Everyone on social media is asserting their boundaries. Everyone is cutting toxicity out of their life. Everyone is prioritizing their own healing journey and giving up on one-sided relationships. Everyone is disarming the narcissist, protecting their space, deleting that number, going no-contact. Or at least, it feels that way.
There is a mode of self-help, overwhelmingly generated and reinforced online, that I call the “dump them” school of thought. It solves every problem with an elegant, unified simplicity of which physicists can only dream: Just dump them. Whether it’s your mother failing to respect your child-rearing rules, your boyfriend who said something hurtful, or your friend who flaked on you twice in a row, you know what you need to do: Dump them. Cut them off.
“Dump them” conversations online are rarely about the church, but the church—universal, if not always a specific local congregation—is a highly dump-able target. The universal church is filled with sinners, and particular churches bring otherwise disparate people together in the work of governing a community and discussing profoundly sensitive and important topics; they often comprise a complex emotional landscape where quotidian frustrations mingle with histories of power abuses (or worse). It would be surprising if the “dump them” school of emotional hygiene had not made its way to the church.
It’s not difficult to see why this school of advice has gained traction. For one thing, it’s extremely well-suited to the internet, where we encounter the interpersonal problems of others at a far remove. Without being deeply embedded in the real-life context of the problem at hand—without knowing the people involved and all their relational history and every complicating and mitigating factor—it’s difficult to give concrete advice.
You could probe for details and produce a long, involved, branching decision tree with innumerable qualifications and ethical qualms, but that tends not to make for good copy (or fit in a tweet). But the one thing you can always give people is permission to leave.
And that brings us to the second reason “dump them” is popular: Leaving works.
Leaving a friendship, a romantic relationship, or even a vaguely defined social scene is one of the most fool-proof ways to regain and preserve your peace of mind. Leaving is obviously a tonic for abusive situations; but it works for non-abusive ones too. You can simply depart, without rancor but with firmness, and get on with your life.
There are plenty of interpersonal dramas in which no one is uniquely and unilaterally at fault, but in which the ugly patterns and complicated muddles that have become ingrained would take a strong, sustained, perhaps unending effort to put right. And sometimes that effort comes at too high a cost. Sometimes the effort is simply not proportional to the importance of the relationship. Sometimes it requires more than you can give. In that sense, leaving works.
But—and this is the part you don’t see on Instagram or in the weeds of Reddit’s advice forums—leaving always has a cost: the future you might have had together, the friendship that could have been, your own connection with your past, your social circle. Sometimes the cost of leaving is borne by someone else, someone who would have fought to give the relationship a chance, someone who misses you and doesn’t know where you went. The fact that it will hurt someone is not, by itself, necessarily a reason not to do something. But leaving always has a cost.
And if you take “dump them” as the cure-all our culture increasingly assumes it to be, you will soon run into a problem: There are people worth staying for. There are relationships worth working to preserve, even when it is very costly to us.
It’s not a bad thing to simplify, to cull the people to whom you give your finite time. Sometimes, for reasons as disparate as overcommitment and abuse, it is appropriate for relationships to end. But as you dig through the layers of extraneous associates, you will eventually hit a bedrock layer of people you do not, or should not, want to leave.
These people will not necessarily be the easiest in your acquaintance. They may not be the least prone to conflict. But they will be the people for whom it is actually worthwhile to swallow your pride, to own your part, to sit in your hurt, to accept their apology, to come back once more and try again, to treasure a broken and repaired relationship.
The “dump them” school of self-help cannot prepare you for this, because “dump them” does not treat leaving as a decision you first make, then own with all its consequences. “Dump them” is an automatic protocol triggered by any given set of bad behaviors. When it turns out that the friend you loved can hurt you just as much as—or more than—the casual acquaintance you barely knew, this school has nothing to offer but destructive consistency—at best, the “eye for an eye” defensiveness that Jesus commands us to transcend (Matt. 5:38–42).
A philosophy of interpersonal life focused on boundaries is, by nature, a rules-based philosophy. And rules are good. They have their place. They help guide our actions with big, explicit guardrails around the things we must not do and the things we must do.
But they are insufficient to practical decision-making in human life (Matt. 23:23). Humans are not robots enacting a pre-programmed plan for our lives. Genesis tells us that we rule in God’s name, in his image and likeness (1:26–28, 2:15), but we also rule with real authority to shape our lives and our world within the parameters given to us.
Decision-making—in the many cases where the choice is not between good and evil, but between good and better, or good and a different kind of good, or between a safe and assured good and a good whose contours and payoffs are still unknown—is a participation in God’s creative action. And we are ultimately answerable to God for what we create.
It is not rules, as important as they are, that allow us to exercise this power well. It is the virtue of prudence, which is, in Augustine’s deceptively simple terms, “love choosing wisely between what hinders it and what helps it.”
Prudence—or practical wisdom—is a bit of a dowdy virtue these days. It does not capture the immediate and universal admiration and respect that virtues like courage and generosity do. But it should. Prudence is the virtue that commands from the heights of human freedom. It is the knowledge of the good, the ability to recognize its many forms and permutations, and to effectively adjudicate between them in the complex specifics of our own lives.
As prudence has fallen out of favor as an aspiration, it’s hard not to see the hole it has left. On social media, we try to fill that hole with an endless proliferation of abstract rules to govern human decisions. We try to outsource the basis of individual judgment to overly simplistic moral equations, and more often than not, we find the math works out to “dump them.”
These would all be very useful precepts, doubtless, in a world neatly divided between the toxic and the wholesome, a world where the only decision you ever have to make is when to leave. But the world doesn’t work that way. And Christians, especially, have been offered something better than all this dreary arithmetic. We have been offered love that counts no costs and mercy that cannot be exhausted, and the power to share it with others (Col. 3:12–15).
Prudence steps in here to remind us that rightly ordered love doesn’t mean passivity. It doesn’t mean letting everyone walk all over us. But prudence also directs us toward the truth: that it is love, not emotional tallying, that must be the defining virtue of our lives.
Clare Coffey is a writer from Pennsylvania.