How Setting Boundaries Can Save Your Relationship
Before getting into this article, the term boundary first needs to be discussed. Many assume boundaries are unloving defenses intended to create distance rather than relationship. In reality, boundaries aren’t as much about keeping others out as keeping yourself in.Psychology Today puts it like this, “the whole point of having boundaries is so that we can contain ourselves within the parameters of where I stop and others begin.” It’s really not about keeping others out, as much as it is about defining who you are and what you think.
You can choose to think about boundaries as barricades and fortifications keeping others out, and maybe that’s how some people use boundaries in an unhealthy manner. However, a better way to think of healthy boundaries is as geographic markers, like state lines.
A state line doesn’t keep the other state out. That would be silly to tell California, “You are rude for keeping Nevada out.” It’s easy to recognize that’s a silly notion because the boundary lines simply designate what state is which. So, boundaries aren’t aggressive or designed to keep people out. Instead, they are self-definitions.
What is aggressive is when people try to change the boundary lines. Many wars have been fought over trying to take over someone else’s territory and that will likely be true in your life as other people attempt to change your boundary lines by force.
Many Christians seem to have adopted the idea that boundaries are inherently negative. Somehow Christianity has come to define love as having no boundaries. If someone asks you for your shirt, you give it to them. If someone slaps you on one cheek, then you should offer them the other.
Do verses like these mean you can’t stand up for yourself? Or that having boundaries is sinful? A careful, wholistic reading of Scripture reveals that while there will be moments when Christians need to sacrifice and let things go, that doesn’t mean Christians can’t or shouldn’t live with boundaries. In fact, boundaries are talked discussed regularly in the Bible and even Jesus held his own personal boundaries.
What does the Bible say about personal boundaries?
While many Christians are quick to point to verses about love, sacrifice, and being self-less in defense of their boundaryless lives, they choose to skip over a whole heap of verses that teach Christians to practice discernment when it comes to their personal life. Boundaries need to exist in relationships for love to be true, genuine, and purely motivated.
For example, Proverbs 25:17, “Let your foot be seldom in your neighbor’s house, lest he have his fill of you and hate you.” This one can’t get any more clear. If you think showing up at your neighbor’s house unannounced and uninvited is your right as a member of the Christian community, the Bible says otherwise. It actually implies that if you overstep your neighbor’s boundaries, then he will hate you, and it will be your fault! That’s a clear example of living in healthy boundaries.
Or Proverbs 26:4 says, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.” This one is a little more nuanced. Many Christians feel the need to engage anyone who talks to or approaches them. While it’s good to be aware that God can bring you into contact with someone anywhere and at any time, that doesn’t mean you have an obligation to engage everyone you meet.
If someone comes up talking foolishness (gossip, slander, lies, arrogance, vulgarity, i.e.), you are not obligated to engage them. You don’t have to feel guilty for choosing to hold up a boundary and not give them your attention, especially if it is going to negatively affect you. The Bible actually says this type of behavior can help protect you from becoming a fool yourself.
Furthermore, Jesus was known for setting boundaries. He would regularly take time away from people, even when they were looking for him, to go and be alone with the Father. If he felt the need to live into everyone’s expectation of him, he would never have had time to be alone with God.
The same is actually very true for us. In another passage, Jesus makes his boundaries abundantly clear. In John 2:24, “But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people.” This passage is amazing and too often completely overlooked. At this point in his ministry, Jesus was gaining acclaim and many people were believing in him.
He was reaching the status of a celebrity, but rather than live up to his followers’ expectations, doing what they thought he should do, he chose to withhold himself from them, maintaining his personal boundaries.
Biblical Boundaries Can Save Your Relationship
So, it’s now clear that boundaries are not unloving or unbiblical. Instead, they are powerful tools to protect you and the people you love. It’s important to take this seriously because choosing to not live with boundaries can be very damaging to your relationship. Let’s look at two examples of how boundaries can protect you and your relationship.
Imagine being married to someone. The marriage started great, but now work and stress are creating regular conflicts and these conflicts are not pretty. After one of these conflicts, you notice that your partner has a pattern of cursing during your fights, which only makes you madder because you feel belittled and demeaned.
You have the right to communicate that to your partner. You can share with them, saying something like “when you curse at me while fighting, it’s not okay. From now on, if you continue to curse during a conflict, we will have to take a break and wait until we can discuss it more civilly.”
You are aren’t giving an ultimatum or stonewalling your partner, instead, you are establishing what you are comfortable with so you can move through the conflict more effectively. But remember, the street goes both ways. Both partners will need to be willing to recognize and honor the other person’s boundaries. Boundaries in relationships are designed to strengthen your bond, not damage it.
While the image of the perfect family reunion with everyone gathered around a campfire is propagated as the American dream, anyone who has experienced unhealthy in-laws knows that it doesn’t always work out like that. If you have a great relationship with your extended family, then that’s amazing.
However, many people don’t get to experience this and one of the main difficulties is establishing your own personal boundaries as a new family, differentiating from your family of origin. Unfortunately, many parents don’t understand the “leave and cleave” discussed in Genesis.
Parents overstepping boundaries can put serious tension and stress on you and your spouse. Examples of parents overstepping boundaries are things like constant communication when you’ve asked for space and inappropriate questions regarding topics like your finances or sex life.
If you don’t put down clear boundaries, these intrusions can lead to serious conflict in your marriage. Setting boundaries with your family isn’t unloving, it’s biblical.
Christian Counseling for Setting Boundaries
While many Christians assume boundaries are inherently unloving, that really isn’t the case. Jesus and the Bible lay out clear and thorough examples of how to live into healthy boundaries. Unlike what many think, these boundaries actually work to foster better, healthier relationships.
A lack of boundaries can create significant issues because, without them, you can lose a definite sense of who you are. The goal of any relationship isn’t to become completely absorbed into another, abandoning your individual sense of self. That’s what living without boundaries actually does.
Losing your personal identity, feelings, and dreams are seen as closeness. Giving up your ability to choose is perceived as love. Sadly, many have lost sight of what love really is and instead have become satisfied with codependency in exchange for true intimacy.
If you need help setting boundaries in life or relationships, please contact me or browse our counselor directory to schedule an appointment.
“Fence on a Hill”, Courtesy of Sylwia Bartyzel, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Chatting”, Courtesy of Priscilla Du Preez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Telling it like it is”, Courtesy of Jessica Da Rosa, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Hands of Love”, Courtesy of Bhuvanesh Gupta, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
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