With social contact increasing and big holidays approaching, I thought it would be a good time to pick up on the Marriage and Motherhood Anew devotional series, with a discussion on healthy boundaries.
We are connected to family relatives for life, whether those relationships are enjoyed or estranged, acknowledged or ignored. Moreover, with social media and video chat, contact today is all too convenient to attempt avoiding certain family members all together. Birthdays, holidays, weddings, events, and gatherings are likely to inevitably happen.
There are countless variations in family dynamics, so this devotional will focus on practical tools that can be applied in general.
WHY DO WE NEED BOUNDARIES?
Everyone actually needs boundaries in life. Healthy boundaries are especially needed for relationships that are differently-minded, sensitive, fragile, dysfunctional, difficult, estranged, or tense.
Healthy boundaries are not selfish, snobbish, rude, bossy, or vengeful. Think of them like you would a door to your home. The door can be open as a passageway between people freely coming and going, it can be closed but readily opened at the sound of a knock, or it can be locked and shut for the protection of those within. Healthy boundaries are healthy for everyone. At times, it is even the placement of the boundary itself that alerts others to their hurtful behaviors. It may seem obvious to us that other people should consider the effects of their actions, but reality is that many continue in their behavior regardless of your feelings solely because they continue to get their way. The establishment of a fair and kind boundary can initiate the process of teaching some people how you deserve to be treated. Contrary to a common myth, boundaries do not ruin relationships but actually bridge connections with the long-view of peace in mind. Contrary to a common myth, boundaries do not ruin relationships but actually bridge connections with the long-view of peace in mind.
Let’s start by examining Romans 12:18
“If possible, as far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
“If possible”: There are times and circumstances, for safety and/or sanity, that it is legitimately not possible to be in contact with a relative. This may be temporary depending on their behavior or physical distance, for example substance abuse, violence, or imprisonment. However, if it IS possible to extend a branch of any connection whatsoever, we are asked to do so by the God of relationships.
“as far as it depends on YOU”: You can only make choices based on what is in your control. Choose wisely, but do not burden yourself with the responsibility of others’ thoughts or actions. You are only responsible for “as far as” YOU can go.
“live”: Important relationships are worth working at, especially the ones that you are connected to for your lifetime. Ask yourself, “Is this an important or permanent relationship in my life? If not in my life, is it an important or permanent relationship in the life of my spouse or my child(ren)?”
“peaceably”: Note that of all possible words to describe how we are to live in relationship with others, God chose to emphasize peace. Why highlight peace over power, position, or being proven right in a relationship? The answer is another question: Is not our goal in all of our relationships to ultimately share the peace of Christ?
“with”: We don’t choose our family, so actually we don’t choose the people that our lives are most closely venn-diagrammed with. As freeing or convenient as it might feel, the passage doesn’t read “live peaceably aware of all”. To live with another is to share a part of your world, which could be in person or at the very least, in prayer; but the fact remains that we can’t live “with” people if we don’t acknowledge their existence at all. The previous devotionals about forgiveness offers the reality that God knew what He was doing when He placed you with your childhood family, and YOU can have an impact on those relationships as much as they have had an impact on you.
“all”: “All” includes the loving and unloving, the kind and unkind, the respectful and disrespectful. “All” includes the encouraging, thoughtful, loyal, honest, gracious, forgiving, considerate, generous, helpful, dependable, caring relatives AND the self-absorbed, self-pitying, self-aggrandizing, discouraging, spiteful, jealous, embittered, wounding, manipulative, needy, belligerent, two-faced, harsh, irresponsible, greedy, inconsiderate, infantile relatives. It is SO hard to live peaceably with all. Yet, Christ loves all, including us at our worst. One of the clearest ways for people to see Christ in us is not when we live peaceably with the peaceful, but when we live peaceably with ALL.
WHY DO WE SET ASIDE BOUNDARIES?
Some find themselves in desperate need of healthy boundaries, but hesitate to establish them or set them aside. Why? Three top reasons are: conditioning, fear, and self-doubt.
Conditioning: Some people have become so used to the way things have always been, they are conditioned to simply accept the way things are.
Fear: If you are fearful of conflict, fallout, misunderstanding, judgement, or being gossiped about, remember that the path of least resistance with keep you stuck in a snare. The fear of mankind is a snare — Proverbs 29:25 (CSB)
Self-doubt: If you grew up in an authoritarian home or face belittlement with the family member(s) whom you need boundaries with, you may feel timid in assuming such a firm leadership stance by enacting boundaries, even if they are clearly needed. However, you are now the authority under God in your home and family, and you have the right – and the responsibility- to set appropriate boundaries. You are literally free to step up, so feel free! For freedom, Christ set us free. Stand firm, then, and don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery. — Galatians 5:1 (CSB)
What about Honor your father and your mother… — Exodus 20:12 (CSB)?Honoring your father and mother could be an entirely separate devotional. God commands that we honor our parents, whether they parented honorably or not. Honor means to accept or pay respect to. Honor does not mean admire, agree with, please, or serve. Know that healthy boundaries are thus by definition, not dishonorable.
STEPS TO BUILDING HEALTHY BOUNDARIES:
- Notice the need. Simple enough, identify spiked stress levels mentally, emotionally, or within your marriage or motherhood whenever there is interaction with certain relatives.
- Identify specifics. What exactly is it that needs the establishment of a boundary? The boundary may not even be needed for every encounter but may be activity or situation specific. For instance, it may be a great relationship overall except when politics comes up. Or perhaps time together may be enjoyable, but there is an expectation of the amount of time spent together that is difficult to accommodate with your other schedule priorities.
- Consider the cost of what you can control. Are you able and willing to uphold your end of this bridge in the long term?
- Is it an internal boundary? Do you need to manage your expectations, sensitivity, perspective, reactions when it come to this person’s behavior?
- Is it an environmental boundary? Are there certain places you should not go or certain people you should not invite over? What is best for your child(ren) depending on their age and stage of life? What will work best for your family to not get caught in a stressful situation?
- Is it a verbal boundary? Is it necessary that a conversation must take place for future interactions to be as healthy as possible for all involved.
DO’s and DO NOT NEED TO’s
- Pray over every boundary or interaction.
The Lord is the one who will go before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or abandon you. Do not be afraid or discouraged. — Deuteronomy 31:8 (CSB)
- Prepare and practice. If a hurricane is coming, it’s good to have your storm shutters ready. Practice staying calm and respectful in your speech and tone, if and when it starts getting rough. Remind yourself beforehand not to fight, flight, freeze, interrupt, internalize, etc. Predetermine at what point you will need to kindly stop or remove yourself and/or your husband and child(ren) from receiving hostility. Rehearse how you might want to respond to requests that you may anticipate coming. Be careful of being too passive, too aggressive, or passive-aggressive, and know which one(s) you tend to be.
“So give your servant a receptive heart to judge… and to discern.” — 1 Kings 3:9 (CSB)
- If you are married, operate as a TEAM and always present a UNITED front. Come to a mutual agreement on the boundaries, and who will enact what with who.
Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate. — Mark 10:9 (CSB)
- Be fair and beneficial. Remember that boundaries are not a means of avoidance or punishment to others. Decide on what boundaries are really important. Not every hill is one to die on. Be open to other solutions if they are presented, don’t be set on an idea because it was the one that you chose. A boundary is not about power, it’s a handshake rather than an arm wrestle. Create boundaries that people – including you – can realistically and sustainably do.
Everyone should look not to his own interests, but rather to the interests of others. — Philippians 2:4 (CSB)
Maintain sound wisdom and discretion…don’t lose sight of them. They will be life for you and adornment for your neck. Then you will go safely on your way; your foot will not stumble. — Proverbs 3:21-23 (CSB)
- Have a confident and positive attitude going in. Disentangle from the negative narrative or victim mindset. You usually have more agency than you give yourself credit for. Instead of saying “I can’t do this without such and such happening”, say “I can do this, and then such and such may be the cost, but the choice is still mine.”
Do everything without grumbling and arguing — Philippians 2:14 (CSB)
- Focus on what you can control. Feel the freedom of not being able to control the actions of others. Even if you could make them behave in a way that produced the results that you desire, do you really have the time and energy for the extra work that it would require? Controlling ourselves is already more than we can handle but for the grace of God.
- Speaking of control, control your emotions. It may seem counterintuitive, since nothing can bring emotions out quite like family or the past, but anger undermines the big picture goal of healthy boundaries. A display of anger will likely discredit you and turn the focus to your anger instead of the issue at hand. Anger will never produce what God wants in your family in a healthy way.
Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger — James 1:19 (CSB)
Patience is better than power, and controlling one’s emotions, than capturing a city. — Proverbs 16:32 (CSB)
- Stay firmly gentle. Calmly respond, don’t just react. (See above)
A ruler can be persuaded through patience, and a gentle tongue can break a bone. — Proverbs 25:15 (CSB)
- Listen intently. You may think they are the only ones who need to listen, but asking productive questions can help pace the discussion and steady it away from becoming confrontational. Asking considerate questions can give them an opportunity to direct their thoughts towards solutions instead of just defending themselves, as people tend to do when they feel they are being given the what for. Example: “I don’t insist on being the only one talking or suggesting. What do you believe is a healthy solution to (fill in the blank)?”
The one who gives an answer before he listens this is foolishness and disgrace for him.– Proverbs 18:13-14 (CSB)
Just as you want others to do for you, do the same for them. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. If you do what is good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do what is good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High. For he is gracious to the ungrateful and evil. Be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful. — Luke 6:31-36 (CSB)
- Thank them if they listen or are cooperative. Manners can go a long way if these conversations take place. Thanking them is not you expressing indebtedness to them, it is choosing to freely give what costs you nothing to further demonstrate God’s grace in you.
Give thanks in everything; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus — 1 Thessalonians 5:18 (CSB)
- Stay patiently on topic. When people feel cornered -and they may feel cornered even if you’re not cornering them, remember you can’t control how they perceive what you’re doing – they often trail off in different directions. Stay on the original path. Example: “I hear you and we can definitely address that next, but as far as what we’re discussing now…”
With all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace — Ephesians 4:2-3 (CSB)
You DO NOT need to:
- Apologize for a fair and healthy boundary. Apologies are for sins and mistakes, it doesn’t make sense to apologize for a good thing like a beneficial boundary. Instead of “I’m sorry we can’t do…”, try “Unfortunately, we are unable to…”. Instead of “I’m sorry you feel that way”, try “I understand you feel that way”. If the boundary is fair and healthy, there is nothing to apologize for.
- Allow guilt, but do accept the risk that the relationship may feel even more strained if the other person(s) do not like the boundaries.
- Over explain. Stay on topic, and stay as concise as possible. The wordier you are, the more breadcrumbs that fall on the path and soon you may lose your way.
- Be intimidated. They are not your Lord, so do not allow them to lord over you.
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put aside childish things. — 1 Corinthians 13:11 (CSB)
Don’t let anyone despise your youth, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity. — 1 Timothy 4:12 (CSB)
This I know: God is for me…In God I trust; I will not be afraid. What can mere humans do to me? — Psalms 56:9-11 (CSB)
- Compulsively cave under pressure. Do not be coerced or convinced to comply just to keep the peace. You do not have to light yourself on fire to keep everyone else warm and comfy.
Each person should do as he has decided in his heart — not reluctantly or out of compulsion — 2 Corinthians 9:7 (CSB)
- Take part or get pulled into drama. Conflict is inevitable, but drama is a choice. When there is family fighting, everyone actually loses.
But if you bite and devour one another, watch out, or you will be consumed by one another. — Galatians 5:15 (CSB)
- Burden yourself by trying to figure out all of the reasons why unreasonable people may act unreasonably, unless you would like to see just how fast your joy can be drained.
The honest and unfortunate truth is: A fool’s way is right in his own eyes — Proverbs 12:15 (CSB). You’ll go mad trying to understand madness.
- Berate yourself for having to recalibrate or troubleshoot boundaries. Do not expect yourself to be able to predict every outcome or see everything coming. You can’t walk through a minefield and expect to already know where all the explosives are hidden. Some boundaries will have to be adjusted or upgraded, but God is with you!
I will go before you and level the uneven places; — Isaiah 45:2 (CSB)
Protecting your child(ren):
Depending on your background, you may want to already have responses ready for whenever your kids ask you about your own childhood or current family situation. Choose very wisely which experiences you share. If you have no good experiences whatsoever, feel free to share about yourself as a kid in general. Tell them about your hobbies and hopes for your future, or what were popular trends that you liked at the time.
Guard against your kids being put in the middle of difficult relationships. They simply don’t understand, and speaking negatively (no matter how easy it is in the moment) will conflict with the natural childlike love they feel for the person and will likely confuse them. You may recall being dragged in the middle of bad relationships yourself as a child, so you can remember how damaging it is when adults don’t handle little hearts with care. Plus, kids are tape recorders with no replay filter and what you say could blow up in your face later.
Never argue about or vent family grievances or offenses in front of the child(ren). When they hear their parent(s) upset, say in the car on the way home after a gathering for example, it deeply burdens their tender minds and hearts. Now if they were involved – such as if a relative loses their temper on them or says something inappropriate – assure them that it’s going to be handled as God directs you. You’re not hiding things from them, just protecting their young minds the way you may have wanted when you were their age, and cultivating peace.
And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who cultivate peace. — James 3:18 (CSB)
In summary, Healthy Boundaries can help:
- Create clear expectations
- Keep relationships in a peaceful place
- Maintain the physical safety of ourselves, our spouse, or our child(ren)
- Protect the mental and emotional health of ourselves, our spouse, or our child(ren)
- Foster a stable atmosphere for our home and family
- Teach people how we should be treated
With whom does a specific boundary need to be created?
How will this boundary be created/maintained?
What benefits would this boundary hopefully provide?
What are the possible challenges or risks of this boundary?
How do you plan to proceed?