Why are healthy boundaries so important in relationships? Have you ever felt like someone was trying to control you? That’s not a good feeling. But the flip side of control can present dangers. If someone is hurting you, it’s your right to protect yourself.
But, sometimes protecting yourself might lead to feelings of guilt. Are you selfish for saying no to someone? Are you a bad person for avoiding someone’s harmful or inappropriate actions? Rationally, you might say no—yet many of us have experienced that sense of guilt, even when we know someone’s actions are harming us.
The truth is that when you put up healthy boundaries to protect yourself from hurtful or inappropriate behavior, you’re doing the right thing for yourself and the person who’s hurting you, even if it feels uncomfortable for a time.
If you let people take advantage of you, you’ll probably start to resent it. You’ll be making choices out of obligation instead of freedom. It can be frustrating, and you might think, “Shouldn’t they be able to sense my reluctance?”
Steps to Implementing Healthy Boundaries
Healthy boundaries are necessary to prevent these situations. They may not feel comfortable in the moment, but over time they result in your emotional health, as well as healthier relationships. Here are some steps you can take to introduce yourself to the concept of personal boundaries and start to implement them in your life.
1. Learn What Healthy Boundaries Are
Let’s clear up a few possible misconceptions about boundaries.
Selfishness is wrong. Acting as if the world revolves around you is wrong. Sometimes, we need to sacrifice for others. We also need to fulfill our responsibilities to other people. If you set the boundary of not going to work because you’re tired, that’s not a boundary, but a cop out!
The problem is that as Christians, we’ve usually absorbed the idea that selfishness is wrong and self-sacrifice is good, but we need to balance these truths with other realities from Scripture. We don’t want to sacrifice for others yet fail to steward our own lives, health, and well-being. That’s where healthy boundaries come in.
Melody Beattie, the author of The New Codependency, offers this checklist of what boundaries are not:
- Limits that we aren’t able to enforce over time
- Power plays we can use to control another person
- Empty threats spoken out of anger
- Limits we set because someone told us to
Here are a few essential personal boundaries you can be sure are healthy:
- Don’t hurt yourself
- Don’t hurt anyone else
- Don’t allow anyone else to hurt you
Boundaries in relationships are about what you choose to do, not controlling other people.
Our boundaries will influence other people and prevent them from hurting us as much as possible, but they will not cross over into someone else’s independent territory.
Boundaries can apply to all of our relationships. We need to set limits not only with coworkers and acquaintances, but with relatives, friends, and spouses. Boundaries in marriage might seem unnecessary, but they’re vital for the health of a relationship.
Here’s one of Beattie’s examples: a woman’s friend would call her while drunk. She couldn’t tell her friend not to drink, but she could refuse to take his calls or end the conversation while he was drunk.
What is a good place to start with setting healthy boundaries? If you’ve already got the basics in place (see above), begin to think about relationships where someone is inconsiderate, and you secretly resent them for it. What decision could you make that would change that dynamic?
Setting boundaries doesn’t mean you have to shut people down abruptly. It means quietly and firmly drawing a line in the sand as a habit. You can do this in small, gradual ways as you get used to it. If you often say yes to obligations and feel overwhelmed, you don’t have to start saying no to everything. Try saying you’ll get back to people with an answer after you think about it.
2. Discover the Biblical Basis for Healthy Boundaries
The answer is yes! We see that even Jesus had boundaries in relationships during his time on earth. He took time away from the crowds to pray (Luke 15:16). And we see that God created the Sabbath with a boundary of rest, to give his people refreshment after their work throughout the week.
Even in the passage in Ephesians where husbands are called to lay down their lives for their wives, Paul goes on to say, “After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church” (Eph. 5:29, NIV). The apostle takes it for granted that Christians must care for their bodies as well as other people.
As a Christian, do you feel guilty for saying no to someone? After all, we’re supposed to deny ourselves and live for others, right?
Yes, but when you look at the life of Jesus, you can see that he modeled sacrifice in real time. Even during a grueling three years of intense ministry, he took time to rest. He sometimes avoided the crowds. He chose to limit his conversations with ill-intentioned people.
3. Expect to Have Your Boundaries Tested
Relationships tend to fall into familiar patterns. Even dysfunctional relationships develop a certain comfort. When you change your approach, this throws off the balance and can cause tension or conflict.
Beattie reminds us of this: “Expect people to test our boundaries. The more they stand to lose, the harder they’ll push. They often won’t stop pushing until they know we mean what we say.” (34)
Some people accept boundaries in relationships more quickly than others. If you are worried about making people upset, you might start to second-guess yourself, but remember that healthy boundaries lead to healthy relationships. This new approach isn’t just for your good! As Robert Frost said, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Boundaries Reinforce Responsibility
Although you won’t be controlling anyone with your boundaries, you also won’t be enabling dysfunctional or unhealthy patterns.
In her landmark book Codependent No More, Melody Beattie describes how codependency was initially noticed in family members of alcoholics. It was a pattern of enabling and rescuing behavior that, under the guise of love and concern, actually allowed the destructive trend of substance abuse to continue.
It can be more difficult for us to enact “tough love” than to make the other person temporarily happy by enabling them. But, personal boundaries are much better in the long run, and sometimes they provide the way out for someone by leaving them to take responsibility for their actions. This pattern can happen in many areas of life; it doesn’t have to be as extreme as an addiction.
For example, let’s say you have a roommate who frequently loses things like their phone, keys or wallet, and then blames you and gets passive-aggressively angry at you while searching for their items. You get nervous when they lose something and start helping them look for it, hoping to appease them.
Instead, you might set a boundary that you will only help them look if they ask you directly and politely. Responding to passive-aggressive behavior might calm them in the short run, but boundaries will create a healthier dynamic over time.
“Tough Love” as a Godly Response
Boundaries go back to the very first few chapters of Scripture. God set just a few rules for what Adam and Eve were not allowed to eat in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve did not honor these boundaries, and they faced the consequences as a result.
God said, “‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.’ So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken.” (Gen. 3:22-24 NIV)
Because Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s voice, God set a much stronger boundary that prevented them from disobeying in the same way again.
Although we do not have the authority to make commands the way God does, we can still reflect on how this passage applies to human relationships. When someone does not honor your boundary, you may need to set stricter limits to protect yourself.
Difficult but Rewarding Work
In the process of setting healthy boundaries, you might find yourself over-explaining or making excuses. Beattie advises against this: “Excuses weaken our power.” (37) Remind yourself that boundaries are healthy and right.
Also, personal boundaries can change over time. Beattie advises practicing a specific boundary for a few weeks or months. Commit to it and refuse to give up, even though it might be hard. Journal about why you are choosing to set this limit. After a few weeks or months have passed, reflect on how things are going, and reassess your boundary.
4. Talk to a Christian Counselor
Sometimes, a third party can help you process your need for boundaries and how to implement them, especially if you struggle with guilt surrounding setting boundaries in your relationships.
A professional Christian counselor can help you process your experiences and emotions and determine the difference between selfishness and healthy limits, and then walk you through the process of sticking to your boundaries. Don’t hesitate to contact us today for more information on Christian counseling for healthy boundaries.
Photos:”Boundaries”, Courtesy of Thomas Smith, Unsplash.com; CC0 License; “Sunset,” courtesy of Dave Meier, picography.co, CC0 License; “I’m Yours,” courtesy of Courtney Clayton, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Pause,” courtesy of Charles Nadeau, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0)