Following a day-long seminar that we were leading on biblical boundaries, a woman raised her hand and said, €œI understand that I have boundary problems. But my estranged husband`s the one who had an affair and took all our money. Doesn`t he have a problem with boundaries?
It`s easy to misunderstand boundaries. At first glance, it seems as if the individual who has difficulty setting limits is the one who has the boundary problem; however, people who don`t respect others` limits also have boundary problems. The woman above may have difficulty setting limits, but, in addition, her husband hasn`t respected her limits.
In this chapter, we`ll categorize the main types of boundary problems, providing you some pegs on which to hang your thoughts. You`ll see that boundary conflicts are by no means limited to those who €œcan`t say no.”
Compliants: Saying €œYes to the Bad
€œMay I tell you something embarrassing? Robert asked me. A new client, Robert was trying to understand why he had so much difficulty refusing his wife`s constant demands. He was going broke trying to keep up with the Joneses.
€œI was the only boy in my family, the youngest of four children. There was a strange double standard in my house involving physical fighting. Robert cleared his throat, struggling to continue. €œMy sisters were three to seven years older than me. Until I was in sixth grade, they were a lot bigger and stronger. They`d take advantage of their size and strength and wale on me until I was bruised. I mean, they really hurt me.
€œThe strangest part of it all was my parents` attitude. They`d tell us, €˜Robert is the boy. Boys don`t hit girls. It`s bad manners! I was getting triple-teamed, and fighting back was bad manners? Robert stopped. His shame kept him from continuing, but he`d said enough. He had unearthed part of the reason for his conflicts with his wife.
When parents teach children that setting boundaries or saving no is bad, they are teaching them that others can do with them as they wish. They are sending their children defenseless into a world that contains much evil. Evil in the form of controlling, manipulative, and exploitative people. Evil in the form of temptations.
To feel safe in such an evil world, children need to have the power to say things like:
€¢ €œI disagree.
€¢ €œI will not.
€¢ €œI choose not to.
€¢ €œStop that.
€¢ €œIt hurts.
€¢ €œIt`s wrong.
€¢ €œThat`s bad.
€¢ €œI don`t like it when you touch me there.
Blocking a child`s ability to say no handicaps that child for life. Adults with handicaps like Robert`s have this first boundary injury: they say yes to bad things.
This type of boundary conflict is called compliance. Compliant people have fuzzy and indistinct boundaries; they €œmelt into the demands and needs of other people. They can`t stand alone, distinct from people who want something from them. Compliants, for example, pretend to like the same restaurants and movies their friends do €œjust to get along. They minimize their differences with others so as not to rock the boat. Compliants are chameleons. After a while it`s hard to distinguish them from their environment.
The inability to say no to the bad is pervasive. Not only does it keep its from refusing evil in our lives, it often keeps us from recognizing evil. Many compliant people realize too late that they`re in a dangerous or abusive relationship. Their spiritual and emotional €œradar is broken; they have no ability to guard their hearts ( Prov. 4:23).
This type of boundary problem paralyzes people`s no muscles. Whenever they need to protect themselves by saying no, the word catches in their throats. This happens for a number of different reasons:
€¢ Fear of hurting the other person`s feelings
€¢ Fear of abandonment and separateness
€¢ A wish to be totally dependent on another
€¢ Fear of someone else`s anger
€¢ Fear of punishment
€¢ Fear of being shamed
€¢ Fear of being seen as bad or selfish
€¢ Fear of being unspiritual
€¢ Fear of one`s over-strict, critical conscience
This last fear is actually experienced as guilt. People who have an over-strict, critical conscience will condemn themselves for things God himself doesn`t condemn them for. As Paul says, €œSince their conscience is weak, it is defiled (1 Cor. 8:7). Afraid to confront their unbiblical and critical internal parent, they tighten appropriate boundaries.
When we give in to guilty feelings, we are complying with a harsh conscience. This fear of disobeying the harsh conscience translates into an inability to confront others€”a saying yes to the bad€”because it would cause more guilt.
Biblical compliance needs to be distinguished from this kind of compliance. Matthew 9:13 says that God desires compassion, and not sacrifice (NASB). In other words, God wants us to be compliant from the inside out (compassionate), not compliant on the outside and resentful on the inside (sacrificial). Compliants take on too many responsibilities and set too few boundaries, not by choice, but because they are afraid.
Avoidants: Saving €œNo to the Good
The living room suddenly became quiet. The Bible study group that had been meeting at the Craigs` house for six months had suddenly become more intimate. Tonight the five couples began to share real struggles in their lives, not just the usual €œplease pray for Aunt Sarah requests. Tears were shed, and genuine support, not just well-meaning? Henderson, had advice, was offered. Everyone, except the hostess, Rachel Henderson, had taken a turn talking.
Rachel had been the driving force behind the formation of the Bible study. She and her husband, Joe, had developed the format, invited the other couples, and opened up their home to the Study. Caught up in her leadership role, however, Rachel never opened up about her struggles. She shied away from such opportunities, preferring instead to help draw out others. Tonight the others waited.
Rachel cleared her throat. Looking around the room, she finally spoke, €œAfter hearing all the other problems in the room, I think the Lord`s speaking to me. He seems to be saying that my issues are nothing compared to what you all deal with. It would be selfish to take up time with the little struggles I face. So … who`d like dessert?
No one spoke. But disappointment was evident on each face. Rachel had again avoided an opportunity for others to love her as they`d been loved by her.
This boundary problem is called avoidance: saying no to the good. It`s the inability to ask for help, to recognize one`s own needs, to let others in. Avoidants withdraw when they are in need: they do not ask for the support of others.
Why is avoidance a boundary problem? At the heart of the struggle is a confusion of boundaries as walls. Boundaries are supposed to be able to €œbreathe, to be like fences with a gate that can let the good in and the bad out. Individuals with walls for boundaries can let in neither bad nor good. No one touches them.
God designed our personal boundaries to have gates. We should have the freedom to enjoy safe relationships and to avoid destructive ones. God even allows us the freedom to let him in or to close him off:
€œHere I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. (Rev 3:20)
God has no interest in violating our boundaries so that he can relate to us. He understands that this would cause injuries of trust. It is our responsibility to open up to him in need and repentance. Yet, for avoidants, opening up to both God and people is almost impossible.
The impermeable boundaries of avoidants cause a rigidity toward their God-given needs. They experience their problems and legitimate wants as something bad, destructive, or shameful.
Some people, like Marti, are both compliants and avoidants. In a recent session, Marti laughed ruefully at herself. €œI`m beginning to see a pattern here. When Someone needs four hours with me, I can`t say no. When I need someone for ten minutes, I can`t ask for it. Isn`t there a transistor in my head that I can replace?
Marti`s dilemma is shared by many adults. She says €œyes to the bad (compliant) and says €˜€˜no“ to the good (avoidant). Individuals who have both boundary conflicts not only cannot refuse evil, they are unable to receive the support they so readily offer to others. They are stuck in a cycle of feeling drained, but with nothing to replace the lost energy.
Compliant avoidants suffer from what is called €œreversed boundaries. They have no boundaries where they need them, and they have boundaries where they shouldn`t have them.
Controllers: Not Respecting Others` Boundaries
€œWhat do you mean, you`re quitting? You can`t leave now! Steve looked across his desk at his administrative assistant. Frank had been working for Steve for several years and was finally fed up. He had given his all to the position, but Steve didn`t know when to back off.
Time after time, Steve would insist on Frank`s spending unpaid time at the office on important projects. Frank had even switched his vacation schedule twice at Steve`s insistence. But the final straw was when Steve began calling Frank at home. An occasional call at home Frank could understand. But almost every day, during dinnertime, the family would wait while Frank had a telephone conference with his boss.
Several times Frank had tried to talk with Steve about the time violations. But Steve never really understood how burned out Frank was. After all, he needed Frank. Frank made him look successful. And it was so easy to get him to work harder.
Steve has a problem hearing and accepting others boundaries. To Steve, no is simply a challenge to change the other persons mind. This boundary problem is called control. Controllers can`t respect others` limits. They` resist taking responsibility for their own lives, so they need to control others.
Controllers believe the old jokes about training top sales people: no means maybe, and maybe means yes. While this may be productive in learning to sell a product, it can wreak havoc in a relationship. Controllers are perceived as bullies, manipulative and aggressive.
The primary problem of individuals who can`t hear no€”which is different from not being able to say no€”is that they tend to project responsibility for their lives onto others. They use various means of control to motivate others to carry the load intended by God to be theirs alone.
Remember the €œboulder and knapsack illustration in chapter 2? Controllers look for someone to carry their knapsacks (individual responsibilities) in addition to their bouldlers (crises and crushing burdens). Had Steve shouldered the weight of his own job, Frank would have been happy to pitch in extra hours from time to time. But the pressure of covering for Steve`s irresponsibility made a talented professional look elsewhere for work.
Controllers come in two types:
1. Aggressive controllers. These people clearly don`t listen to others` boundaries. They run over other people`s fences like a tank. They are sometimes verbally abusive, sometimes physically abusive. But most of the time they simply aren`t aware that others even have boundaries. It`s as if they live in a world of yes. There`s no place for someone else`s no. They attempt to get others to change, to make the world fit their idea of the way life should be. They neglect their own responsibility to accept others as they are.
Peter is an example of an aggressive controller. Jesus was telling the disciples about his upcoming suffering, death, and resurrection. Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him. But Jesus rebuked Peter, saying, €œGet behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men (Mark 8:33).
Peter didn`t want to accept the Lord`s boundaries. Jesus immediately confronted Peter`s violation of his boundaries.
2. Manipulative controllers. Less honest than the aggressive controllers, manipulators try to persuade people out of their boundaries. They talk others into yes. They indirectly manipulate circumstances to get their way. They seduce others into carrying their burdens. They use guilt messages.
Remember how Tom Sawyer tricked his playmates into whitewashing the fence for him? He made it seem like such a privilege that kids were lined up to paint!
Isaac`s son Jacob finagled his twin brother Esau into giving up his birthright (Gen. 25:29-34) and, with his mother`s help, deceived his father into bestowing Esau`s blessing on him (Gen. 27:1-29). In fact, Jacob`s name means €œdeceiver. Numerous times he used his cleverness to avoid others` boundaries.
The event that helped Jacob work out of his manipulative boundarylessness was his confrontation with God in human form (Gen. 32:24-32). God €œwrestled with him all night long and then changed his name to Israel. The word Israel means €œhe who fights with God. God left Jacob with a dislocated thigh.
And Jacob changed. He became less deceitful and more honest. His aggressiveness was clearer, as evidenced by his new name. He was owning his feistiness. Only when the manipulative controller is confronted with his dishonesty can he take responsibility for it, repent of it, and accept his and others` limits.
Manipulators deny their desires to control others; they brush aside their own self-centeredness. They are like the adulterous woman in Proverbs: €œShe eats and wipes her mouth and says. €˜I`ve done nothing wrong (30:20).
Believe it or not, complaints and avoidants can also be controllers. They tend, however, to be more manipulative than aggressive. When compliant avoidants need emotional support, for example, they may do a favor for a friend. They hope that by being loving, they`ll receive love. So then they wait, anticipating the return of the favor. And sometimes they wait for years. Especially if they performed the favor for someone who can`t read minds.
What`s wrong with this picture? It`s not a picture of love. The love that God talks about doesn`t seek a return on its investment: €œIt is not self-seeking (1 Cor. 13:5). Caring for someone so that they`ll care back for us is simply an indirect means of controlling someone else. If you`ve ever been on the €œreceiving end of that kind of maneuver, you`ll understand. One minute you`ve taken the compliment, or favor€” the next minute you`ve hurt someone`s feelings by not figuring out the price tag attached.
At this point, you might be saying to yourself, €œWait a minute. How can controllers be called €˜injured`? They are the injurers, not the injured! Indeed, controllers do lots of damage to others, but they also have boundary problems. Let`s see what goes on underneath.
Controllers are undisciplined people. They have little ability to curb their impulses or desires. While it appears that they €œget what they want in life, they are still slaves to their appetites. Delaying gratification is difficult for them. That`s why they hate the word no from others. They desperately need to learn to listen to the boundaries of others to help them observe their own.
Controllers also are limited in their ability to take responsibility for owning their lives. Having relied on bullying or indirectness, they can`t function on their own in the world. The only remedy is to let controllers experience the consequences of their irresponsibility.
Finally, controllers are isolated. People stay with them out of fear, quilt, or dependency. If they`re honest controllers rarely feel loved. Why? Because in their heart of hearts, they know that the only reason people spend time with them is because they are pulling the stings. If they stopped threatening or manipulating, they would be abandoned. And, at some deep level, they are aware of their isolation. €œThere is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:18). We can`t terrorize or make others feel guilty and be loved by them at the same time.
Non-responsive: Not Hearing the Needs of Others
Brenda`s hand trembled as she talked. €œUsually I`ve got pretty thick skin with Mike. But I guess the past couple of weeks of kid problems and work stresses had me feeling very vulnerable. This time his response didn`t make me angry. It just hurt. And it hurt bad.
Brenda was recounting a recent marital struggle. Overall, she thought her marriage to Mike was a good one. He was a good provider, an active Christian, and a competent father. Yet the relationship allowed no room for her hurts or needs.
The incident Brenda was discussing began in a fairly benign manner. She and Mike were talking in the bedroom after putting the kids to bed. Brenda began to unburden her fears about child rearing and her feelings of inadequacy at work.
Without warning, Mike turned to her and said, €œIf you don`t like the way you feel, change your feelings. Life`s tough. So just … just handle it, Brenda.
Brenda was devastated. She felt she should have expected the rebuff. It wasn`t that easy to express her neediness in the first place` especially with Mike`s coldness. Now she felt as if he had chopped her feelings to bits. He seemed to have no understanding whatsoever of her struggles€”and didn`t want to.
How could this be a boundary problem? Isn`t it just basic insensitivity? Partially. But it`s not quite that simple. Remember that boundaries are a way to describe our spheres of responsibility: what we are and are not responsible for. While we shouldn`t take on the responsibility of others` feelings, attitudes, and behaviors, we do have certain responsibilities to each other.
Mike does have a responsibility to connect with Brenda, not only as a parenting partner, but also as a loving husband. Connecting emotionally with Brenda is part of loving her as himself (Eph. 5:28, 33). He isn`t responsible for her emotional well-being. But he is responsible to her. His inability to respond to her needs is a neglect of his responsibility.
Termed €œnon-responsive because of their lack of attention to the responsibilities of love, these individuals exhibit the opposite of the pattern exhorted in Proverbs 3:27 (NRSV): €œDo not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it (that last phrase, €œin your power, has to do with our resources and availability). Another key Scripture here is €œIf it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all (Rom. 12:18 NRSV). Again, note the condition: €œso far as it depends on you: we can`t bring peace to someone who doesn`t accept it!
Both of the above verses indicate the same idea: we are responsible to care about and help, within certain limits, others whom God places in our lives. To refuse to do so when we have the appropriate resources can be a boundary conflict.
Non-responsive falls into one of two groups:
1. Those with a critical spirit toward others needs (a projection of our own hatred of our needs onto others a problem Jesus addressed in Matthew 7:1-5). They hate being incomplete in themselves. As a result, they ignore the needs of others.
2. Those who are so absorbed in their own desires and needs they exclude others (a form of narcissism).
Don`t confuse this self-absorption with a God-given sense of taking responsibility for one`s own needs first so that one is able to love others: €œDo not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others (Phil. 2:4). God wants us to take care of ourselves so that we can help others without moving into a crisis ourselves.
Controllers and Nonresponsives
Controlling nonresponsives have a hard time looking past themselves. They see others as responsible for their struggles and are on the lookout for someone to take care of them. They gravitate toward someone with blurry boundaries, who will naturally take on too many responsibilities in the relationship and who won`t complain about it. It`s like the old joke about relationships: What happens when a rescuing, enabling person meets a controlling, insensitive person. Answer: they get married!
Actually, this makes sense. Compliant avoidants search for someone to repair. This keeps them saying yes and keeps them out of touch with their own needs. Who fits the bill better than a controlling nonresponsives. And controlling nonresponsives search for someone to keep them away from responsibility. Who better than a compliant avoidant?
Below is a chart of the four types of boundary problems. It will help you see at a glance the kinds of problems with which you may struggle.
Summary of Boundary Problems
CAN`T SAY CAN`T HEAR
NO The Compliant The Controller
Feels guilty and/or Aggressively or
controlled by others; can`t manipulatively violates
set boundaries boundaries of others
YES The Nonresponsive The Avoidant
Sets boundaries against Sets boundaries against
responsibility to love receiving care of others
Functional and Relational Boundary Issues
A final boundary problem involves the distinction between functional and relational boundaries. Functional boundaries refers to a person`s ability to complete a task, project, or job. It has to do with performance, discipline, initiative, and planning. Relational boundaries refers to the ability to speak truth to others with whom we are in relationship.
Another way of looking at it is that functional boundaries refer to our €˜€˜Martha parts, and relational, our €˜€˜Mary“ parts (Luke 10:38-42). Mary and Martha were friends of Jesus. Martha prepared dinner, while Mary sat at Jesus` feet. When Martha complained! about Mary`s not helping her, Jesus said: Mary has chosen what is better (v. 42). He didn`t mean that Martha`s busyness was bad; it was just the wrong thing at the wrong time.
Many people have good functional boundaries, but poor relational ones; that is, they can perform tasks at quite high levels of competence, but they may not be able to tell a friend that they don`t like their chronic lateness. The reverse can also be true. Some people can be absolutely honest with others about their complaints and dislikes but he unable to get up for work in the morning!
We`ve taken a look at the different categories of boundaries. But how do you develop boundaries? Why do sonic people seem to have natural boundaries and others have no boundaries at all? As with many things, it has a lot to do with the family in which you grew up.