Marsha switched on the television, not even noticing which show was on. She was thinking about her phone call with her best friend, Tammy. She had asked Tammy to go to a movie with her. Tammy had had other plans for the evening. Once again, Marsha had taken the initiative. Once again, she was disappointed. Tammy never called her. Was this what friendship was supposed to be about?
Friendship. The word conjures up images of intimacy, fondness, and a mutual drawing together of two people. Friends are symbols of how meaningful our lives have been. The saddest people on earth are those who end their days with no relationships in which they are truly known and truly loved.
Friendship can be a broad category; most of the relationships mentioned in this book have friendship components. But for our purposes, let`s define friendship as a nonromantic relationship that is attachment-based rather than function-based. In other words, let`s exclude relationships based on a common task, like work or ministry. Let`s look at friendship as comprising people we want to be around just for their own sake.
Boundary conflicts with friends come in all sizes and shapes. To understand the various issues, let`s look at a few conflicts and how they can be resolved with boundaries.
Conflict #1: Compliant/Compliant
In some ways it was a great friendship; in other ways, it was awful. Sean and Tim enjoyed the same sports, activities, and recreation. They went to the same church and liked the same restaurants. But they were just too nice to each other.
Their realization of the problem came up one weekend when a white-water rafting trip and a sixties conceit were scheduled on the same day. Sean and Tim enjoyed both activities, but they couldn`t do both. Sean called Tim, suggesting they go rafting. €œAbsolutely, answered his friend. However, unbeknownst to each other, neither Sean nor Tim really wanted to go rafting. In their heart of hearts, both men had been looking forward to going to the concert.
Halfway down the river, Sean and Tim got honest with each other. Tired and wet. Tim blurted out, It was your big idea to come on this trip.
€œTim, Sean said with surprise. €œI thought you wanted to go rafting.
€œOh, no! Since you called me, I figured that`s what you wanted! Old buddy, he continued ruefully, €œmaybe it`s time we stopped treating each other like china dolls.
The result of two compliants` interacting is that neither does what he really wants. Each is so afraid of telling the other the truth that neither ever does.
Let`s apply a boundary checklist to this conflict. This checklist of questions will not only help you locate where you are in setting boundaries, but also show you how to get where you want to go.
1. What are the symptoms? One symptom of a compliant/compliant conflict is dissatisfaction€”a sense that you allowed something you shouldn`t have.
2. What are the roots? Compliants come from backgrounds where they had to avoid saying no to keep others happy. Since their roots are similar, it`s often hard for two compliant people to help each other.
3. What is the boundary conflict? Compliant people politely deny their own boundaries to keep the peace.
4. Who needs to take ownership? Each compliant needs to take responsibility for his or her attempts to appease or please the other. Sean and Tim both need to admit that they each control the other by being nice.
5. What do they need? Compliant people need to have Supportive relationships to plug into, be they support groups, home Bible Studies counselors. Their fear of hurting the other person makes it difficult for them to set boundaries on their own.
6. How do they begin? Both compliants practice setting limits on trivial things. They may begin with being honest about things like tastes in restaurants, church liturgies, music, and the like.
7. How do they set boundaries with each other? Sean and Tim talk with each other face-to-face, finally telling the truth and revealing limits they`d like to start setting. They commit themselves to better boundaries with each other.
8. What happens next? Sean anti Tim may have to admit that their interests are not as similar as they`d thought. They may need to separate more from each other. Having different friends for different activities is no blot on the relationship; it might help their friendship in the long run.
Conflict #2: Compliant/Aggressive Controller
The compliant/aggressive controller conflict, the most identifiable of friendship conflicts, has classic symptoms. The compliant feels intimidated and inferior in the relationship; the aggressive controller feels irritated at being nagged by the compliant.
€œWell, all right, if you insist is a catchphrase of the compliant. Usually, the aggressive controller is insisting on using some of the compliant`s time, talents, or treasures. The aggressive controller has no problem demanding what she wants. Sometimes she just takes what she wants without asking. €œI needed it is enough reason for the aggressive controller to help herself to whatever the compliant has, be it car keys, a cup of sugar, or three hours of time.
Since the compliant is usually unhappy in this relationship, he is the one who needs to take action. Let`s put this relationship through the boundary checklist:
1. What are the symptoms? The compliant feels controlled arid resentful; the aggressive controller feels good, except she doesn`t like to be nagged.
2. What are the roots? The compliant probably grew up in a family who taught turn to avoid conflict, rather than embrace it. The aggressive controller never received training in delaying gratification and in taking responsibility for herself.
3. What is the boundary conflict? Two specific boundary conflicts are the inability of the compliant to set clear limits with his friend, and the inability of the aggressive controller to respect the compliants limits.
4. Who needs to take ownership? The compliant needs to see that he isn`t a victim of the aggressive controller; he is volunteering his power to his friend on a silver platter. Giving up his power is his way of controlling his friend. The compliant controls the aggressive controller by pleasing her, hoping it will appease her and cause her to change her behavior. The aggressive controller needs to own that she has difficulty listening to no and accepting the limits of others. She needs to take responsibility for her need to control her friend.
5. What is needed? The unhappier one in the friendship, the compliant, needs to plug into a supportive group of people to help him with this boundary conflict.
6. How do they begin? In preparation for confronting his friend, the compliant needs to practice setting limits in his support group. The aggressive controller could really benefit from honest feedback from loving friends on how she runs over people and how she can learn to respect the limits of others.
7. How do they set boundaries? The compliant applies biblical principles to his friendship (see Matthew 18). He confronts his friend on her control and intimidation. He tells her that the next time she tries to control him, he will leave.
He does not attempt to control her. Confrontation isn`t an ultimatum meant to rob her of her choices. He sets limits to let her know that her control hurts him and wounds their friendship. Such limits protect the compliant from further hurt. The aggressive controller can become as angry or intimidating as she wants, but the compliant won`t be around to get hurt. He will be out of the room, the house, or the friendship€”until it`s safe to come back.
The aggressive controller experiences the consequences of her actions. Not having her friend around may force her to miss the attachment, and she can begin to take responsibility for the control that ran her friend off.
8. Now what? At this point, if both friends are open, the two can renegotiate the relationship. They can set new ground rules, such as, €œI`ll Stop nagging if you`ll stop being critical, and can build a new friendship.
Conflict #3: CompliantlManipulative Controller
€œCathy, I`m in a real jam, and you`re the only one I can depend on to help me out. I can`t get a baby-sitter for the kids, and I have this church meeting….
Cathy listened to the plight of her friend, Sharon. It was the usual story. Sharon neglected to plan for events, to call ahead for sitters. She often called Cathy to help out in these self-induced emergencies.
Cathy hated being stuck in this position. Sharon didn`t do it on purpose, and she needed her for a good cause, but Cathy still felt used and exploited. What was she to do?
Many friendships get stuck in this interaction between compliants and manipulative controllers. Why do we call Sharon controlling? She`s not consciously trying to manipulate her friend; however, no matter what her good intentions are, when she`s in a jam, Sharon uses her friends. She takes them for granted, thinking that they shouldn`t mind doing a friend a favor. Her friends go along, saying, €œWell, that`s just Sharon. They stifle their resentment.
Let`s run this conflict through our boundary checklist:
1. What are the symptoms? The compliant (Cathy) feels resentment at the manipulative controller`s (Sharon`s) last-minute requests. Cathy feels as though her friendship is being taken for granted. She begins to avoid her friend.
2. What are the roots? Sharon`s parents rescued her from every jam, from finishing term papers at 3:00 A.M. to lending her money when she was well into her thirties. She lived in a very forgiving universe, where nice people would always help her out. She never had to face her own irresponsibility and lack of discipline and planning.
As a child, Cathy didn`t like her mother`s hurt look when she said no. She grew up afraid of hurting others by setting boundaries. Cathy would do anything to avoid conflict with friends- especially with Sharon.
3. What is the boundaries conflict? Sharon doesn`t plan ahead and take responsibility for her schedule. When responsibilities €œget away from her, she calls out to the nearest compliant for help. And Cathy comes running.
4. Who needs to take ownership? Cathy, the motivated party in this conflict, sees how her never€”ending yes contributes to Sharon`s illusion that she doesn`t ever have to plan ahead. Cathy needs to stop feeling like a victim and take responsibility for saying no.
5. What does she need? Cathy needs to connect with others who will support her as she looks at the boundary issues between her and her friend.
6. How does she begin? Cathy practices saying no with supportive friends. In a supportive atmosphere she learns to disagree, to state her opinion, and to confront. They all pray for strength and guidance in this relationship.
7. How does she set boundaries? At their next lunch, Cathy tells Sharon about her feelings of being used and taken advantage of. She explains how she`d like a more mutual relationship. Then she lets her friend know that she won`t be taking any more €œemergency baby€”sitting jobs.
Sharon, unaware of how she was hurting her friend, is genuinely sorry about the problem. She begins to take more responsibility for her schedule. After a few futile attempts to get Cathy to baby-sit at the last minute and having to miss a few important meetings, she starts planning for events a week or two ahead of time.
8. What happens` next? The friendship grows and deepens. Over time, Cathy and Sharon laugh over the conflict that actually brought them closer.
Conflict #4: Compliant/Nonresponsive
Remember the Marsha-Tammy friendship at the beginning of this chapter? One friend doing all the work and the other coasting illustrates the compliant//nonresponsive conflict. One party feels frustrated and resentful; the other wonders what the problem is. Marsha sensed that the friendship wasn`t important to Tammy as it was to her.
Let`s analyze the situation:
1. What are the symptoms? Marsha feels depressed, resentful, and unimportant. Tammy, however, may feel guilty or overwhelmed by her friend`s needs and demands.
2. What are the roots? Marsha always feared that if she didn`t control her important attachments by doing all the work, she`d be abandoned. So she became a Martha to everyone else`s Mary, a worker instead of a lover (Luke 10:38-42).
Tammy has never had to work hard for friendships. Always popular and in demand, she`s passively taken from important friendships. She`s never lost anyone by not being responsive. In fact, they work harder to keep her around.
3. What is the boundary conflict? There could be two boundary conflicts here. First, Marsha takes on too much responsibility for the friendship. She`s not letting her friend bear her own load (Gal. 6:5). Second, Tammy doesn`t take enough responsibility for the friendship. She knows that Marsha will come up with activities from which she can pick and choose. Why work when someone else will?
4. Who needs to take ownership? Marsha needs to take responsibility for making it too easy for Tammy to do nothing. She sees that her attempts to plan, call, and do all the work are disguised attempts to control love.
5. What do they need? Both women need support from other friends. They can`t look objectively at this problem without a relationship or two of unconditional love around them.
6. How do they begin? Marsha practices setting limits with supportive friends. She realizes that she will still have friendships in which each friend carries her own weight if she and Tammy break off their friendship.
7. How do they set boundaries? Marsha tells Tammy about her feelings and informs her that she will need to take equal responsibility for their friendship in the future. In other words, after Marsha calls, she won`t call again unless Tammy does. Marsha hopes that Tammy will miss her and begin calling.
If worst comes to worst and the friendship atrophies due to Tammy`s unresponsivesness, Marsha has gained something. She`s learned it wasn`t a mutual connection in the first place. Now she can grieve, get over it, and move on to find real friends.
8. What happens next? The mini-crisis changes the character of the friendship permanently. It either exposes it for a nonrelationship€”or it provides soil for the rebuilding of a better one.
Questions about Friendship Boundary Conflicts
Boundary conflicts in friendships are difficult to deal with because the only cord tying the relationship together is the attachment itself. There`s no wedding ring. There`s no job connection. There`s just the friendship€”and it often seems all too fragile and in danger of being severed.
People who are in the above conflicts often raise the following questions when they consider setting boundaries on their friendships.
Question #1: Aren`t Friendships Easily Broken?
Most friendships have no external commitment, such as marriage, work, or church, to keep the friends together. The phone could just stop ringing and the relationship die with no real ripples in the lives of the participants. So aren`t friendships at greater risk of breaking up when boundary conflicts arise?
This type of thinking has two problems. First, it assumes that external institutions such as marriage, work, and church are the glue that holds relationships together. It assumes that our commitments are what hold us together, not our attachments. Biblically and practically, nothing could be further from the truth.
We hear this thinking in many Christian circles: €œIf you don`t like someone, act like you do. Or, €œmake yourself love them. Or, commit to loving someone. Or, €œchoose to love someone, and the feelings will come.
Choice and commitment are elements of a good friendship. We do need more than fair-weather friends. However, Scripture teaches us that we can`t depend on commitment or sheer willpower, for they will always let us down. Paul cried out that he did what he didn`t want to do, and he didn`t do what he wanted to do (Rom. 7:19). He was stuck. We all experience the same conflict. Even when we commit to a loving friendship, bad things happen. We let them down. Feelings go sour. Simply white-knuckling it won`t reestablish the relationship.
We can solve our dilemma the same way Paul solved his: €œTherefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). The answer is being €œin Christ Jesus- in other words, in relationship with Christ, both vertically and horizontally. As we stay connected to God, to our friends, and to our support groups, we are filled up with the grace to hang in there and fight out the boundary conflicts that arise. Without this external source of connection, we`re doomed to an empty willpower that ultimately fails or makes us think we`re omnipotent.
Again, the Bible teaches that all commitment is based on a loving relationship. Being loved leads to commitment and willful decision-making€”not the reverse.
How does this apply to friendships? Look at it this way. How would you feel if your best buddy approached you and said: €œI just wanted to tell you that the only reason we`re friends is because I`m committed to our friendship. There`s nothing that draws me to you. I don`t particularly enjoy your company. But I will keep choosing to be your friend.
You probably wouldn`t feel very safe or cherished in this relationship. You`d suspect you were being befriended out of obligation, not out of love. Don`t let anyone fool you. All friendships need to be based on attachment, or they have a shaky foundation.
The second problem with thinking that friendships are weaker than institutionalized relationships such as marriage, church, and work is in assuming that those three aren`t attachment-based. It simply isn`t true. If it were, wedding vows would ensure a zero percent divorce rate. Professions of faith would ensure faithful church attendance. A hiring would ensure one hundred percent attendance at work. These three important institutions, so crucial to our lives, are, to a large degree, attachment€”based.
It`s scary to realize that the only thing holding our friends to us isn`t our performance, or our lovability, or their guilt, or their obligation. The only thing that will keep them calling, spending time with us, and putting up with us is love. And that`s the one thing we can`t control.
At any moment, any person can walk away from a friendship. However, as we enter more and more into an attachment-based life, we learn to trust love. We learn that the bonds of a true friendship are not easily broken. And we learn that, in a good relationship, we can set limits that will strengthen, not injure, the connection.
Question #2: How Can I Set Boundaries in Romantic Friendships?
Single Christians have tremendous struggles with learning to be truth-tellers and limit-setters in romantic, dating friendships. Most of the conflicts revolve around the fear of losing the relationship. A client may say: €œThere`s someone in my life whom I like a lot€”but I`m afraid if I say no to him, I`ll never see him again.
A couple of unique principles operate in the romantic sphere:
1. Romantic relationships are, by nature, risky. Many singles who have not developed good attachments with other people and who have not had their boundaries respected try to learn the rules of biblical friendships by dating. They hope that the safety of these relationships will help them learn to love, be loved, and set limits.
Quite often, these individuals come out of a few months of dating more injured than when they went in. They may feel let down, put down, or used. This is not a dating problem. It`s a problem in understanding the purpose of dating.
The purpose of dating is to practice and experiment. The end goal of dating is generally to decide, sooner or later, whether or not to marry. Dating is a means to find out what kind of person we complement and with whom we are spiritually and emotionally compatible. It`s a training ground for marriage.
This fact causes a built-in conflict. When we date, we have the freedom to say, at any time, €œThis isn`t working out, and to end the relationship. The other person has the same freedom.
What does this mean for the person whose boundaries have been injured? Often, she brings immature, underdeveloped aspects of her character to an adult romantic situation. In an arena of low commitment and high risk, she seeks the safety, bonding, and consistency that her wounds need. She entrusts herself too quickly to someone whom she is dating because her needs are so intense. And she will lie devastated when things €œdon`t work out.
This is a little like sending a three-year-old to the front lines of battle. Dating is a way for adults to find out about each other`s suitability for marriage; it`s not a place for young, injured souls to find healing. This healing can best be found in nonromantic arenas, such as support groups, church groups, therapy, and same-sex friendships. We need to keep separate the purposed of romantic and nonromantic friendships.
It`s best to learn the skill of setting boundaries in these nonromantic arenas, where the attachments and commitment are greater. Once we`ve learned to recognize, set, and keep our biblical boundaries, we can use them on the adult playground called dating.
2. Setting limits in romance is necessary. Individuals with mature boundaries sometimes suspend them in the initial stages of a dating relationship in order to please the other person. However, truth-telling in romance helps define the relationship. It helps each person to know where he starts and the other person stops.
Ignorance of one another`s boundaries is one of the most blatant red flags of the poor health of a dating relationship. We`ll ask a couple in premarital counseling, €œWhere do you disagree? Where do you lock horns? When the answer is, €œIt`s just amazing, we`re so compatible, we have very few differences, We`ll give the couple homework: Find out what you`ve been lying about to each other. If the relationship has any hope, that assignment will generally help.
Question # 3: What If My Closest Friends Are My Family?
Boundary-developing individuals sometimes say, €œBut my mother (or father, or sister, or brother) is my best friend. They often feel fortunate that, in these times of family stress, their best friends are the family in which they were raised. They don`t think they need an intimate circle of friends besides their own parents and siblings.
They misunderstand the biblical function of` the family. God intended the family to be an incubator in which we grow the maturity, tools, and abilities we need. Once the incubator has done its job, then, it`s supposed to encourage the young adult to leave the nest and connect to the outside world (Gen. 2:24), to establish a spiritual and emotional family system on ones own. The adult is free to do whatever God has designed for him or her.
Over time, we are to accomplish God`s purposes of spreading his love to the world, to make disciples of all the nations (Matt. 28:19-20). Staying emotionally locked in to the family of origin frustrates this purpose. It`s hard to see how we`ll change the world when we have to live on the same street.
No one can become a truly biblical adult without setting some limits, leaving home, and cleaving somewhere else. Otherwise, we never know if we have forged our own values, beliefs, and convictions€”our very identity€”or if we are mimicking the ideas of our family.
Can family be friends? Absolutely. But if you have never questioned, set boundaries, or experienced conflict with your family members, you may not have an adult-to-adult connection with your family. If you have no other €œbest friends than your family, you need to take a close look at those relationships. You may be afraid of separating and individuating, of becoming an autonomous adult.
Question #4: How Can I Set Limits with Needy Friends?
I was talking to a woman one day in session who felt extremely isolated and out of control. Setting limits with her friends seemed impossible for her; they were in perpetual crisis.
I asked her to describe the quality of her relationship. €œOh, I`ve got a lots of friends. I volunteer at the church two nights a week. I teach a Bible study once a week. I`m on a couple of church committees, and I sing in the choir.
€œI`m getting exhausted just listening to you describe your week, I said. €œBut what about the quality of these relationships?
€œThey`re great. People are being helped. They`re growing in their faith, and troubled marriages are getting healed.
€œYou know, I said, €œI`m asking you about friendships, and you`re answering about ministries. They`re not the same thing.
She had never considered the difference. Her concept of friendship was to find people with needs and throw herself into a relationship with them. She didn`t know how to ask for things for herself.
And that was the source of her boundary conflicts. Without these €œministry relationships, this woman would have had nothing. So she couldn`t say no. Saying no would have plummeted her into isolation, which would have been intolerable.
But it had happened anyway: she had come for help because of burnout.
When the Bible tells us to comfort with the comfort with which we are comforted (2 Cor. 1:4), it`s telling us something. We need to be comforted before we can comfort. That may mean setting boundaries on our ministries so that we can be nurtured by our friends. We must distinguish between the two.
A prayerful look at your friendships will determine whether you need to begin building boundaries with some of your friends. By setting boundaries, you may save some important ones from declining. And when romantic, dating relationships lead to marriage, you will still need to remember how to build and maintain boundaries even in this most intimate of human relationships.