I could write a book about boundaries. Oh wait! Someone already did. I read the book several years ago, desperate for help.
If you missed it, Boundaries, by Henry Cloud and John Townsend, teaches that people have boundaries, just as surely as property does. Property boundaries mark where one parcel ends and another begins. Personal boundaries mark where one person ends and another begins.
People dispute property boundaries all the time. People challenge personal boundaries too. Typically, the biggest disputes over personal boundaries involve two types of people:
- Those who run roughshod over the boundaries of others;
- Those who let others run roughshod over them – ignoring any boundary they set.
When I read Boundaries, I finished the book still perplexed. According to everything Cloud and Townsend described, I should have been in a good place, boundary-wise. It was my heart’s desire and my practice to honor other people’s boundaries. I also sought to establish healthy limits and was not easily guilted or coerced to let others mow them down.
Yet, something alarming had begun to happen: I would set a healthy boundary. I would identify it clearly and with kindness: “This is what I can do, and will do gladly. This, in good conscience, I cannot.” When tested, I maintained the boundary consistently. Yet in crucial situations, my boundaries were not being honored. Rather, I was pressured without ceasing to take them down.
In every case, the boundary involved a major issue – and a spiritual one. The line drawn marked a place I could not go beyond and still remain obedient to God. But people who should have been loudly encouraging the choice to follow God fully never stopped pushing against it. I faced instant and unrelenting pressure to recant – not just to move my boundary an inch or two, but to renounce it entirely. To stand where God had told me to stand, I had to exert an enormous amount of effort for a very long time.
According to the Boundaries book, that should not have happened. People tend to honor the boundaries of those who maintain them consistently. The boundaries may be tested immediately. But when they hold firm, the testers typically move on to people whose boundaries they can shift at will.
“Why is this happening?” I asked the Lord. At last, I began to see: The refusal to honor my boundaries hinged on the view of adulthood, in general, and womanhood, in particular, in the culture in which I live.
In his book, Changes That Heal, Henry Cloud describes adulthood as a place of freedom, authority and “eye-to-eye equality” with other adults. Adults have freedom:
- To make their own decisions without permission from others,
- To evaluate and judge their own performance,
- To choose their own values and opinions,
- To disagree with others freely, and
- To enjoy sexual relations with an equal spouse.
Adults also have freedom to give up rights and serve others in submission. Cloud writes, “When we submit in love, we are displaying our freedom; if we submit in compliance, it is not true submission. It’s slavery.”
Does that statement grab you like it did me? Reread it. Let it sink in.
Having substantial freedoms gives adults great authority. With freedom and authority comes a weighty responsibility. As adults, we’re accountable to God for every choice we make. Certainly, we’re not to live as islands. We’re to give and receive wise counsel, to exhort and confront one another in love. But “adults don’t need ‘permission’ from some other person to think, feel, or act.” Rather, adults answer directly to God.
Children, by contrast, relate to adults in a one-down/one-up relationship. Children need permission to make important decisions. If a child makes a choice the parents think unwise, they have the authority to intervene. In fact, if they see their child doing something harmful and don’t take action, they’re accountable. If parents say “no” to a child but the child persists in doing what the parents said to stop, the parents have a responsibility to stand firm and not to let the disobedient child have his or her way.
“Becoming an adult is the process of moving out of ‘one-up/one-down’ relationship and into a peer relationship to other adults.” Remaining “one-down” in relationships means “looking up to other adults for parental functions,” such as thinking for us, telling us how to live and what to believe.
We miss the important passage into full adulthood if we grow up physically, yet remain “one-down” in key relationships.
In every case where people have pushed relentlessly against my boundaries, they denied my adulthood. They saw themselves in a parental, one-up role in my life. If they had counted me an adult, they might have railed against my boundary temporarily, but when I said, “Thank you for your input. This is my choice,” they would have backed away and left me to sort it out with God. They did not do that. Instead, they determined, “One way or another, we will force you to comply.” In their minds, they are ones to whom I must listen and from whom I must get permission – and I’m nothing more than a rebellious child.
Quotations are from Changes That Heal, by Henry Cloud (Zondervan, 1990, 1992), Mobipocket Edition March 2009.
Posts in The ‘Adulthood’ Dilemma series