Soul-Care Articles: Christ-centered, Spirit-led, Biblically-based, Clinically-sound, Truth-oriented

SOURCE:  Leslie Vernick

Question: Someone wrote: What’s the difference between setting clear boundaries with someone and being manipulative and/or controlling? It looks similar to me and my husband. When I set boundaries with him he says I’m being controlling and when I tell him how I feel, such as “this hurts me” he says I’m being manipulative.

Answer: Your question is timely and important. There could be some truth to your confusion. For example, if you try to set a boundary on your husband’s behavior – such as, “You can’t talk to me that way,” or “You can’t watch R rated movies” or “You have to go to church with me if you want to have sex” you are trying to control him. If he refuses to comply and you follow it up with “This hurts me” (when you won’t do what I want you to do), it can be seen as manipulative. He sees that you are trying to make him feel guilty for exercising his right to choose not to do what you want or deciding how he behaves and the kind of man he wants to be.

Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If your husband tried to control how often you drove the car or talked with your sister on the telephone, or whether you could work, wouldn’t you see it as controlling? And if you protested and he said “That hurts me (that you won’t let me control you), would you not see that as manipulative?

When we try to control another person and use the phrase, “I’m setting a boundary on you,” we’re not defining it properly. What we are trying to do is control their negative behavior so we don’t get hurt or feel anxious. Boundaries are something we set for ourselves, not for the other person. Let me give an example:

If I told you that you could not smoke cigarettes in my presence, I’m trying to control you. If I say instead, if you choose to smoke around me, I will have to leave, that’s a boundary. I am not controlling you I’m taking care of me. I don’t want to breathe in smoke, it’s not good for my health and if you decide not to honor my needs, I will have to set a boundary that I can’t be around you when you smoke.

It can get confusing if I say, “You can’t smoke in my home.” I may be saying that because I want to protect me and my health, or the air in my home, which is being a good steward and taking responsibility for me. Or, I might say it because I don’t like you smoking and am trying to get you to stop and I’m attempting to take responsibility for you (your smoking habit). Then it is controlling. Sometimes boundary setting does feel fuzzy and isn’t crystal clear to both parties why you are doing what you are doing.

Boundaries are necessary for two primary reasons. The first is to define where your responsibility ends and someone else’s responsibility begins. For example, let’s think of property lines (whether they are formal with a fence or informal). My property line helps me know what grass is my responsibility to mow, what flowers are my responsibility to water, what weeds are my responsibility to pull, what snow is my responsibility so shovel or plow.

That doesn’t mean I might not offer to help my neighbor do these things in his own yard if he is ill, or away from home but they are not my responsibility. The boundary or property line defines or clarifies my yard from his yard and what I am to take care of and what he is to take care of.

In the same way, my physical body, my emotional well-being, my financial life, my thought life, my behavior patterns, and my spiritual life are my God-given responsibilities to steward. Once I become an adult, no one else is responsible for stewarding my life but me.

When I marry someone, that person promises to be responsible to me but not for me.  

Do you hear the difference? It is critical.

In the marital vows, my spouse promises to honor and to care about my feelings, my needs, and my overall well-being but he cannot be 100% responsible for it. If I choose to smoke, drink, overeat, take drugs, drive recklessly, my spouse can tell me how my actions impact him and our marriage, but he can’t take responsibility for my actions or choices. Only I can be responsible for me. Being responsible for our selves is one of the hallmarks of a healthy adult.

The second reason we need boundaries is that they help us communicate with people how we want to be treated or what we will accept or won’t accept. Most of the time, in healthy relationships we do not need rigid boundaries. For example, if I tell my kids when my bedroom door is closed, please don’t walk in, I hope they will respect my soft boundary. I’m teaching my children to respect my need for privacy by my closed door and my words. When they refuse, or ignore my soft boundary, then I will have to put a more rigid boundary in place (a lock on my door) or give them a consequence for refusing to respect my boundary.

Here’s another example. I had a client whose mother and father-in-law walked into her house whenever they felt like it. They lived in the same neighborhood and my client rarely kept her doors locked during the day because the kids would be in and out. Her in-laws’ behavior rattled her because she was not use to such familiarity. She tried to let it go but found herself getting more and more resentful. Her husband did not see this as a big deal. He was raised with loose boundaries and his parent’s behavior did not bother him, but it did her. What was she going to do?

First, instead of brooding and filling up with anger and resentment, she needed to communicate to her in-laws how she wanted to be treated. She said to them, “I know you mean well but it frightens me to walk into my kitchen and see you standing there. From now on, please call ahead before you stop over.” (She wasn’t crystal clear with her boundary here. She should have also said and knock on my door when you get here).

They repeatedly ignored her request, so she had to make a more rigid boundary. She started to lock her doors and if she wasn’t ready for a visit with them, she did not answer her door-bell when they dropped by unannounced. Eventually they got the message that she did not want drop in visits and she would not enable their behavior.

She might be accused of being controlling but she was not. Her in-laws were free to do what they pleased, but she was also free to be a good steward of her time and her energy and if she was not prepared to speak with them or have company, she did not have to answer the door.

If they said, “It hurts me that you won’t answer the door” she could be compassionate and say, “I’m sorry that you feel hurt, but sometimes I’m busy and not prepared for company. If you don’t call ahead to check, I can’t always accommodate you. I’ve asked you to please call me before stopping by to make sure it was a good time for a visit.”

She did not take responsibility for their feelings but she recognized she was responsible to care about their feelings. That didn’t mean she caved in and allowed them to continue their inconsiderate behavior towards her; but by practicing CORE strength, she stayed strong and compassionate.

One more thing: Sometimes when a wife starts to get stronger and speaks up for herself or sets some boundaries, her husband feels (or claims) he is the victim. Instead of looking at what his feelings are telling him (he feels threatened and anxious by her newfound independence), his strategy is to blame her or accuse her of being ungodly or controlling, hoping she will feel guilty and stop changing or having her own boundaries. He wants her to return to their familiar marital dance.

Don’t do it.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Tag Cloud

%d bloggers like this: