Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Healthy relationships have healthy boundaries

I’m running out of interesting things to write about my life, so I thought I’d write a piece about life in general. I’ve been thinking about relationships and the need for boundaries. I never gave it much thought til I took a course at work on the ethics of touch; there we learned about how to be more professional with our clients by minding one’s physical and emotional space. I guess I knew this stuff already but the course just articulated and refined the importance of this one simple rule in life: healthy relationships have healthy boundaries. I mentioned this once at a family reunion, and the whole room must have heard it because everyone stopped talking when I was asked what I meant by that. I guess everyone else wanted to hear the answer too. So, here’s what I told them.

The boundaries that make relationships healthy are based on respect. Respect simply means that you honour the thoughts, feelings, opinions, choices and personhood of others. What does that look like in real life? Healthy boundaries are in place when spouses don’t say hurtful things to each other or bring up past issues that were resolved; when we don’t manipulate others or let ourselves be manipulated; when we ask permission to borrow from others instead of taking; when we knock on the door before entering someone’s home; when we let others make decisions even if we don’t agree with them; when we decide to save our virginity for the one we commit ourselves to for life – the list goes on and on. We like to think that a life without any boundaries is freedom, but in the end it just makes life miserable for ourselves and others. For instance I remember in grade school the substitute teachers we used to give a bad time (and you do too I’m sure), but the ones I (and my classmates) liked were the ones who came in and laid down the law. Why? It’s because we respected them. Plus it saved us a trip down to the principle’s office…

Now in addition to a lack of boundaries there are the boundaries that can also make relationships unhealthy. These boundaries are based on fear and insecurity. When I keep people at arms reach because I’m afraid, that can be an unhealthy boundary. Of course our trust shouldn’t be indiscriminately given away – it has to be earned. If you know someone who isn’t trustworthy then some space is healthy. But when you keep everyone (or mostly everyone) from even attempting to reach out to you, then that becomes unhealthy. When we keep others at a “safe” distance we rob ourselves of relationship, and we die emotionally as a result. Of course some relationships are going to be closer than others and the level of intimacy is going to vary in depth, and that’s ok. It’s difficult to be best friends with everyone in your life. But we do need a few close relationships that build into us a sense of belonging and value. Those relationships will have strong, healthy boundaries.

Healthy boundaries are also biblical. Let me give you some examples:

1). Respect who God is and what He’s done for you.
2). Respect yourself by not lowering yourself to things or animals.
3). Respect God’s name.
4). Respect God and yourself by worshiping Him and not working yourself to death.
5). Respect your parents.
6). Respect human life.
7). Respect people's marriages, including your own.
8). Respect other people’s property.
9). Respect the reputation of others.
10). Think respect for people and things that aren’t yours.

Do you know what these are? They’re the Ten Commandments, and each one helps us to have healthy relationships with people and with God. So, if God is into boundaries then maybe we should give them a try too. God invented healthy boundaries, and they are His gift to us. God even respects our choice to use them or not, and out of respect for us He doesn’t shield us from the consequences of not using them. He does this because He loves us. If you’re having trouble getting respect from others, there’s hope. It all starts with self respect, and from there we can give and get respect from others. The seeds of relationship are planted when we learn when and where to use one of the most loving words in the English language: No. It’ll be hard at first, but in the end you’ll have the respect you deserve.