Boundary Setting

What are boundaries and why do they matter? Learn to recognize when they are violated. Do Christians need boundaries?

What are Boundaries? Do we really need them?

Not everyone understands what we therapy-types mean when we speak about healthy boundary setting. Maybe you understand this to mean, it’s inappropriate for your mother-in-law to call you twenty times in a day. In many cases the issues being addressed are much more subtle, but still important. Boundaries are a part of every healthy relationship even if they are unspoken, but simply understood.

For example: Is it ok with you if your husband has an affair?  (Most of us would say, “of course not!”). Is it acceptable for you if your husband sends flirty texts to his coworkers? What about if he has drinks with a few female colleagues after work? What about if he sends a female friend a thinking of you card when they are having a hard season?

Or how about this: Is it ok with you if your child stays out past ten pm without calling to check in? What about if they call and use an annoyed tone when you ask who they are with? What if they come home by eight, but bring their friend with them and go to their room where they shut the door?

Consider these: Can your boss scold you for poor performance in front of your team? Is it ok if he swears in his private email messages to you? Would you mind if he called you at home before 6am?

See how the lines get more blurry? Every person reading this may have a different answer to all of these questions, and we all may have different ideas about what would be appropriate in each situation. Deciding which of these is acceptable for you in your relationship is the first step in boundary setting and if you and the other person in your relationship have the same understanding of where the limits are, then you may never need to have a boundary-setting talk. However, when your personal boundaries get crossed in a relationship, it definitely becomes clear and, at that point, more open communication may be needed.

Do you know how to recognize when your boundaries have been violated? Consider the following:

  1. Do you find yourself making peace with someone in a disagreement, but feeling resentment when you think about the conversation later?
  2. Do you ever feel like people walk all over you?
  3. Do you get upset at things your significant other does and then wonder why it upset you so much?
  4. Do you feel like your kids respect you?
  5. Do you feel embarrassed at work based on the way your superior or coworkers speak to or about you?
  6. Do you find yourself feeling insecure in some of your relationships?
  7. Do you know someone has repeatedly crossed the line, but don’t know how to address the problem?
  8. Have you addressed a boundary violation with someone, but they dismiss your concern or don’t seem to change?
  9. Do you feel like your wants and needs are not important to others?
  10. Do you ever struggle with feeling betrayed in any of your relationships?
  11. Do you behave or communicate in certain ways out of a sense of duty or guilt?

If you answered yes to more than one of these questions, it might be a good idea to talk through these experiences with someone. Our therapists can help you deal with frustration, hurt, and resentment, and decide how to deal with the relationship.

You may say, “But isn’t it true that you can’t change other people?” And you’d be correct. Boundaries must be set based on our own limits and expectations, other people may still decide to violate them, but then we are left with a choice about how we will respond.

“Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them.”

— Titus 3:10 (NIV)

In therapy we help you to recognize and understand what your boundaries are, when they have been violated, and the impact it has in you. We also help you figure out healthy ways to communicate that to the other person and figure out how to respond. Sometimes when people cannot respect your boundaries it may be necessary to set more strict boundaries in order to better protect yourself. Our therapists can work with you on setting and upholding healthy limits and role play so you are prepared to have these conversations which can be met with some resistance. The more unhealthy a relationship or individual is, the more likely there will be some tension and or backlash when you try to set healthy boundaries with them, but a good therapist can support you through these difficult relationships.

The purpose of setting healthy boundary is to protect and take good care of yourself, but also to improve your interactions with others and the quality of your relationships. Some additional characteristics of healthy versus unhealthy boundaries can be seen in the table below.

Is it Christian to set boundaries?

Occasionally, we meet with someone who believes that boundaries are not Christian. They may think or unconsciously feel that good Christians should be loving and always allow others to treat them in any manner and serve others despite their own burnout. These people reference Christian values like to “turn the other cheek” and the importance of servanthood, but they fail to recognize the other biblical ideas relating to balance. The key to setting healthy boundaries is to balance firmness with love and grace.

“All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”

— Matthew 5:37 (NIV)

Jesus set boundaries repeatedly in the New Testament. He frequently said unpleasant truths to people knowing it would offend them and potentially hurt their feelings. Jesus knew how to set limits with people and say no. (Matthew 21:23-27, Matthew 21:18, Matthew 16:23, Matthew 13:58) Jesus even got angry with people and let them know it. (Matthew 21:12-13, John 2:12-16, Matthew 19:13-15) He limited his time in ministry and would go away from the people to pray when needed. He practiced self-care, and he certainly wasn’t being selfish. (Luke 5:15-16, Matthew 6:6, John 12:36)