Boundaries. I have a real love/hate relationship with this word. I know many people who have found freedom, relief and hope in their relationships by learning about and implementing boundaries. And, I know boundaries are good. Boundaries put a line in the sand, where this is okay, but that is not. I have four children. Those lines in the sand give them safety, bring structure to our life and also add safety so that people can coexist in rewarding and good ways, true to who they are but without using who they are as an excuse for tromping on those around them. So, boundaries and limits are a good thing.
In principle, I’m sort of drawn to the safety that boundaries offer. In practice, however, I find the result of such boundaries to sometimes be much more harmful and restrictive than they are helpful. And sometimes I find them to have unanticipated consequences which make me wonder if things might be worse with the boundaries than they would have been without them.
Ahead of time I want to acknowledge again that I’m not ignoring the very real realities that make boundaries attractive and necessary at times. I’m acutely aware of those, even as I push up against some of the weaknesses in putting too much trust in boundaries for keeping ourselves safe or protected. (And I’m not saying safety and protection are bad things. I’m just wondering if boundaries offer as much as they seem to promise, and if the pay off in exchange, is always worth it.)
I can think about two categories that we tend to think about boundaries in relation to:
1. Relational boundaries to protect us from each other. I know that’s oversimplifying it and Henry Cloud and John Townsend are probably (or would be if they read this blog) jumping up and down screaming that that is missing the point. I think, from what I understand that the term boundaries in relationships is really referring more to the idea of understanding where I (with my personhood and responsibilities) stop and where you (with your personhood and responsibilities) begin. But, still, when I take that down the road, a lot of what drives an emphasis on this kind of boundaries seems to be the idea that if we aren’t on guard, other people will be a threat to us (or we will be a threat to them).
2. Boundaries we place to keep ourselves doing right. Like an alcoholic not going in a bar. Or a chocoholic like myself avoiding sales of M and Ms so that I don’t have them readily available in my house next time I have a craving.
I think I’ll start with the second one first. The need for this kind of boundaries depends on a few factors:
1. How convinced we are that the thing we want to protect ourselves from is actually wrong.
2. How strong a pull that thing has on us. Somebody else can eat a handful of M and Ms, but can I stop there? One person can drink wine socially and stop at a healthy limit. Another person can drink wine at communion and be compelled to go out and get drunk.
3. Personal sense of responsibility. Obviously, someone who has very little sense of responsibility is not going to be proactive in putting down boundaries to keep them from sliding into behavior they want to avoid. But, on the other hand, someone who feels an extremely heightened responsibility (as if everything depends on them and only them) is going to be extremely conscientious in putting down as many boundaries as possible.
4. How we feel about failure. This partly ties into number one. Obviously, if the thing I’m trying to avoid doing is really devastatingly wrong, to fail at keeping myself from it will be proportionately huge. But, this point goes deeper than that. Because if everything in my life depends on keeping myself from failing (again) or giving in (again), then it becomes a lot more essential to my own sense of survival to protect myself as extremely as I can and to distance myself as far as I can from anything that might make the possibility of failure easier. In any area that I might potentially do wrong. If I fail to get or do right, what happens and how much does that matter to me? Do I mess up my life? My children’s lives? Do I disappoint God? Or my parents? Or my spouse? Am I enfuriated with myself? The answers to some of those questions about the implications of my failure to always do right will affect how strongly I feel the need to proactively protect myself in every imaginable way from anything I might do wrong, any area I might fail or even any area where I might possibly miss the will of God.
So, that leads into some of the problems I see with boundaries:
1. It feeds legalism. If alcoholism is wrong, and I can conceivably imagine myself becoming an alcoholic, I should draw my boundaries regarding alcohol as far out as possible. And that’s probably good if I know alcoholism has a pull for me. But, laying out explicit boundaries for the use of alcohol to protect everyone everywhere from ever falling into that ends up looking pretty legalistic. How about sexual immorality. It’s wrong. So, how do we protect ourselves? It’s important to care about avoiding sexual immorality, but as soon as we try to do that by laying out rules, where do you stop? Do you say, I’ll never be alone with a member of the opposite sex? Do you say, I’ll never go swimming in mixed company? Do you say, I’ll dress modestly (which comes with its one meta boundaries that then need to be defined? How long do my skirts need to be to provide a safe boundary? How high does the top of my shirt need to be? How long do my sleeves need to be? Shoot, maybe I should just wear a burqua and cover it all?) Do you say, I’ll always turn off the TV if I see someone wearing something seductive or engaging in sexual immorality? Do you say, I’ll never go out in public because I might see someone dressing immodestly, which might tempt me to immoral thoughts? Now, I’m not saying any of those boundaries are wrong. Some of them are good, and some of them are rules in my home. But, if the point is that the rules and boundaries are what we are demanding to keep us safe, at some point, there needs to be another rule and another.
2. Inconsistency. Back to the modesty thing. I believe modesty is good and important. I’m not silent on the topic with my children. We talk about it, but more in terms of principles and the heart attitudes relative to it. Now, don’t get me wrong–I’m still my kids’ mom and there is a place and time (and I do exercise it) to say, “No, you’re not wearing that.” But, if I’m focused only on laying down boundaries and rules of exactly what is modest and what isn’t, at some point I’m going to be inconsistent and I’m going to miss a rule that could have protected my daughter (or that is how it will seem to me). It’s impossible, I think, to be consistent if we are depending on ourselves and the boundaries we lay down to catch and prevent every danger.
3. Following out of inconsistency is hypocrisy. If firm boundary rules are what matter and are what keep behavior “right”, then a way will be found to get around every boundary. I’m thinking of the Pharisees and their piling rules upon rules. And then totally missing out on the spirit of the law for all the following of the letter of the extra laws they piled up. You lay down the law, you roll out the carpet for the loophole.
4. Pride. I have one son who is super perfectionistic. He can’t stand to fail, and he will do anything to avoid it. Left unaddressed, though, this tendency in him already leads him to try to control his surroundings so that he will not ever have to fail or even make a mistake. If fear of failure or a drive to perfect ourselves in our own strength is what is driving the boundaries we place, then, indeed we are feeding pride and an impossible delusion that we can be perfect if we regulate ourselves enough. The delusion seems to be along the lines of: If I can lay down enough boundaries, I might not ever have to face that I let someone else down, I might not ever have to be humbled and admit I’ve done wrong, that I’ve hurt someone or that I’ve grieved God.
5. Tied into the last point, I believe that boundaries can also feed or drive an unbalanced focus on self sufficiency. If I can lay down enough boundaries for myself, then I can keep my behavior in line. I can lick this thing. I don’t need God. I don’t need other people. If I’m so proud that I need to hedge myself in from this side and that to keep me from any potential wrong or sin, then I’m also probably depending only on myself to accomplish that. Willpower. If I try hard enough, if I anticipate every possible trap and avoid all of them like the plague, I just might be able to keep my behavior in line.
6. This type of boundaries, designed to keep my behavior in line, seems to make the fruit of the Spirit of self control into something I can tack onto my own life or create for myself. I don’t need the Holy Spirit if I can be my own Holy Spirit.