Message 48, “Tough Love: Setting Boundaries”, 2-13-11

© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved

Service-Program, 02-13-11

I vividly recall a minor but nevertheless heartwarming story about my youngest daughter Amy when she was probably one or two years of age.  Amy has always been full of life and energy with an easy laugh and playful demeanor.  She also freely admits to being a bit of a drama queen.  She feels things deeply and is not afraid to show the heights or depths of happiness and sorrow.

At a very early age Amy discovered how fun it was to play with the dog we owned.  Brady, our dog, was by that time settling into her retirement years – content to sleep a lot in between brief forays outdoors.  She had always been a gentle dog who would nevertheless sometimes bark or growl when she sensed something amiss.

One day, Amy began to playfully pull at Brady’s ears and fur and crawl on top of her.  This was just one big, animated stuffed animal to Amy.  And Brady was long suffering for quite a while – enduring repeated ear pulls and pokes in the eye.  Despite several admonitions by me to be gentle, Amy persisted.  Eventually, Brady growled at Amy and this, of course, alarmed me.  Amy just giggled.  I feared Brady might snap at or even bite Amy if she was too persistent.  I raised my voice, “No, Amy.  Be nice.  Pet Brady.”  And then I showed her how.  Amy laughed and tried petting but soon began pulling hair once again.  Brady let out a low growl.

Finally, after several unsuccessful attempts to change Amy’s behavior, I quickly scooped her up, pulled her away, and swiftly but lightly spanked her hands.  “No Amy!!  That hurts Brady!”  And I sat her down many feet away.  And this is what I clearly remember.  It was one of the first times I had been really stern in discipline with Amy.  She looked up at me with tears welling in her eyes, her lower lip quivered, her face darkened a deep red and then she began to sob and cry pitifully and loudly.  It broke my heart.

We can all relate, in some manner, to this story – when we have had to firmly establish a safety boundary with a child too young to understand the consequences of his or her actions.  With children, we cannot expect them to experience natural consequences but we have to teach them certain boundaries around their behavior – for their safety and for that of others.  Kids cannot play with matches for instance or play in a busy street.  If they do, we cannot simply say they should suffer the consequences as a way to learn.  But we do practice a form of tough love.  We could allow them to be free spirits – in a perverse way of saying we love them – or we can set protective boundaries because they are too young to understand how they can be hurt by their actions.

In our interactions with teenagers and adults, however, setting boundaries is much more complicated.  In human relationships, we often think we love if we accept and tolerate certain behaviors that hurt us or hurt others.  We can allow a friend to be habitually late, for instance, or we can firmly but gently indicate that we have time boundaries.  We’ll wait on them for ten minutes or so but that is all.

Establishing boundaries is about clearly stating what it is that we want and desire in life.  As I said, too often some of us confuse love for another person with mushy, inconsistent or non-existent boundaries.  We think that by not clearly stating our own interests, we are being kind and gentle.  After all, we are often told that being selfless is the highest form of love.  I believe, instead, that without boundaries such love is sometimes false and cruel.  It enables bad behavior, it prevents growth and it limits the full potential of the other person.  Failing to clearly identify what we like also leaves others guessing and unsure about what we want and who we really are.  And that prevents true intimacy and connection.

On this eve of Valentine’s Day, I hope to examine with you what I have called tough love but which, in many respects, might be called genuine love.  We can all understand that I showed love for Amy by preventing her from being bitten even though I finally had to use discipline.   How can we as adults use personal boundaries to express real love for another – to teach, create growth, express identity and ultimately encourage authentic intimacy?

Two Christian therapists, John Cloud and Henry Townsend, in their book When to Say Yes, When to Say No, How to Take Control of Your Life, have used a Bible verse to explain why boundaries are important.  They call it the Law of Responsibility.  The apostle Paul said in his letter to ancient Galatian churches, those located in modern day Turkey, and I add some of my own language here – “Do not be deceived.  The Divine One cannot be mocked.  A man or a woman reaps what he or she sows.” While in some respects such a statement seems harsh, it bears closer examination.

The consequences we experience in life are usually the natural by-product of our own actions – the choices we alone make.  We reap the consequences of what we sow or create. We are each responsible for how we think, act, feel and speak.  When we establish personal boundaries, we are simply saying to others that we are going to allow them to experience the results of their choices.  If one chooses to repeatedly be late, a consequence might be a meeting will be canceled or someone waiting will simply leave.  Experts and counselors emphasize this is not a form of punishment, retribution or manipulation if you have clearly identified and spoken your boundary beforehand.  If I choose to act otherwise, to think that I will show love by endlessly tolerating someone’s lateness, I am really preventing that person from reaping the consequences of being tardy.  I am enabling his or her behavior such that it will continue and he or she will not hopefully learn to correct it.

If we reap what we sow, we learn that what we choose to do produces either good or bad results.  Since most of us are not masochists and don’t like bad consequences, we will adjust our actions so that only good things happen to us.  We learn.  We grow.  If I want to enjoy your company, I will learn I’d better not always be late.  And that is the ultimate purpose of boundaries: they are to teach.  As T.S. Elliot wisely observed, If you haven’t the strength to impose your own terms upon life, you must accept the terms it offers you.” In other words, if we do not set our own boundaries in life, we must be prepared to reap what we sow.

To understand the full range of boundaries, we must keep in mind that using common sense and understanding the context of a situation should determine how we set our personal limits.  For whom are we setting boundaries:  for a child?  A competent adult?  Someone in the midst of a crisis?  For someone who can reasonably make choices?  For a handicapped or oppressed person?  Context and understanding is essential for determining our boundaries.

Experts talk about several forms of boundary problems we might exhibit in our lives.

First, many of us can be too rigid in setting boundaries with others.  This is a “my way or the highway” type of approach.  One is stubborn and inflexible with their personal boundaries and allows no room for choice.  A solution to this problem is to understand when to set firm OR flexible boundaries.  On certain crucial matters in our lives, we must be firm.  As an example, it is rarely appropriate for another to be sexually aggressive, overly suggestive or provocative with a non-partner.   Our boundaries should likely be firm in such instances.  Families of alcoholics must often set firm boundaries that they will not be around the other when he or she is drunk.  Again, this is not punishment.  It leaves the choice to the other.  Drink and be alone or choose sobriety and enjoy the company and support of friends and family.

On other minor matters, flexibility is important.  For instance, Chinese food may not be your favorite but it is for your partner.  If he or she suggests going to a Chinese restaurant that evening, you can refuse and assert a firm boundary.  Or, you might be flexible and negotiate:  Tonight Chinese, tomorrow night Italian.  In other situations, offering a choice is a way of being flexible but still setting a boundary.  We’ll eat either Chinese or Indian – your choice.  Such is an insignificant example of understanding and knowing when to stand firm and when to be flexible.  A person who has healthy boundaries knows the difference and executes them accordingly.  In support of flexibility, a Japanese proverb says, “The bamboo that bends is stronger than the oak that resists.”

A second problem for many people is having invisible or non-existent boundaries.    These individuals know what they want in life but refuse or fail to identify them to others.  They allow others to act or express needs without being willing to express their own.  They go along with or they accept another’s opinions or actions but then resent the fact that their boundary was crossed.  They might think they acted with love when in fact they have done the opposite.  They did not go along due to love but out of some inner fear to voice their opinions.  And then many times they act resentful or hurt – often just angry at themselves for failing to express a boundary.

A solution is to be assertive or engaged in setting a boundary.  Those who are assertive with boundaries do so with gentleness and often with a sense of humor.  They are not rigid boundary setters as I mentioned earlier.  They state something that is important to them and then work to creatively and gently convince others.  If an ethical standard at work has been crossed, one does not set an invisible boundary by ignoring it and then later criticizing the situation.  The assertive person lays out a positive case for why the ethical line should not be crossed.  Assertive boundary makers understand the context of a situation, the possible weaknesses of others, and then firmly but politely state their case.

One can also avoid setting invisible boundaries by being actively engaged with another.  This involves asking questions, seeking insight and showing genuine interest in the needs of a situation.  In my previous scenario regarding what type of food two partners might eat, when Chinese is proposed, one might ask why the other wants to eat that food or what particular needs he or she is feeling at the moment.  This example is simplistic.  One usually engages in matters of greater significance.  In dealing with someone who is alcoholic, for example, setting healthy boundaries might involve getting engaged in that person’s life – helping to proactively prevent drinking by establishing  a curfew or driving boundaries.  Steven Covey says about those who are assertive and engaged but gentle in their boundaries, I am personally convinced that one person can be a change catalyst, a “transformer” in any situation, any organization. Such an individual is yeast that can leaven an entire loaf. It requires vision, initiative, patience, respect, persistence, courage, and faith…”

Even more profound, an inscription at the Holocaust museum in Washington D.C. states, “Thou shalt not be a victim.  Thou shalt not be a perpetrator.  Above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.” People with healthy boundaries are rarely victims.  They do not consistently hurt others because they are flexible and gentle.  Most of all, they engage the world in ways that create positive change.

And this speaks to the usefulness of establishing healthy boundaries.  Instead of reacting – often with anger or negative attitudes to the hurts and challenges we face, clear and consistent boundaries are proactive protections for us.  While difficult to put in place, they work to prevent conflict in our relationships.  Each person knows in advance the consequences that will result from certain actions.  If you get drunk, I will not be around you.  If you emotionally abuse me, I will leave.  If you steal from me, you can no longer enter my home.  Again, these should not be punishments but ways to open up natural consequences.  Persons who establish boundaries do not sit idly by the wayside allowing them to be victimized by others or by life.  It takes courage and tough love – genuine love – to tell others what we will accept and what we won’t.

An additional boundary problem area is when people simply choose to avoid setting boundaries altogether primarily because they fear conflict.  This is why I frequently fail to protect myself.  I often do not want to confront others and so I avoid potential conflict.  I will unwillingly say “yes” or “no” – depending on the situation – as a way to avoid their disappointment in me.  This comes from insecurity and a deep need to feel liked.  Fortunately, I know this is a problem of mine and so I am working to, as Jesus said, let my yes be yes and my no be no.  I am trying to grow and to set healthy boundaries.  Whatever I choose to do, it must be sincere and based not on avoiding conflict.

It was difficult for me to tell a homeless woman last week, who entered our church during coffee time, we could not give her the money she needed for bus fare to another city.  She was cold and desperate and she got angry.  It was hard to set a boundary – to say “no”.  Perhaps I was wrong.  I often assist folks who come in asking for help when I am here during the week – but I don’t think I can help everyone.  On many occasions I dig into my pocket to give away money out of some desire to be liked instead of wanting to really help.   Sometimes, tough love involves having to say “no” in those situations or in other matters.  I am learning it is OK if everyone doesn’t always like me or my boundaries.

A final boundary problem with many people is when one enmeshes himself or herself in the boundaries of others.  A partner or friend’s boundaries – or lack thereof – become one’s own.  This is not the same as having invisible boundaries that are unstated but cause resentment when they are crossed.  Instead, enmeshment literally involves assuming the likes and dislikes of another person.  If they don’t like Chinese food, one does not like it either.  This form of dependency and co-dependency is our subject for next week.   It is a form of false love.

Dear friends, tough love is never easy.  It was so hard for me, about twenty years ago, to abruptly scold my daughter when she came close to being bitten by our dog.  It is even more difficult for us to set boundaries that seem to hurt or challenge people we love.  Ultimately, setting boundaries is a form of individualism which I addressed in last week’s message.  We are claiming our individual rights and liberties through our boundaries.

It is important to remember, though, that boundaries are only relevant when they are applied in context.  Those who establish rigid protections without regard to the person or to the situation do so without compassion or understanding.  Many times I believe we set far too tough of boundaries for those who are NOT fully capable of making reasonable choices.  These are people who are not reaping what they have sown but instead reap what others or outside forces have sown for them.  Just as my daughter was too young to reap the consequences of taunting an innocent animal – even though I still had to set a boundary for her, so too are those who have been beaten down by the ravages of poverty, mental illness, a handicap or lower level of intelligence.  Indeed, we all know that life is often not fair and many people reap consequences which they did not cause.  While everyone should experience some form of boundary or expectation in their life, people born with two strikes against them before they even have a chance to grow up are unable to make the same choices in life that I have had.  For such persons, more flexible boundaries should be applied.  Those born into hardship can still rise above their misfortunes and we should never patronize them by not applying boundaries.  But for them, I believe we must be flexible, engaged and compassionate.  For most of us, however, the Law of Responsibility and reaping what we sow is a fair deal.

For ourselves, for our partners, spouses, children, friends and fellow church members, we all need boundaries to grow.  As easy as it is for me to stand up here and speak about boundaries, it is much more difficult to apply them in real life.  This is a flesh and blood issue involving deep and sincere love for people in our lives.  Indeed, it is called tough love not just because it is tough on the receiver but also for the boundary maker.  It is hard to see ones we love experience painful consequences from the choices they have made.  Ultimately, I believe almost everyone wants to receive love that is honest and challenging – even if it seems harsh.  In our heart of hearts, none of us want love that is weak, false or patronizing.  We all want to grow.  We all want to learn.  We don’t want to remain stuck in the ruts of life.  We each, deep inside ourselves, want to reach for the lofty heights of happiness and self-fulfillment.  As difficult as it is, I can only encourage us to express the kind of love and boundary setting that helps others to do just that.  May our love be gentle whenever possible but tough when necessary.