In our continuing series on boundaries, we will discuss when and how to implement appropriate boundaries and how to maintain them. In the previous article on boundaries, we discussed what makes a good boundary. We discussed the difference between a fixed boundary and a flexible boundary.
The three most important considerations in creating a boundary include:
- A boundary must be carefully considered before it’s needed.
- A boundary must be implemented with clear communication to all parties involved in honoring the boundary.
- The boundary must be maintained with consistency over time.
Another important element of creating a boundary is recognizing your individual power differential within the relationship in which you are trying to create a boundary. This is especially true when you are trying to create a boundary within a well-established relationship.
Many therapy clients I’ve seen have struggled with creating boundaries within existing relationships. They know a boundary should be created, but when I ask them what that looks like to them personally, they often draw a blank. They are quick to say that someone (significant other, best friend, adult child, coworker, employer, etc.) crossed a boundary.
When I ask what boundary was crossed, and question whether the other individual even knew that the boundary existed, the clients often are vague and ambiguous. I gently remind them that if they cannot identify a clear boundary, how can the other person in the relationship dynamic be expected to respect a boundary that doesn’t exist?
The expectation of a specific behavior based on a tacit boundary – regardless of any societal norms – is not a reasonable expectation in most cases. Let’s tackle the issue of infidelity. Yes, there is definitely the expectation that, if we are in an exclusive relationship, neither individual will step out. That boundary is based upon societal norms. In our culture, and certainly according to our Christian values, it is not appropriate to cross the boundary from faithfulness to infidelity.
Unfortunately, if it’s not spelled out, then many individuals tend to have either broader or more refined definitions of what constitutes “unfaithfulness.” For example, many Christian individuals (usually men, based on demographics) consider watching pornography as an inappropriate behavior or an addiction, but they do not consider it as being unfaithful to their wives.
The wives who are impacted by this behavior might be quick to say that their husbands crossed a boundary. Although I do not disagree in principle, I do in fact. The husband and wife in this scenario had rather different ideas of what constitutes the fidelity/infidelity boundary. This scenario and its dynamics are repeated all too often in Christian counseling sessions.
But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. – Matthew 5:28
The Bible is on the side of the injured wife when it comes to pornography and whether or not it is adultery. In that respect, pornography needs to be addressed as a sin issue, not merely a marital one. This is not to condemn those who are caught in its clutches. It’s a recognition that the blood of Jesus can free you from that addiction, that sin, that is affecting the fidelity of your marriage relationship.
It is also recognition that a boundary has been crossed – not just a tacit expectation from wives, but a fixed boundary that Jesus personally addressed. In this particular boundary, there should be no question about the power differential; Jesus is higher than all of us.
Nonetheless, these boundaries and expectations should have been carefully considered by both parties before dating anyone. Most Christian women do not set out to date someone who is addicted to pornography, and that issue certainly isn’t likely to come up during the first few dates.
However, the wife (or future wife) has every right to expect her new husband not to indulge in pornography, and that boundary should certainly be addressed by the time they are engaged and should be ready to be implemented.
Specific boundaries, including the use of pornography, should be discussed if the couple is in premarital counseling. Why? Because the wife has the higher position and power differential in their relationship dynamic as it regards this boundary before marriage. After marriage, the husband who is practicing this behavior now has the higher power differential. Why? Because he is now in control of whether or not he ceases this behavior and honors the boundary.
The person in this dynamic with the expectations and the need to protect the boundary (of not viewing pornography) provides is the wife. The individual required to meet these expectations is the husband. (There are cases where the situation is reversed; it’s just far more common for men to view porn and for women to object.)
Biblically, Jesus created this fixed boundary; it is not a flexible boundary with convenient preclusions and exclusions. It is not ambiguous. Yet, this crossed boundary surfaces in many marriages.
The problem is when we assume a boundary and expect others to come to heel without ever having discussed it with those involved. Even though the Bible maintains a specific boundary regarding pornography, many do not recognize it as such. In your own relationships, you must consider and identify which boundaries need to be implemented now and which ones will be needed later.
Creating boundaries in existing relationships is difficult. The power differential must be considered, even in situations where the balance of power has shifted, such as when the adult children must become the parents to their aging parents. Due to physical or cognitive decline, or both, many adult children come to a point where they must take control of their parents’ lives: medically, financially, physically, and emotionally.
There are a lot of responsibilities that come with this new role, and many new boundaries must be created. The power differential of the parent/child is upended and reversed when conversations occur about the parent’s need to stop driving or the possibility of entering an assisted living facility.
When it is necessary to create new boundaries within existing relationships, such as the one described above, respect and communication are keys to successful boundaries – even if there is resistance from one party or another. Each person in the relationship dynamic who will be affected by the new boundary needs to be heard, validated, and respected. The boundary needs to be communicated clearly.
For example, with aging parents, it might be necessary to insist that they stop driving. This is a huge obstacle for seniors who rely on their vehicles to give them independence. There is likely to be a lot of resistance. Whether it is one adult child or more than one, it is important to provide viable alternatives when initiating this specific boundary (Uber, Lyft, bus, or adult children providing rides).
If Uber and Lyft are not viable due to prohibitive costs for seniors on a fixed income, then exclude that possibility from the conversation. It is less than respectful when we offer “solutions” that only add to someone else’s problems. Ideally, the boundary shouldn’t be there only to serve the initiator’s interests. The boundary is needed so that the aging parents are not involved in an accident that injures or kills others or themselves.
Therefore, safety is the driving force of this particular boundary. When the parent resists, always circle back to the safety factor. That is the criteria for this boundary. The aging parent is no longer able to drive safely. This boundary is an example of a fixed boundary, not a flexible one. Although the aging parent needs to feel heard and validated, they are likely going to be upset when the boundary is enforced (taking the keys, selling the car, etc.).
There may be legal processes involved to implement and enforce this boundary (durable power of attorney, guardian ad litem, etc.). Also, there is safety in numbers. If the adult child has a spouse or other siblings who are supportive of this new boundary, it’s important to bring them to the discussion table – not to gang up on their parents but to provide a loving and supportive transition.
Finally, for boundaries (whether in new or existing relationships) to be effective, enforcement of them must be consistent. If, for example, you let your 91-year-old dad drive after having said no for two years, even if it’s just because he wore you down mentally, you are then setting a dangerous precedent.
Fixed boundaries are not meant to provide flexibility. It’s important to be cognizant of your boundary type when implementing it: fixed or flexible. A boundary is most effective when it is consistent over time.
In the next installment of this series, Part III will deal with creating boundaries and enforcing existing ones within existing toxic relationships. This affects so many Christians today.
Many Christians find themselves dealing with loved ones who are steeped in adultery, pornography, narcissism, addictions, substance use, etc. Many clients in therapy are the ones involved in these issues and are trying to find their way out of dark places. God has a plan! Stay tuned for Boundaries – Part III: Toxic Relationships.
“Reaching Out”, Courtesy of Nadine Shaabana, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Wrestling”, Courtesy of Chris Chow, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Knock Down Drag Out”, Courtesy of Afif Kusuma, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Knights”, Courtesy of Hassan Pasha, Unsplash.com, CC0 License