When our closest relationships become unhealthy or even toxic, it’s essential to establish healthy relational boundaries to protect ourselves. (Read What Are Healthy Boundaries? to learn more.) When Henry Cloud and I (Dr. Townsend) wrote about this issue in our book Boundaries, we had no idea how much interest people would have in the book, nor in the succeeding books on marriage, dating, parenting, teens, and having difficult conversations.
But over the years since Boundaries was published, a significant question emerged: Once I have had a relational problem and have had to set a limit, how do I know when to take a risk again with someone? This is a question driven by a desire for connectedness and relationship, which God embedded in every human being. By definition, learning to set appropriate limits causes a degree of separation between you and another person. It may mean staying within the relationship and not allowing someone else access to your deeper self. It may mean taking a timeout from the relationship. Or it may even mean ending the connection altogether, depending on the circumstances. Whatever the situation, people found that though they were happy with the freedom their boundaries provided, they still wanted connectedness and often didn’t know how to reestablish it — in their existing relationship or a new one.
That question birthed the vision for the book Beyond Boundaries. It is designed to teach you how to identify and grow from whatever went wrong in the relationship, help you to determine if someone is worthy of your trust now, and show you how to manage the process of opening up in a gradual and safe way. Once you have set your boundaries, when the time is right, you can go beyond the boundaries that have kept you protected and on the other side to also find great relationships, depth, and freedom in your connections, which is the place where God meant you to be all along.
Examples of Moving Beyond Boundaries
Here are a few examples of how I have seen people move beyond boundaries:
In the workplace. Glenn and Rich, both friends of mine, were partners in an investment firm. Things got difficult between them, and the situation didn’t draw out the best in the two. They blamed each other, lost trust, and eventually dissolved the partnership. I was saddened by this, not only because I liked both men, but also because I knew they were a great team. However, their self-imposed boundaries with each other gave them both time to reflect and grow. They practiced the principles in this book, and within a few years they were collaborating on a project together again.
In marriage. Teresa and Keith were in a twelve-year marriage that was a train wreck. Keith was verbally harsh and self-centered; Teresa was needy and afraid of conflict. When I started seeing them as a couple, it was clear that though they cared about each other and the marriage, they were alienated and felt hopeless about the future. In the course of the counseling, Teresa had to set clear boundaries with Keith. When he became harsh and critical,
Teresa usually complied and gave in just to keep the peace and at least have some connection with him. But she learned to tell him clearly, “I care about us, but this behavior hurts me and isn’t acceptable. If you won’t be kinder to me, I’ll go to another room and may even ask you to leave the house until you choose to stop this.” And Teresa had to do that for a while.
Gradually, Keith began to change inside. He softened up and connected to Teresa. Uncertain if the change was authentic, she did not immediately become vulnerable with him. But over time they developed a real closeness with each other and today are a seasoned and intimate couple who enjoy their life together.
In families. Lindsay’s mom drove her crazy. Though Lindsay was married and a mother herself, her mom persisted in trying to control and mother Lindsay. When she visited Lindsay’s home, her mom critiqued her parenting. Lindsay would spend hours with her mom, who was lonely and had few friends, only to hear her mom tell Lindsay she wasn’t with her enough.
Finally, Lindsay had to set a boundary. She told her mom they couldn’t see each other as much. Lindsay needed some time to develop better ways to cope with her mom on a healthier level. And though her mom never really understood why this was so, Lindsay was eventually able to reenter the relationship with more energy, clarity, and even love for her mom.
In friendships. When I (Dr. Townsend) was in my grad school years, I had a friend, Dan, whom I didn’t really treat as a good friend. I spent time with him when I felt like it, but when it was inconvenient, I was unavailable. I would find some excuse for going out to dinner or on a double date with our girlfriends. I’m not proud of this, but it is a reality, and I think I am a different person now. Anyway, it took a while and a lot of distance between us, but Dan and I became friends again, and the relationship is much more mutual and balanced than it was before.
Although there are real risks and there will always be the possibility of hurt, it is possible to make the risks manageable, reasonable, and doable. You may have to settle, however, for less than the other person is willing and able to do. But if you do settle, the limiting factor won’t be you.
All of us have lost something. Perhaps it was a relationship that you hoped would last a lifetime, or your ability to trust and be open. Whatever your loss or whatever your hurt, you are designed to live in relationship, to reconnect, and to be vulnerable. Your difficulties can be redeemed and your self-protection resolved, if you move into the right paths.
Intimacy is complex, but it’s not mysterious. Just as the laws of boundaries are clear, so are the rules of closeness and risk. You were meant to live beyond self-protection and to become close to other people again. It is well worth the risks and the effort to have the relationships you truly desire. To learn more about moving beyond boundaries, get the book Beyond Boundaries by Dr. John Townsend.
Adapted from the book Beyond Boundaries by Dr. John Townsend.