What are your tools for seeing relationships around you and helping improve them? The concept of boundaries is a powerful tool, and this book by Henry Cloud and John Townsend will help you have more to say than a quick “You need to set more boundaries!” when counseling someone in their relationships.
The authors describe boundaries as types of property lines. Boundaries “define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership” (31). These boundaries develop (or don’t develop) during childhood and lead people to manage both their emotions and relationships in an empowering way that shows them what they can control and what they can’t.
The chart below (61) shows the problems that arise when someone either can’t say yes or can’t say no, or can’t hear yes or can’t hear no. For example, a person who can’t hear no from someone else may grow the habit of pouting, complaining, or threatening to get the person to answer the way they want. A person who can’t say yes to someone else may be unduly cutting themselves off from their vocation to love the other person.
Summary of Boundary Problems
The Compliant: Feels guilty and/or controlled by others; can’t set boundaries
The Controller: Aggressively or manipulatively violates boundaries of others
The Nonresponsive: Sets boundaries against responsibility to love
The Avoidant: Sets boundaries against receiving care of others
Cloud and Townsend also advocate ten laws, or principles, that are necessary for the development of good relationships with boundaries:
- The Law of Sowing and Reaping. People mature when they face the consequences—both good and bad—of their actions. We can stunt other people’s growth if we constantly rescue them or shelter them from the natural consequences of what they are doing (or not doing).
- The Law of Responsibility. The authors distinguish between being responsible to someone and being responsible for someone. Being responsible to someone is loving and caring for them, but being responsible for someone often indicates over-involvement and a lack of boundaries.
- The Law of Power. Each person can take responsibility for their actions. While some of the phrasing of this section seems to attribute too much power to the human will, the general emphasis helps someone take responsibility for themselves instead of diving into victimhood.
- The Law of Respect. Healthy relationships respect the boundaries set by each person. They hear each other’s yeses and nos and can say their own yeses and nos. If we attack or judge people for setting boundaries, we risk hurting them.
- 5. The Law of Motivation. Healthy motivation for actions is key for When we do even the right things out of anger or guilt or out of fear that we will lose the other person’s love, the relationship will deteriorate.
- The Law of Evaluation. Setting boundaries often is painful, especially for people who don’t have healthy boundaries. The authors encourage people to “evaluate the effects of setting boundaries and be responsible to the other person,” empathizing with their new pain and consequences of their actions (96).
- The Law of Proactivity. Healthy relationships proactively negotiate and set boundaries.
- The Law of Envy. “Envy is a self-perpetuating cycle. Boundaryless people feel empty and unfulfilled. They look at another’s sense of fullness and feel envious” (99).
- The Law of Activity. Like the law of proactivity, boundaries are learned when a person is actively using them and pushing into life.
- The Law of Exposure. “Boundaries need to be made visible to others and communicated to them in relationship” (102). Resentments and hurt build if they are not.
The authors then apply the principles of boundaries to the spheres of family, friends, spouse, children, work, the digital age, yourself, and even God. Their applications are full of stories from their counseling practice and are very practical.
Here are two examples to help you get a sense of the book. This first one is a table about boundaries with one’s spouse (160).
1. “Stop yelling at me. You must be nicer.”
1. “You can continue to yell if you choose to. But I will choose not to be in your presence when that way.”
2. “You’ve just got to stop drinking. It’s ruining our family. Please listen. You’re wrecking our lives.”
2. “You may choose not to deal with your drinking if you want. But I will not continue to expose myself and the children to this chaos. The next time you are drunk, we will go to the Wilsons’ for the night, and we will tell them why we are there. Your drinking is your choice. What I will put up with is mine.”
3. “You are a pervert to look at pornography. That’s so degrading What kind of a sick person are you anyway?”
3. “I will not choose to share you sexually with naked women online or in magazines. You need to get help for your pornography habit.”
And this second example is about boundaries at work:
When I first started my counseling practice, I hired a woman for twenty hours a week to run my office. On her second day in the office, I gave her a pile of things to do. About ten minutes later, she knocked my door, stack of papers in hand.
“What can I do for you, Laurie?” I asked.
“You have a problem,” she told me.
“I do? What is it?” I asked, not having the vaguest idea what she talking about.
“You hired me for twenty hours a week, and you have just given me about forty hours of work. Which twenty would you like done?”
She was right. I did have a problem. I had not managed my workload very well. I was either going to have to spend more on help, cut back on projects, or hire someone else. But she was right: it was my problem not hers. I had to take responsibility for it and fix it. Laurie was to me what that ever-present sign says: “Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” Many bosses aren’t so lucky. (199–200)
One frustrating characteristic of this book that deserves mention is its poor application of Scripture. The authors seem to feel obligated to attach Bible verses and stories to many of their points. The points are often very good and wise. The Bible verse connection was often not. I was bothered by applications such as using the Good Samaritan as an example of showing boundaries because he limited himself to only caring for the man for a day in the inn and not for a week, using the “narrow gate” as an encouragement to take the hard road of setting boundaries with people, and even using Jesus’s “It is finished!” as a good example of task completion. In addition to the weak passage applications, the book does not pulsate with gospel motivation.
Despite the weaknesses of the book, I learned useful vocabulary for talking about boundaries and for seeing it more in my life. For example, a fellow called worker commented that this year was going better for him because he was taking an evening or two off to spend with family. I said to myself, “Ah, he’s listening to the no of his family and beginning to learn to say no to other things.” The boundaries are developing and he’ll be able to love and serve in his vocations even better than before. I’m happy I’m able to recognize it and name the situations so that I’ll be able to practice them and counsel people with them in the future. I also recommend this book, even if you, the pastor, are the only one from your congregation to read it. The people you serve will be helped by your increased ability to talk clearly about boundaries. The book would also be good for the leadership and other called workers of your organization. Called ministry has unique pressures and expectations (especially as called worker shortages increase) and it will be good for us to move forward with healthy skills of boundaries.