
2> He drew people closer to one another
3> He encouraged people to become all that God created them to be
Unsafe people, however, have a number of interpersonal traits that warn us that this will not be a beneficial relationship:
1> Unsafe people avoid closeness instead of connecting
2> Unsafe people are only concerned about “I” instead of “we”
3> Unsafe people resist freedom instead of encouraging it
This interpersonal trait is easy to note in a person. Simply ask yourself, “What does this person do with my ‘No’?”
Love protects the separateness of other people, the right to say ‘no’ and remain separate from the other person. To be an individual that has an identity separate from the other person. When we are in relationship, the “we” is still “you and me.” A safe connection involves two people trusting, opening up, and being honest with each other. Yet the second great theme of relationship, after connection, is separateness.
Separateness is the ability to maintain spiritual and emotional property lines, called boundaries, between you and others. Separate people take responsibility for what is theirs – and they don’t take ownership for what isn’t there.
When we are separate, we bring good things close to our soul, and keep bad things away from us. God created us to stand against what is not from Him: “No one who practices deceit will dwell in My house; no one who speaks falsely will stand in My presence” (Psalm 101:7).
Love withers and dies without separateness. It’s simply impossible to connect if you are not free to disagree. That kind of love is compliance and people-pleasing. It is not real love. “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God?” asks Paul. “Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).
The opposite of separateness is enmeshment. Enmeshing relationships are those in which one person is swallowed up in the needs of another. In enmeshment, one person feels threatened by the individuality of the other, and actively seeks to control the other by intimidating or manipulating him. In an enmeshing relationship, “together” is bliss (for one), and “apart” is hell (for one). Enmeshment emphasizes similarities and discourages differences in people.
Safe people encourage, value, and nurture the separateness of other people. They understand that they need their own free choices – and that they need to protect the freedom of other people, too. You will always find that the best connections embrace the individual concern of the other person.
Here are some things to look for in determining safety in this area:
Do they respect my “no” when I state it?
Do they withdraw emotionally when I say no”
Do they get hurt and “make” me feel guilty when I say no?
Do they have a life (interests, hobbies, friends) separate from me?
Do they encourage me to have a separate life too?
Now, you may have never said no in your relationships! This problem may be more your issue than your friend’s. So test the waters. Disagree. Be honest. Tell the truth. Choose a value, event, or emotion distinct from his. And see what happens. You will learn a lot about the level of safety in your relationship and wether this person is “safe”.
We have looked at…
1> Unsafe people avoid closeness instead of connecting
2> Unsafe people are only concerned about “I” instead of “we”
3> Unsafe people resist freedom instead of encouraging it
4> Unsafe people flatter us instead of confronting us
This relational trait is a little more difficult to spot than the previous one. That’s because an unsafe person can make you feel very, very good. And a safe person can make you feel very, very bad. It can get confusing. How can you tell the difference?
Safe relationships are not just about trust, support, and sharing. They are also about truth, righteousness, and honesty. God uses people not only to nurture us, but also to open our eyes to sins, selfishness, and denial in us. Love means saying, “I hold this against you,” as Jesus did when He confronted the churches (Revelation 2:4, 14, 20).
Being confronted on character issues isn’t pleasant. It hurts our self-image. It humbles us. But it doesn’t harm us. Loving confrontations protect us from our blindness and self-destructiveness. Just as a mother rushes into a busy street and grabs her child out of traffic, the loving confrontation stops us from walking into disaster.
There is a major difference between confronters and strokers. Confronters (safe ones, not critical-parent types) risk our leaving them to tell us a needed truth. They jeopardize comfort to give us honest love. Strokers, in contrast, lull us to sleep by idealizing our specialness. As long as you feel good, they are happy. This is more addictive than loving. And it certainly isn’t safe.
This isn’t a diatribe against praise. We all need it: “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; someone else, and not your own lips” (Proverbs 27:2). But praise affirms the truth. Strokers, however, avoid the truth by exclusively praising.
Beware of people who only tell you your good points, justifying it by a desire to be “positive.” They aren’t loving you enough to tell you when your attitude or behaviour is driving your life over a cliff, even though you desperately need to know it.
5> Unsafe people condemn us instead of forgiving us
When people care about each other, forgiveness restores and reconciles. Forgiveness is the glue of love, making it possible for love to do what it does best: to “bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7 NASB). These tasks are absolutely impossible without forgiveness. We are just too hard to live with otherwise.
The Bible talks about forgiveness as a legal term. It means to “cancel a debt.” This is the central idea behind Jesus’ death for us: He paid the penalty for our sins so that we would not have to.
Safe relationships are centered and grounded in forgiveness. When you have a friend with the ability to forgive you for hurting her or letting her down, something deeply spiritual occurs in the transaction between you two. You actually experience a glimpse of the deepest nature of God Himself.
People who forgive can – and should – also be people who confront. What is not confessed can’t be forgiven. God Himself confronts our sins and shows us how we wound Him: “I have been hurt by their adulterous hearts which turned away from Me, and by their eyes, which played the harlot after their idols” (Ezekiel 6:9 NASB). When we are made aware of how we hurt a loved one, then we can be reconciled.
Therefore you should not discount someone who “has something against you,” labeling him as unsafe. He might actually be attempting to come closer in love, in all the way that the Bible tells us we are to do.
When we are forgiven by a safe person, several things happen:
He knows our failings
He neither minimizes nor excuses our sin
His love for us is greater than our transgressions
He marks “paid in full” and lets it go
He stays close to us and doesn’t abandon us
That’s why the forgiving person is safe. He sees our wrongs, yet loves us beyond it. And that love helps heal and transform us into the person God intended. Receiving forgiveness when we know we’ve truly blown it is a humbling and growth-producing experience. It’s the only thing better than forgiving someone else.
On the other hand, an unsafe person who is unable to forgive can be very destructive. Instead of forgiving, she condemns:
She centers on my failings
She won’t let go of the past, even when I’ve confessed, repented, and made restitution
She uses my weaknesses to avoid looking at hers
She sees me as morally inferior to her
She desires justice more than intimacy
Unsafe people are often good at identifying your weaknesses. They can quote the minute and hour you hurt them, and recall the scene in intimate detail and living colour. Like a good attorney, they have their entire case mapped out. And you are judged “guilty.”
Yes, we need to be confronted with our weaknesses. Unsafe people, however, confront us not to forgive us, but to condemn and punish us. They remove their love until we are appropriately chastened. This, obviously, destroys any chance for connection or safety.
We are looking at people who are not safe relationally. People who do not make good friends or members of your support team. Unsafe people are common and often we waste time building relationally with them only to see the relationship crash at a time when it is most needed.
6> Unsafe people stay in parent/child roles instead of relating as equals
Safe people respect our right to make decisions and adult choices. Unsafe people resist adult functioning. They “don’t agree with our right” to an opinion, a value, or a decision. Unsafe people react to our adultness by withdrawing from it.
This is the opposite of how safe people relate to us. Safe individuals love to see us grow up and mature, and they rejoice when we carry out our responsibility to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). They want to see us develop our God-given gifts and talents and use them. Safe people love to see adults being formed.
This is true in all relationships, and especially in parenting. When the Bible tell us to “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6), this doesn’t mean you should decide where the child is to go. Instead, you should help the child discover God’s path for her – even if that means a path you might not have chosen.
The same is true in our friendships. Your closest relationships are, at times, actively working either for or against your growth. In the list below, the first two ways of relating hinder your growth, and the last one encourages it:
I feel like a kid around them (Unsafe person)
I feel like I have to be their parent (Unsafe person)
I feel equal to them (Safe person)
I feel like a kid around them (Unsafe person)
In this first type of relationship, you often feel controlled or criticized. The parental person acts as if you can’t make decisions for yourself regarding values, money, job, theology, sex, or politics. He feels resentful when you attempt any major decisions without his approval. So he withholds approval of your decisions until you again resign yourself to being his child – even if you’re in your middle-age years.
Authority roles often lend themselves to these kind of dynamics. For example, bosses, teachers, doctors, and police often act parental, as in “the boss put me down again and made me feel like a child.” It’s important to separate roles from character here. While some parental-types do seek out roles where they can push people around, some just want to do a good job.
Here are some things to look for in the parental person:
He gives me advice without asking if I want it
He doesn’t trust my judgment
He thinks I need his help in navigating through life
He is critical
He is disapproving
He withdraws when I make adult decisions with which he disagrees
Now suppose you are exquisitely sensitive to critical people. When they confront you, you immediately question your decisions. Put this character problem, with a parental-type person – and you have major problems.
I feel like I have to be their parent (Unsafe person)
You can also have the opposite type of relationship. Here, the roles are reversed. You’re trying to relate to a person who wants you to be their parent. Here’s a hint that there’s a problem: They are neither under eighteen years old nor under your legal guardianship.
With this second subtype of unsafety, your friend is afraid of adulthood with its responsibilities and risks. Can’t fault him for that. But the problem emerges in what he sees as your role: you become either the approval-providing parent, or the authoritarian controller in his head.
For example, he may pressure you to tell him what to do: what clothes to buy, where to work, and what women to date. He may ask you to interpret the Bible for him. On the other hand, he may act like a rebellious adolescent around you, constantly challenging you and accusing you of being controlling.
Neither of these child positions are mature. Both are unsafe. One is over compliant, and one is overreactive. And they can hurt you by not allowing you simply to be an adult: You be you and I’ll be me, and we’ll respect each other. There’s always a power struggle going on here.
I feel equal with them (Safe person)
The safe person doesn’t make you become either a child or a parent. He takes ownership of his life, talents, and values. He wants to “seek first (God’s) Kingdom and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33) on his own, but with your consultation – not your approval. And he wants you to flourish in your life – without needing his approval. Even if you disagree.
You know you’re around a safe, adult person by the following characteristics:
She is not threatened by your differences
She has standards, values, and convictions she’s worked out for herself
At the same time, she doesn’t have a “right way” and a “wrong way” for everything
She functions at least on the same level of maturity as her same-age peers
She appreciates mystery and the unknown
She encourages me to develop my own values
Remember that we want our efforts to be approved by God (2 Timothy 2:15), not people. Find people who want the same goal for you.
7> Unsafe people are unstable over time instead of being consistent
Are you the romantic / naive type? If so, you’re particular vulnerable to unsafe people because you tend to trust people immediately instead of putting them through the test of time. As cliched as it may sound, time is indeed the best judge of character.
Who we are and what we do are very, very related. Character cannot be completely hidden over a lifetime; it leaks out sooner or later. As Jesus said, “Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops” (Luke 12:3). So hiding and pretending aren’t ever going to pay off for us.
And time tends to prove out the truth. As time passes, spouses, for example, learn the truth about each other’s ability to love, to listen, to be responsible, and to forgive. No matter what one says, the other one has years of memories that will either confirm or deny that person’s words.
Those who are not safe are those who are “relational sprinters” as compared to a “marathoner.” A sprinter is there for you if you are there. But, out of sight is out of mind. So, he may promise something and then never come through with what he promised. This trait makes the person unsafe with friends and family. You cannot depend on him. He commits and commits and commits – but he does not come through. If you ask him to return the lawnmower he borrowed last week, don’t block out your mowing hours on your schedule anytime soon.
He is not a bad person, nor is he insincere. But he loves the intense warmth of being close to a person in the here-and-now. It gets somewhat addictive to him, and he can’t delay gratification to help a person who isn’t around, when another, in-the-flesh person is available. And so he routinely disappoints himself and his friends. He flunks the time test.
Safety isn’t like that. People who pass the test of time are “timeless” people. They guard your trust as if it were money in the bank. They are stable and reliable in their emotional commitments.
That’s why time-friendly people tend to make fewer emotional commitments than an unsafe person. They have a profound understanding of how much time it takes to be there for someone, so they think, deliberate, and pray long and hard before they decide to invest in a relationship. You might think they are aloof or uncaring. They’re not. They are, instead, unwilling to write bad cheques, emotionally speaking.
Look for people who are “anchored” over time. Don’t go for flashy, intense, addictive types. A Ford that will be there tomorrow is a lot better than a Maserati that might be gone. There are stable Maseratis. But it’s best to drive them awhile, that is, test out the relationship over time, to make sure.
Here are some traits to look for in your relationships:
Are they living up to their commitments to me?
Are they here for me only when I’m here?
Do they tell me no when they don’t have time?
Do they make promises they can’t keep?
Am I the last or most recent in a string of broken relationships?
Do others warn me about their pattern of relating?
Love is abiding, timeless, and unchanging, just like its Author. Find people who love you, and love you well over time, like He does: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).
Let’s review once again as we get close to the end of this study..
We are looking at the interpersonal traits of unsafe people. So far we have seen:
1> Unsafe people avoid closeness instead of connecting
2> Unsafe people are only concerned about “I” instead of “we”
3> Unsafe people resist freedom instead of encouraging it
4> Unsafe people flatter us instead of confronting us
5> Unsafe people condemn us instead of forgiving us
6> Unsafe people stay in parent/child roles instead of relating as equals
7> Unsafe people are unstable over time instead of being consistent
8> Unsafe people are a negative influence on us, rather than a positive one
When a person has such an influence on you and your life that you are becoming more and more like them – this person is an unsafe person. When having a relationship with this person means other healthy relationships you are in are neglected and even suffer then this person is unsafe.
Safety breeds safety. And safe people make us better people for being around them. This is Jesus’ “fruit test”: “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit” (Luke 6:43). We cannot fail to be influenced, for better or worse, by the people in whom we invest. It will always show: “Bad company corrupts good character” (1 Corinthians 15:33). And good company builds up our hearts and releases us to build other relationships as well.
An unsafe person may make you feel good – yet wound you emotionally. She may make you act better, but hurt your character. And you may think you’re being treated well, but she may be hindering your growth. Fruit is about character issues – not symptoms.
The woman who is swept off her feet by an insincere charmer is a good example of this. She feels wonderful: loved, pursued, intoxicated by the attentiveness and flattery of the charmer. Her infatuation may make her more caring for her friends, more patient and forgiving. Her cup feels so full that she can give more.
But the reality is that while she feels and acts better, she is in the middle of a fantasy that will someday come crashing down around her. She is not being prepared for a real relationship, in which you deal with the imperfections of yourself and the other person. So she falls very hard, and sometimes she can’t trust again for a long time.
Safe people are not perfect, but they help us progress toward Christlike character in the four major areas of spiritual growth. Ask yourself these questions about the people with whom you relate.
As a result of spending time with this person, am I
more loving or more detached?
more honest or more compliant?
more forgiving or more idealistic?
more mature or more childish?
Deciding whether a relationship is good for you will take time and some long, hard, coldly objective analysis. And it will probably take a friend’s detached eye. But look at your relationships over the long haul, and judge them for how they have changed your life – for better or worse.
9> Unsafe people gossip instead of keeping secrets
We all have experiences, thoughts, emotions, or behaviours that we don’t feel safe telling the world. We need someone in whom to confide. Some of us have secret sins that plague us. Others haver been victimized or abused. Still others simply need a person to tell our private stories to.
Few things are more bruising than having your secrets betrayed. If you have ever entrusted part of yourself to another, and then heard about it from a third party, you have been triangulated. Triangulation occurs when person A tells a secret to person B, who then tells person C about it. Triangulation is a form of what the Bible calls “gossip”. “A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret” (Proverbs 11:13).
Often, a triangulator will try to justify his untrustworthiness by different excuses, such as:
It just slipped out
It wasn’t that serious. You’re overreacting
It was for your own good
They made me tell
But just as often the truth has more to do with the unsafe person. He was unable to confront people directly, so he does it behind their backs. He may feel insignificant, so gossip give him the sense that he is important and on the “inside track.” He may be pitting one person against another in a repetitive pattern from childhood. Or he may simply lack a sense of empathy for the terrible pain that gossip brings to others.
No matter what, this is nothing but destructive. We all need a place for our secrets to be held and respected. Secrets don’t get well without relationship. We are all looking for safe relationships where someone knows all of our parts. So, when you divulge a private matter with another, it’s a big deal. You are taking a risk with an important part of your soul. And when confidence is broken, so is trust, hope, and healing.
Not only this, but also relationships can be torn apart between friends. Persons A and C can be alienated by the triangulator. This is what people mean when they say, “She came between us.” A triangulator has been at work.
A safe person will hold confidences. He will not use your secrets for his own needs. “A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends” (Proverbs 16:28).
The eighteeth-century English preacher George Whitefield is a good example of a safe person. With John Wesley, Whitefield was one of the founders of the Methodist Church. Yet he disagreed heartily with Wesley’s theology, and the two men were well known for their differences.
One day a reporter asked Whitefield, “Reverend, do you think you will see John Wesley in heaven?” This question was an invitation to triangulation between two opponents.
“No, I do not,” replied Whitefield.
“Why is that?” Asked a surprised reporter.
Whitefield answers, “Because I believe that John Wesley will be so close to the bosom of God that we will not be able to see him for the surrounding glory.”
George Whitefield would not attack a person who was not there to defend himself. Look for people who can hold your secrets. They would be a safe person for you.