Norman L. Coad, D.Min
Boundaries are guidelines, rules and limits, the purpose of which are to be able to relate to one another without hurting or doing damage to one other. They are for protection of ourselves and those who relate closely to us. Some boundaries are societal or global, some are personal. Whatever type they are, the general goal is the same. Boundaries help to define us as a people, and personally, as individuals.
Boundaries set limits for each person individually. They make clear the limits of our personal freedom. Boundaries also set limits of appropriate behavior of society as a whole in relation to its citizens. Neither individuals,, nor governments, have unlimited freedom.
Boundaries set the point at which a limit has been violated. They set the line where societal authority ends and where individual authority begins, and conversely, where individual authority ends and where societal authority begins.
For most people, boundaries are absorbed and interpreted from their family of origin. If the family has reasonably good or healthy boundaries, then there is structure that assures love, safety and security, etc. (See the article A Healthy Family Structure an Interpretation of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.) As a rule, the healthier the family, the better the boundaries. The healthier the family, the more functional and well adjusted the members of the family are. Families marked by poor boundaries often exhibit dysfunctional adaptations to life. When corrupt behaviors, values, thoughts and emotions occur, everyone in the family is afflicted. These faulty adaptations to acute, ongoing dysfunctions result in dysfunctional maladapted individuals. They often project this into the future with ongoing wounding to themselves and those around them. Various types of abuse occur: verbal, emotional, sexual, psychological, physical, ritual or religious. Abuse occurs when basic needs are not nurtured. Negative, critical, faultfinding relationships of perfectionism often occur and do great damage to children. Their self-esteem is not nurtured and they become discouraged. Making age inappropriate demands does its part to wound as does emotional deprivation and shaming in a chaotic family environment.
In order to relate in such a way that we do not hurt someone else and they do not hurt us, we must respect, accept and obey the limits set by others and ourselves. The boundaries set by others for us all are arbitrary. We personally and directly are not given a vote in the matter. When we become aware of boundaries they are found all around us. They are everywhere at the same time and are of many kinds.
Arbitrary boundaries are imposed on us by the authority structures governing us. Their purpose is to limit or stop the mayhem that intentionally or accidentally injures others in some way. Their objective is to limit destruction, corruption, evil, wickedness and violence against others. These set outside limits beyond which we are not permitted to go. They are not intended to impose rigid, minute control but allow us individual choice as to how we are to conform to the broad norms of society.
One group of arbitrary boundaries are our traffic laws. These are clearly set to protect our lives and are systematically consistently reinforced. For example, a stop sign is always eight sided, painted red and says “STOP.” Its meaning is defined in our traffic laws: “Bring the vehicle to a full stop. Look both ways. When it is clear. Proceed ahead.” Our highways are divided by lanes with painted stripes. We are taught to drive on the right side of the road and stay in our lane except when passing. Daily we pass many cars very closely but do not get hurt. However, if we decide to exercise our personal freedom and drive on the left side of the road, our pain, and the pain of others will go up dramatically. This is a misuse of our freedom and shows very poor judgment. There are speed limits and warning signs as well.
All effective traffic limits require that they be reinforced. Police officers are empowered by law to enforce the traffic laws. They write tickets, levy judgments that bring certain negative results on the drivers from fines to revoking their license. This lowers the pain of relating closely. It is a positive outcome. It is not selfish, or a misuse of authority. It is necessary.
Another type of law is that which is self imposed. This is the restraining power of religious beliefs and practices. Traditionally, in America, the religious boundaries are based on the Jewish Scriptures of the Bible. Biblical limits are placed on individual and collective behaviors. The boundaries arise from the very nature of the Judeo-Christian God, Who is three-in-one, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He created us and all that is. The boundaries instruct and discipline us so that we live in harmony with God, nature and ourselves. Every thing arises out of a personal, loving, obedient relationship to Him.
The Ten Commandments are behavioral and moral limits for we humans to follow. They are universal and transcend the laws of man of every language, nationality and culture. They are for us all. They are a reduction of the Law of Moses into ten principles of healthy living. (Exodus 20:1-17) They state:
• Love Me (God) and keep My commandments.
• Do not misuse the name of the Lord your God.
• Worship the Lord your God. Do not worship idols. If you worship idols, you curse yourself and your generations.
• Honor your father and your mother.
• Do not murder.
• Do not commit adultery.
• Do not steal.
• Do not lie.
• Do not covet.
There are many boundaries that limit damage done in interpersonal relationships:
Protection of Life
• If a man kills someone unintentionally he is to flee to a refuge place. (Exodus 21:13)
• If a man kills someone deliberately—Take him away…and kill him. (Exodus 21:14)
• If someone hits a pregnant woman that causing severe damage he is to be fined based on a premature birth and based on the damage done. (Exodus 21:22-25)
Protection of Property
• If a man steals an animal he must pay back four to five times its value lost.
• If a man’s animal grazes into another man’s field and causes destruction he must restore from the best of his field or vineyard. (Exodus 22:5)
• When silver or gold is given to another for safe keeping and it is stolen he shall be judged and pay back double the loss.
• If a man seduces a virgin who is not married and sleeps with her he must pay the bride price. (Exodus 22:16-17)
• Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him.
• Do not take advantage of an orphan or a widow. If they cry out to Me, I (God) will certainly hear and kill you. (Exodus 22:22-24)
Laws of Justice and Mercy
• Do not spread false reports.
• Do not help the wicked man by being a false witness. (Exodus 23:1)
• Do not side with a crowd and pervert justice. (Exodus 23: 2-3)
Regulations About Infectious Disease
• Infectious diseases—Leviticus 13:1-46; 14:1-32.
• Unlawful sexual relations—Leviticus 18:3, 4, 6-8; 19:20, 21, 29.
• Various laws—Exodus 19:1-37.
These were summarized by the Lord Jesus Christ, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments”. (Matthew 22:37-40 NIV)
How to Set Boundaries
After 430 years in Egypt, most of it serving as slaves, the people of Israel left Egypt and went to Mount Sinai. There the Lord spoke to Moses and began teaching former slaves how to live as freemen and free women in society. He stated their purpose as a nation, “You are to be for Me (God) a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6). Priests were to be wholly consecrated to His service and be channels of God’s grace to the nations. (Genesis 12:2-3; 42:1-4; 49:8-12; Isaiah 61:6; I Peter 2:5; Revelation 1:6; 5:10; 20:6)
The first teachings about boundaries were directives to Moses from God: Go to the people today and tomorrow and consecrate by washing their clothes and abstaining from sex. Be ready for I will come down on Mount Sinai (in fire, thunder and lightning, and a sounding of the trumpet louder and louder and God make. (Exodus 19:16-19)
• Put limits (boundaries) for the people around the mountain.
• Tell them, “Do not go up the mountain. Do not touch the foot of it.”
• Give the warning, “Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death.”
• Put in place the means of enforcement: the offenders shall be stoned or shot with arrows.
• This order is in place until the ram’s horn sounds a long blast.
Principles of Boundary Setting
The purpose of a boundary is to lower the pain of relating closely in community.
• Set the boundaries clearly for everybody involved.
• When the boundaries are set, expect that someone will violate them.
• Set consequences if the boundaries are not kept. (The consequences should fit the offense.)
• Set up a means of reinforcing the boundaries by following through with the consequences promised. Be consistent.
• When boundaries are set and reinforced you will lose painful, dysfunctional relationships.
• When the boundaries are set and reinforced you will gain low pain, functional relationships.
It takes two to make a codependent relationship. These characteristics arose out of study of alcoholic families. In codependent families there are three parts: the user and abuser, the used and abused and the children who live in the family who make dysfunctional adaptations in order to survive. They learn how to live dysfunctionally and they are very wounded. In this section, the emphasis will be on the primary relationship of the user and abuser and the used and abused.
These roles may be filled either by men as user and abuser or women. They may even switch roles. However the more common model is the male in the role of user and abuser.
The User and Abuser
• They have been used and abused themselves. They are often given to self-medicating with alcohol and drugs and are addicted.
• They feel they must dominate, manipulate and control, or their needs will not be met.
• Their means of control and manipulation vary from charm, use of sex, to violent aggressive behaviors.
• In the codependent life, they have chosen to always win. That means everyone else in the relationship must lose.
• They are profoundly self-centered.
• They seek and find those who will allow themselves to be used and abused in order to fulfill their own need to control.
• They isolate their victims from all support systems they can in order to maintain dominance.
• When the victim leaves, the user/abuser feels betrayed and that the victim is ungrateful. He has very low self-esteem.
• They blame the victim and almost never see themselves as aggressive users and abusers.
• Their denial of all responsibilities for the “break up” is absolute. However, if false contrition will get them back, then they will use it.
• After they give up getting the victim back they seek and find another to take their place.
• Some users and abusers are aggressive to the point of physical abuse and kill their victim.
• Verbal, emotional, psychological and physical abuse, along with blaming and shaming, are commonplace.
• They continually violate and cross healthy boundaries.
The Used and Abused Victim
• She submits to the user/abuser all or most of the time in order to have relationship.
• She either has no boundaries, or very poor boundaries.
• The worse the boundaries, the worse the abuse and the greater the pain.
• She submits and feels used and abused.
• She internalizes the fear, pain and unmet expectations, and rages quietly within.
• She rationalizes to maintain the relationship: “He needs me. I can help him and make things better. He really loves me.”
• She often self-medicates with alcohol and drugs.
• She has very low self-esteem and feels if she does not submit then she will have no one.
• Codependent relationships are win/lose. She always loses. There is no balance, no give and take.
• The relationship will last as long as she can contain her anger/rage, or to the point where fear, pain and unmet expectations can no longer be endured. She will break off the relationship and leave at this point. The time of being a doormat and being walked on is over (usually only for a while).
• She retreats within rigid walls, the purpose of which is to protect herself from being hurt ever again.
• She builds the walls of isolation in various ways: by anger, by silence, by leaving and putting physical distance between herself and her abuser.
• Rigid walls protect, but they do not provide any means of relating. She becomes lonely.
• Loneliness cannot be endured. They may reason, “Any relationship is better than none at all.”
• They go back to what they knew and take up the victim role again. The process may be repeated over and over again.
• They internalize the thought, “I do not know how to choose good men; I’m a mess. I do not deserve any better.” They often destruct and hate themselves.
• They always wait for the abuser to do the right thing. They never, or only after time and great pain, take the initiative to protect themselves and leave the abusive situation.
There are only four ways of relating to others. Only one of these is healthy and can be maintained over time. What kind of relationship one has depends on what kind of boundaries one has and that determines the amount of wounding you have.
Boundaries in Relationships
The four boundaries are: No Boundaries, Holes in Your Boundaries (poor boundaries), Rigid Walls and Reciprocal Boundaries:
No Boundaries (win/lose)
Others always decide. They are always being hurt. The pain is always extreme. Anger and rage are internalized until the emotional, psychological and physical pain cannot be endured.
The relationship is over, at least for a while, and the relationship comes to an end.
Poor Boundaries (holes in boundaries)
This person usually has good work boundaries but poor personal boundaries. She does not know how or just does not set personal boundaries. They love their work. The boundaries are set for them. They love the structures the boundaries provide and they feel safe and are able to function well.
In their personal life they live like the person with no boundaries. Their personal life is a painful shambles.
This is usually a short term fall back place of protection from pain. The walls of protection do not allow relationships, only isolation. They become lonely and seek relationship like what they had in the past. They feel acute loneliness, find someone and go to euphoria, repeat the same mistakes, become enraged and pain filled. Then they repeat the whole process over again.
The last boundary they learn is the only one that works over time. It is a permeable boundary:
• The person sets and maintains a complete boundary around himself/herself at all times.
• Within the boundary is a door that allows relationships when needed and sought after.
• The door only has a handle on the inside of the boundary so that the person within has sole authority to open and close the door.
• The person within takes authority and assertively maintains the boundary and decides when and for what reason to open the door. They are in charge of their own space.
• Accept that the people they relate to have and should have the same authority to maintain their boundaries and relate as they choose as well as they.
• They give themselves the right to say “Yes” or “No” without guilt or feeling selfish. They know that this is healthy and normal, not selfish and wrong.
• Their relationships are marked by a balance between them of giving and receiving, or give and take.
• There is reciprocity between them. It is not all give on one side and all receive on the other, but giving and receiving that goes back and forth.
• They realize that no one is without wants and needs. The relationship is maintained so that those wants and needs are naturally met.
• If one always gives and one always takes then the one who gives becomes “mined out” and ends up empty, depleted of emotional, psychological and physical resources. This will break the person and end the relationship.
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For more information and help check out Dr. Coad’s book, The Divided Soul in the Book Store.