Pastor’s Bookshelf: Boundaries

Just about every personal relationship issue people face has to do with boundaries in one way or another. Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend explore this problem in their book Boundaries. They approach this major issue through the lens of Christian counseling and psychology.

We acknowledge physical boundaries in our world, so why do we struggle with emotional or social boundaries in relationships? Many people assume that putting up boundaries and saying “no” are somehow unloving actions. We have distorted the word “love” to mean to always consent and accept whatever comes our way. We even might think we are able to control the actions of others. But we must remember that boundaries signify the area in which someone may be responsible for. Just as with a fence around a yard, spiritual boundaries are very real and help define us.

Here are a few examples of mismanaged boundaries:

  • Every time a husband has an issue with his wife (or vice versa), the parent will complain about the situation with a daughter over the phone. The daughter is caught in a strange place, managing conflict between two adults instead of the mother and father dealing with one another. She frequently feels exhausted playing the mediator between mom and dad, and in turn, the husband and wife grow distant with one another.
  • A parent has a difficult time saying “no” to a son. The son repeatedly makes mistakes as an adult and always asks for a bail out when in tough times. The parent believes that “love” means protecting offspring from all consequences.
  • A son is trying to establish his career as a young adult. He faces pressure to return home every weekend to visit parents, regardless of work schedule or personal life. When he doesn’t return home, the parents become angry.
  • A husband feels lack of physical intimacy with his wife. He develops a habit of viewing online pornography.
  • An employee continually accepts requests from a boss to work over the weekend without overtime pay. She misses out on much-needed rest and time with her family.

In all these examples, one or multiple subjects struggle with putting up healthy boundaries.

Boundaries are thoroughly rooted in scripture. There were almost too many bible passages and stories to count in Boundaries! Here is a general idea of what the authors mean when boundaries are God-mandated and necessary for any relationship. God has created us to be a steward of creation. We are not responsible for the actions of others, as we cannot literally control people all the time. We must pursue God ourselves and support others, hoping and praying they chose righteousness. Galatians 6 does tell us to carry one another’s burdens, but that is not a permanent command, as we ought to be turning over everything to Christ! Galatians 6:5 does in fact tell us that everyone ought to carry their own load, implying there are many things in life we are personally responsible for and others are not. We frequently ignore these basic biblical principles and try to “play God” with other people, trying to use or control their behaviors.

So with the “ten laws” in mind, let’s examine a hypothetical example from above—the conflicted husband and wife with the exhausted daughter. A psychological term for this scenario is triangulation (Person A is mad a B, but instead of talking with B goes to C to complain. C’s relationship with B is affected and A and B make no progress to solving the initial problem!).

The “ideal” outcome for this family conflict (as I see it) is obviously that mom and dad would communicate with one another instead of bringing in the adult daughter every time they have issue. Hopefully the parents treat the daughter as an adult with her own life, not a marriage counselor or conflict mediator! How can we get to that resolution by remembering the “ten laws?”

  1. For starters, the family must remember that we sow what we reap. If a husband and wife neglect to nurture their marriage, that relationship will suffer. That is a consequence the daughter has utterly no control over! She cannot control a relationship that was not hers to begin with.
  2. Secondly, each have responsibility and are unable to be someone else. In this case, the daughter must recognize she cannot be the “partner” of her mother or father. That’s what a husband or wife is for.
  3. Third, all three family members must see that while they have power, they do not have the ability to make decisions for others. I imagine dad believes he can change mom by gossiping about her (or vice versa). Perhaps the daughter even thinks she can “fix” the marriage by listening to each parent vent! But while we all have power, we cannot control others.
  4. The fourth law of respect means that the family must acknowledge and remember the boundaries of other family members. It is not appropriate to ask the daughter to handle everything. We must respect the responsibilities of others.
  5. Fifth, to have a health parent-child relationship, the daughter must be able to say “no” to these gossip sessions over the phone. Without that free choice, this relationship will undoubtedly struggle.
  6. The sixth law might involve the daughter evaluating her boundary-setting with mom and dad. Dad might get upset she says “no” to gossiping about mom. In the big picture, however, this boundary (despite dad feeling temporarily “hurt”) is healthy to pursue and hopefully encourages the dad to be kinder in general. (An example of “harm” would be the daughter insulting dad, or gossiping about him to mom!)
  7. Seventh, the daughter must be proactive with her parents, and the parents ought to be proactive with one another. Instead of being dismissive to her father next time he calls to complain, perhaps a better response would be to voice why she cannot have this conversation (i.e. “I have a busy day at work right now” or “I am preparing for my friend’s birthday party the next couple of days”).
  8. Eighth, the parents need to see that envy is likely destroying their relationship. They might be jealous of other marriages, whether a neighbor’s or even an idealized portrait of marriage in a movie. Focusing on the problems will only develop more resentment. Focus on solutions!
  9. Ninth, everyone in this family must show initiative to solve this conflict. Mom and daughter might be “on board” for a resolution, but without the father agreeing to change his behavior and habits, some conflict will continue to persist. Everyone must be on the same page.
  10. And finally, this issue will never resolve without communicating your boundaries to others. The daughter must tell both parents that she cannot play “husband” or “wife” any longer–that is the couple’s responsibility.

Boundaries are such a complicated and important issue for relationships with children, friends, spouses, colleagues, church members, and relatives. Too often we neglect to have healthy boundaries.

Cloud and Townsend do an incredible job in Boundaries outlining the importance of this topic from a biblical perspective. They have many practical examples to support every aspect of their argument. I’ll definitely use this material in my own ministry, and think many others would benefit from reading this book!

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