If there were one principal that is most critical for healthy relationships, I would argue that it is boundaries. Many wars have been fought over boundaries between nations, and most every conflict in families somehow comes back to boundaries.
Boundaries are where one person ends and another begins. You can think of them like guardrails and lines on the side of the road, designed to keep each car in the correct lane and on the road, safe from danger.
Another way to understand the importance of boundaries is to think of situations where boundaries may have been violated:
- Your car stolen out of your driveway (property boundary violation)
- Your child molested by a previously trusted relative (physical body boundary violation and trust violation)
- A married man having an affair with a co-worker (violation of marriage vows, and of course, trust violation)
While these are clear examples, the problem with many other interpersonal boundaries is that they are invisible and even vary between people; many boundaries are simply less black and white.
Consider the person who loves to give and receive hugs, who proceeds to hug a woman who stiffens when touched and simply prefers a warm “hello.” There is no sign for the hugger to know upon first meeting a non-hugger that hugs are not welcomed, though hopefully she will take the hint when the physical affection is not reciprocated.
So, how do you thrive in a world where boundaries are critical but varied between people and cultures? Here are some tips:
1.Be aware of your own boundaries. Some areas of personal boundaries include how much sleep you need, how many social engagements you can take on during a holiday season, how much money you can spend on eating out, how much of your personal life you share on social media, etc. The list is endless.
2.Communicate your boundaries to others, clearly and kindly. No one should be expected to somehow read your mind and know what you need, want, or don’t want, including your spouse. If someone is crossing a boundary, kindly tell them. So, if asked, go ahead and tell your date at which restaurant you want to eat, or if you don’t like the one your date suggested. It’s ok!
3.Realize others likely have different boundaries than you, and that is OK, too. A mantra for this is, “That is not my decision to make.” For example, parents often run into issues of comparison where one mom lets her twelve-year-old use a smartphone while the other twelve-year-old may only use a landline to talk with friends. People have many factors when making decisions about boundaries and it is rare we know all the history and values going into these kinds of decisions. And, like with the phone example, boundaries change over time. One day that twelve-year-old will be an adult and make her own decisions, and it will probably include a cell phone. But, if she never chooses to sign on with a wireless carrier, that is her decision to make.
4.Realize where your responsibility begins and ends. This one may be the most difficult, especially when it involves others feeling offended or hurt by your boundary. For example, if you have asked a repeatedly intrusive relative that you prefer they call before stopping by your home, and she gets angry and will not talk to you, her response of anger is not your responsibility. You may have to wait until she calms down to resume a relationship, but her anger does not mean you are wrong or guilty in having a boundary about access to your home. Your home is your responsibility.
5.Do it all in love. Sometimes it is more loving to set a boundary and keep it firmly; at other times, it is more loving to relax a boundary for the good of another. Boundaries take discernment and wisdom, which explains why they can be either very helpful or very problematic depending on how they are applied.
Boundaries are powerful. This topic is so important that many books have been written about boundaries. One of the best, written from a Christian view, is Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. If you see some of your personal struggle may relate to boundaries and would like help sorting it out, please know talking with a trained counselor can help.