Sometimes the most loving parents end up with the most selfish children. How can that be? We have all heard people say things like, “You know how Susan is. She only thinks of herself.” And many times, Susan comes from a nice family. But Susan’s parents did not set boundaries that required her to respect the feelings of others. This lack of boundaries led to egocentrism, which affected Susan’s ability to love. Having no boundaries in childhood can also lead to impulse problems, addictions, or irresponsibility, which is always unloving. . . .
I (Dr. Cloud) was talking to a young man one day about his girlfriend. He was thinking about getting married, and he had questions about their relationship. Several times during the conversation, he said that something she did or something about the relationship did not “make him happy.” It was clear that this was a theme for him. She was not “making him happy.”
When I asked, he said that she wanted him to deal with some things in the relationship. He needed to do some work that took effort. It was not a “happy” time.
When my wife, Barbi, and I (Dr. Townsend) were first married, we used to have conflicts about conflict. Looking back, it’s kind of funny as I later went on to write a Christian relationship book called Boundaries in Marriage. Imagine watching us have boundary conversations about how bad our marriage boundaries were. Barbi’s approach to conflict was to avoid it. My approach tended to be more blunt. We’d talk about a problem and it wouldn’t go well. One of us would misunderstand, we would pull away from each other, and the problem wouldn’t get solved. . . .
Lynn was weary of Tom’s chronic lateness in coming home from work. Because he owned his own business, he was often delayed at work. It seemed like such a little thing, but as time passed, Tom’s tardiness became a big problem. Lynn would arrange her day to have dinner and the kids ready on time, and she wanted Tom to be home on time as well. Reminding, nagging, and cajoling Tom had been ineffective. Tom would either defend himself by saying, “You don’t appreciate the work I have to do to put food on the table,” or he would simply deny the problem altogether by saying, “It doesn’t happen that often; you’re overreacting.” Lynn ran out of strategies. Finally, after thinking through the problem with some wise women friends, Lynn came up with a two-point plan. One night, as the couple climbed into bed, she told Tom, “Sweetheart, I want to apologize to you for my crummy attitude about dinnertime.” Tom almost fell out of bed. He was eager to hear her apology. “I’ve been a complaining griper whenever you get home,” Lynn continued. “You probably feel you have to toss a few pounds of raw meat in the front... Continue Reading »
I (Dr. Cloud) was leading a seminar, and I asked the audience of married couples to stop for a moment and think of their spouse. I told them to think of all of the wonderful things that they love about their spouse and to concentrate on how awesome that person is and how much they love him or her. “Think of the wonderful qualities that you admire and that attracted you to that person. Let those feelings fill you,” I told them. Then, after they were feeling all giddy and in love again, I asked each person to turn to their spouse who was idealizing them at that moment and to repeat after me, “Honey, I am a sinner. I will fail you, and I will hurt you.” You could feel the sense of discombobulation in the room. In one moment, they were shaken from the ideal to the real. Some began to laugh as they got it. Some felt even closer to each other. Some looked up confused as if they did not know what to do with my invitation. But that is reality. The person you love the most and have committed your life to is an imperfect... Continue Reading »
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 »
There is a lot of misunderstanding about boundaries, especially in the context of marriage. Some people are against boundaries because they see them as selfish. Other people actually use boundaries to be selfish. Both are wrong. Boundaries in marriage are basically about self-control. A client once said to me (Dr. Townsend), “I set some boundaries on my husband. I told him that he could not talk to me that way anymore. And it did not work. What do I do now?” “What you have done is not boundaries at all,” I replied. “What do you mean?” “It was your feeble attempt at controlling your husband, and that never works.” I went on to explain that boundaries are not something you “set on” another person. Boundaries are about yourself. My client could not say to her husband, “You can’t speak to me that way.” This demand is unenforceable. But she could say what she would or would not do if he spoke to her that way again. She could set a boundary “on herself.” She could say, “If you speak to me that way, I will walk out of the room.” This threat is totally enforceable because it has to do... Continue Reading »
People who want to improve a relationship often talk about talking. That is, they bring up what happened, what went wrong in their experience, and come up with solutions. Here are some examples: Remember when I said I needed space and listening, not solutions and homework assignments? It happened again; let’s fix this. I don’t want to sound childish, but I’ve been trying to be more open about the job problem, and it still feels as if you want just good news from me about work. I really need you to hang in there with me. It feels as if you’re impatient with me when I go to a deeper level now, as if I ought to have my act together. That’s hard for me; are you really feeling that way? When I brought up the problems I have with my dad, you lost eye contact and started talking about something else. This is really important for me; are you okay with all this? Is there a way I can do this differently, or do you not want me to talk about this with you? If you want a better relationship, be a team player with the other person. In... Continue Reading »
When you marry someone, you take on the burden of loving your spouse deeply and caring for him or her as for no other. You care about how you affect your spouse; you care about your spouse’s welfare and feelings. If one spouse feels no sense of responsibility to the other, this spouse is, in effect, trying to live married life as a single person. On the other hand, you can’t cross the line of responsibility. You need to avoid taking ownership for your mate’s life. The law of responsibility in marriage is this: We are responsible to each other, but not for each other. The Bible teaches it this way: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” and “each one should carry his own load” (see Galatians 6:2, 5). The word burden indicates a backbreaking boulder, such as a financial, health, or emotional crisis. Spouses actively support each other when one is carrying an overwhelming burden. The term load, however, indicates one’s daily responsibilities of life. This includes one’s feelings, attitudes, values, and handling of life’s everyday difficulties. Spouses may help each other out with loads, but ultimately, each person must... Continue Reading »
“His irresponsibility is making my life miserable,” Jen began. She then went on to tell me (Dr. Townsend) a terrible story of how her husband had successfully avoided adulthood for many years at her expense. She had suffered greatly at the hands of his behavior, both financially and sexually. As I listened, though, I could see that her deep sense of hopelessness kept her in prison. I could see countless ways she could be free from her husband’s patterns of behavior. She could make numerous choices to help both herself and the relationship. But the sad thing was that she could not see the same choices that were so clear to me. “Why don’t you stop paying for his mistakes and bailing him out? Why do you keep rescuing him from the messes he gets himself into?” I asked. “What are you talking about?” Jen asked, alternating between muffled sobs and a scornful expression. “There’s nothing I can do. This is the way he is, and I just have to live with it.” I could not tell if she was sad about what she perceived as a hopeless case or angry with me for suggesting she had choices. As we... Continue Reading »