To see how setting limits plays out in relationships, it's important to understand that there are two types of boundaries — defining boundaries and protective boundaries. Each kind of boundary has a distinct purpose. It's important that you learn the difference, because defining should become permanent in your life, while protective boundaries are the ones you can move "beyond."
Defining boundaries are values that establish who you are and who you are not. They are at the core of your identity and reflect what you believe is important and valuable in life. Here are a few examples:
- I follow God and his ways and will always live my life in him.
- I love my family and friends, and I will treat them with grace and truth.
- I know my mission and purpose in life, and I will not divert from it.
- I say and receive the truth; I'm neither silent in saying it nor defensive in receiving it.
- "I'm looking for a position that fits my strategic abilities rather than one that is in operations."
- "We have a rule that all who live in this house go to church."
- "I want to hear the truth from you about how you think we are doing in our relationship."
- "I'm a night owl, so let's not plan something that requires that we get up at, oh, dark thirty."
This is simply how you tell people who you are and how they tell you who they are. You clarify and define yourselves with these sorts of boundaries.
Protective boundaries are different. They are designed to "guard your heart" (see Proverbs 4:23), and your life, from danger or trouble. There are times when you must protect your values, emotions, gifts, time, and energy from people and situations that may waste or injure them. Protective boundaries have several elements to them. You have to face the reality that talking hasn't fixed a situation, and you have to set a limit.
A protective boundary might begin with a statement like this: "I want us to work this out, but nothing I've said has made any difference, so I'm taking a different route." This affirms that you value the relationship and that you want the other person to understand that your actions are not punitive but, ultimately, redemptive. You are simply trying to solve a difficulty in the relationship with your protective boundaries. The consequences portion of the boundary then needs to be stated in an "If . . . then . . ." form to make sure the other person understands you mean business. For example, consider the following statements:
- "If you continue being thirty minutes late to events, I will take a separate car."
- "I need a better work ethic from you in the office, or we'll have to make some changes."
- "If you keep spending over our budget, I will cut up the credit cards."
- "I can't lend you any more money until I see you making serious efforts to find a job."
- "I want to bring your grandkids to see you, but if you just surf the Web while we're there, it's not worth it to come."
- "I want to see my grandkids at times when you don't need a babysitter; otherwise I feel taken advantage of."
- "If you won't stop drinking too much or using drugs, I will take the kids and move out."
Here's the important distinction between a defining boundary and a protective boundary. A defining boundary is forever and unchangeable, part of what makes you "you"; a protective boundary can change if the other person responds to it in a healthy way. Your defining boundaries mean that, for example, you will always follow God, love people, be committed to personal and spiritual growth, and so forth.
These are the core parts of you, and you don't change them. But you might change a protective boundary if the other person understands what they are doing to you and makes a significant change. Then you might lessen or end the consequence: no separate cars, no making changes, reissue the credit cards, and so forth. When the change happens, you no longer need the protection.
Ready to go deeper on this topic? Discover how to set healthy limits in any situation in the New York Times bestselling book, Boundaries.