Boundaries, Compliance, and the Fear of Saying No

“May I tell you something embarrassing?” Robert asked me (Dr. Townsend). 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. “I 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. “My 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. “The 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.’ 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 saying no is bad, they are teaching them that others can do with... Continue Reading »

How to Set Holiday Boundaries with Family

When you were born, God placed you into a family for a season of time to help you grow into a mature adult. At some point this season ends, and your relationship with your parents changes from child-to-parent to adult-to-adult. The roles change from dependency and authority to mutuality. While you are to respect and care for your mother and father, you are no longer under their protection and tutelage. Children are to obey parents, while adult children are to love and honor them. Therefore, situations will occur where you need to make decisions and set boundaries with family with which they may not agree. For example, you might decide to spend some traditional holiday time apart from your family. This can often be a cause for a confrontational talk: You: “Mom, I wanted to let you know as soon as I could that I’ve made plans to go to the mountains with some friends this Christmas. I know this will be the first Christmas I won’t be with you and Dad, so I wanted to talk to you about it.” Mom: “What are you talking about? You always spend Christmas with us. Your father will be so hurt.” You:... Continue Reading »

When Negatives Are Really Positives

Written by Dr. John Townsend, exclusive to BoundariesBooks.com. People who have a hard time setting limits in their relationships often are concerned about their effect. They don’t want to be negative with others. For example, a wife with a controlling husband may be afraid he will become angry if she says no to his control. A father may fear alienating his adult child when he sets a time limit on how long he can live at home. Or a boss may be concerned about morale dropping if he has to have a tough talk with a key employee. As a result, they often postpone the talks that need to happen. It is true that confronting problems and setting limits is not a “positive” experience. That is, it involves some difficult talks and actions that feel negative in nature. People can react in defensive, angry or hurt ways. However, just because something feels negative at the time doesn’t mean it will have a negative outcome. A “no” can often result in a problem solved. Speaking the truth in love (see Ephesians 4:15) and setting an appropriate limit may result in very healthy outcomes. The husband gets defensive, then in time sees... Continue Reading »

When Setting Boundaries Feels Scary

A woman came to see me (Dr. Cloud) once for help in her marriage. She described her husband as so “powerful” and “intimidating” she just could not find it in herself to talk to him about things bothering her. “Why don’t you just talk to him about these things?” I asked. “Oh, I just couldn’t do that,” she would reply. “He’s too strong. He’s so intimidating. I just don’t know what to do.” After seeing I wasn’t getting anywhere by suggesting she talk to her husband, I asked her if her husband would come in to see me. She said she would tell him I would like to talk to him. I had no idea what I was in for. On the day of her next appointment, I went into the waiting room to find the woman sitting there with a small, frail-looking man. He stood and said, in one of the least intimidating, squirrelly little voices I had ever heard, “Hi, Dr. Cloud. It is so nice to meet you!” I remember describing him later as “mousy.” He came across as just a whisper of a person. I could see immediately that his wife and I had some work to... Continue Reading »

Adults: Do Not Obey Your Parents

As an adult, loving and honoring your parents does not equal obeying. God placed you with your parents for a season of time to help you grow into a mature adult. At some point this season ends, and your relationship with your mom and dad changes from child-to-parent to adult-to-adult. The roles change from dependency and authority to mutuality. While you are to respect and care for your parents, you are no longer under their protection and tutelage. Children are to obey parents, while adult children are to love and honor them. Therefore, sometimes you will need to confront parents, disobeying their desire for you to agree with them or go along with a bad situation. People often have difficulty confronting parents, because they still feel like a little child with them. Emotionally they have not left home, so they do not feel free to be separate, truthful, and honest with them. There is too much to lose. If this sounds like you, it might be very helpful to work on these issues in a small-group setting or with a counselor in order to free yourself up from the past so that you can be an adult in the present. One... Continue Reading »

Are You Carrying Someone Else’s Knapsack?

We are responsible to others and for ourselves. “Carry each other’s burdens,” says Galatians 6:2, “and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” This verse shows our responsibility to one another. Many times, others have “burdens” that are too big to bear. They do not have enough strength, resources, or knowledge to carry the load, and they need help. Denying ourselves to do for others what they cannot do for themselves is showing the sacrificial love of Christ. This is what Christ did for us. He did what we could not do for ourselves; he saved us. This is being responsible “to.” On the other hand, Galatians 6:5 says that “each one should carry his own load.” Everyone has responsibilities that only he or she can carry. These things are our own particular “load” that we need to take daily responsibility for and work out. No one can do certain things for us. We have to take ownership of certain aspects of life that are our own “load.” The Greek words for burden and load give us insight into the meaning of these texts. The Greek word for burden means “excess burdens,” or burdens that are so... Continue Reading »

God, the Bible, and Boundaries

When some people read the Bible, they see a book of rules, do’s and don’ts. When others read it, they see a philosophy of life, principles for the wise. Still others see mythology, stories about the nature of human existence and the human dilemma. Certainly, the Bible contains rules, principles, and stories that explain what it is like to exist on this earth. But to us, the Bible is a living book about relationship. Relationship of God to people, people to God, and people to each other. It is about a God who created this world, placed people in it, related to people, lost that relationship, and continues to heal that relationship. It is about God as creator: this is his creation. It is about God as ruler: he ultimately controls his world and will govern it. And it is about God as redeemer: he finds, saves, and heals his loved ones who are lost and in bondage. When a lawyer asked Jesus which was the greatest commandment in the Law, Jesus said to him, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest... Continue Reading »

How to Forgive When It’s Hard to Forget

“I know I’m supposed to forgive,” a woman said to me (Dr. Cloud) at a recent seminar. “But, I just can’t open myself up to that kind of hurt anymore. I know I should forgive him and trust him, but if I let him back in, the same thing will happen, and I can’t go through that again.” “Who said anything about ‘trusting’ him?” I asked. “I don’t think you should trust him either.” “But you said I was supposed to forgive him, and if I do that, doesn’t that mean giving him another chance? Don’t I have to open up to him again?” “No, you don’t,” I replied. “Forgiveness and trust are two totally different things. In fact, that’s part of your problem. Every time he’s done this, he’s come back and apologized, and you have just accepted him right back into your life, and nothing has changed. You trusted him, nothing was different, and he did it again. I don’t think that’s wise.” “Well,” she asked, “How can I forgive him without opening myself up to being hurt again?” Good question. We hear this problem over and over again. People have been hurt, and they do one of... Continue Reading »

Is Complying Out of Fear the Same as Lying?

Many Christians fear that setting and keeping limits signals rebellion or disobedience. In religious circles you’ll often hear statements such as, “Your unwillingness to go along with our program shows an unresponsive heart.” Because of this myth, countless individuals remain trapped in endless activities of no genuine spiritual and emotional value. The truth is life-changing: a lack of boundaries is often a sign of disobedience. People who have shaky limits are often compliant on the outside, but rebellious and resentful on the inside. They would like to be able to say no, but are afraid. So they cover their fear with a half-hearted yes. Take Barry for example. He had almost made it to his car after church when Ken caught up with him. Here goes, Barry thought. Maybe I can still get out of this one. “Barry!” Ken boomed. “Glad I caught you!” The singles class officer in charge of Bible studies, Ken was a dedicated recruiter to the studies he presided over; however, he was often insensitive to the fact that not everyone wanted to attend his meetings. “So which study can I put you down for, Barry? The one on prophecy, evangelism, or the book of Mark?” Barry... Continue Reading »

When Someone Responds to Your Boundaries with Anger

When you establish a new boundary with someone else, the most common form of resistance one gets is anger. People who get angry at others for setting boundaries have a character problem. Self-centered, they think the world exists for them and their comfort. They see others as extensions of themselves. When they hear the word “no,” they have the same reaction a two-year-old has when deprived of something: “Bad Mommy!” They feel as though the one who deprives them of their wishes is “bad,” and they become angry. They are not righteously angry at a real offense. Nothing has been done “to them” at all. Someone will not do something “for them.” Their wish is being frustrated, and they get angry because they have not learned to delay gratification or to respect others’ freedom. The angry person has a character problem. If you reinforce this character problem, it will return tomorrow and the next day in other situations. It is not the situation that’s making the person angry, but the feeling that they are entitled to things from others. They want to control others and, as a result, they have no control over themselves. So, when they lose their wished-for ... Continue Reading »