Emotional Boundaries, Part I and II

Becky: So I was talking with my friend G------- this afternoon, and we were talking about emotional boundaries and it got me to thinking about them. We talked about how, with physical boundaries, it's pretty easy to be clear on what they are when you've crossed them (if you set up them up in the first place, that is). But we agreed that emotional/spiritual boundaries in relationships are much harder. . . both of us feel the need for them, but we can't really clearly define what that means, or what specifically is "out of boundaries" in this area. Also, as I consider my knowledge of the Bible, I wonder about the need for emotional boundaries. God is clear about not having a hint of sexual immorality, and that's what the church tends to focus on when counseling young people about relationships. But I can't recall anything about "emotional immorality" and all I see is an overwhelming command to love others. With friendships, we don't feel the need to set emotional boundaries, so why is it different in guy/girl relationships?

So I guess my questions are: What does God have to say about emotional boundaries in relationships? How do we go about defining those boundaries? What should those boundaries be and at what point is what level of disclosure appropriate (dating vs. engagement vs. marriage)?

Dad: It has been fascinating to observe a huge shift in this area during my life-time. When I was a child, it was rare for people to openly share their struggles unless they were really close to someone or in a dire circumstance. The disadvantage is that people can struggle in loneliness and despair and never receive the help they need. This can lead to all sorts of self-destructive behavior. The shift has, in my opinion, gone way too far the other way. Even in the church we are encouraged to be transparent, and the value of honesty has included the encouragement to share inner struggles and secrets openly with those who don’t need to hear it. The growth of support groups dealing with specific categories of struggle and boundaries defining what’s appropriate can give direction to the needed transparency, but in many relationships there is neither purpose nor boundaries in conversation. Specifically among Christians we throw in a holy phrase such as, “Please pray for ... really struggling with…” Now that could really be helpful, or could cross needed boundaries depending on the situation.

We definitely need trust to build healthy relationships, and honesty is a necessary ingredient of trust. Honesty, however, doesn’t require that we discuss everything about everything and everyone, even ourselves. There is a dynamic in the human condition that we tend to follow our focus. If we focus on good things, we tend to follow them. If we focus on negative things, we will follow them. So we need some guidelines to help us build healthy relationships that encourage us to improve ourselves and encourage others in their improvement, yet also help each other in our struggles. And, we need to find biblical principles to help us create those guidelines so we know they are good ones. I’ve made a list that I thought of as I read your message, so the order may not make sense, but they are what came to mind.

Sharing our struggles or listening to other’s problems should not enter the realm of gossip. Gossip is sharing information that puts someone in a negative light, even if they deserve it. There have been times that I really needed help with a relational struggle, so I sought out the council of someone I trusted. As a general rule of thumb, I talk to someone who doesn’t know the person I’m struggling with, and I don’t use their name, or we agree to call him Joe or Suzie, or some gender-free name like Chris. That way I can be sure not to be gossiping, even if I say that they are a really bad person or something. This takes incredible discipline, because if you practice it, you will likely be the only one you know who does. Most everyone gossips daily or just talks loosely about whatever comes to mind without the thought of how their talk makes others look.

We can also color our sharing in order to give an impression of ourselves to others. We may try to make ourselves look better, try to generate pity, try to build unhealthy dependence, etc. We must constantly examine our motives in a conversation. Ask yourself, “Am I trying to manipulate the hearer in the way I share information?” I would venture to say that most of us have impure motives in many of our conversations. We want others to like us, or we are trying to motivate some response by what we say. Of course motivating a response isn’t always negative. As a matter of fact, that’s why we converse. What we need to examine is if the response is being manipulated, or is it appropriate and healthy.

A specific example is if our sharing manipulates a relationship into an unhealthy dependence. An unhealthy dependence can be a couple of things. It can mean that someone is dependent in an area they should be independent. An extreme example would be if I lose my job and share that with my rich friend who gives me a couple of thousand dollars to help my family get by. Now rather than using my time and resources to get another job, I spend my time trying to get him and possibly others to give me more money. More common examples of this type of unhealthy dependence would be letting others do all the work around the house, letting others do homework for you, letting others make decisions you should make for yourself, etc.

Another aspect of unhealthy dependence is depending on the wrong person in an area where you need help. Always turning to your peers for help in a mental health or moral struggle would be an example. Another might be calling your best friend to help you deal with a situation of abuse, when you should call the police and/or a professional counselor who is trained to deal your type of situation. This type of unhealthy dependence is very common, and can become mutual. We call it co-dependence. It can even be that two people in a relationship can depend on each other in two unrelated areas and enable each other to continue in inappropriate behavior because of their dependence. An example is the abusive husband who depends on his wife for housework, and she depends on him for income. They continue to rely on each other in spite of some kind of abuse in the relationship. The unhealthy dependence actually affirms the other inappropriate behavior.

A guideline to help you decide who to share with is asking yourself if the person you are sharing with can actually help you, or refer you to someone who can. If your parents are abusing you, just telling your friends may be inappropriate, but if you know someone who has been helped through this before, they may be able to refer you to a person who can help you.

One biblical concept that also can be applied to this is the verses about giving up childish ways. This can be an encouragement to take responsibility for our own lives and leave behind childish dependence. It is just part of growing up as an adult, and as a maturing Christian.

You recently mentioned the verses about bearing one another’s burdens, and at the same time carrying our own load. This is a key concept in this. We should do all we can to take responsibility for ourselves and not depend unnecessarily on others. At the same time, we should help others when they really need it. The truth is that we can help others more effectively from a position of health than from the position of mutual need.

Another passage that comes to mind is the one that says to think on good things. Yes we should be appropriately honest about our struggles with those who can help. But we shouldn’t wallow in our troubles. Our primary focus should be on those things and those people that inspire us. Finding true heroes is difficult these days, especially since there is such an effort to show the failings of famous people so that we don’t hold them up too highly. What is often missed is the inspiring accomplishments of great people. Yes they are sinners too, but they have done something exceptional that we can learn from and seek to imitate to help us rise above our troubles too. God wants us to be victorious, not pitiful.

I’m not always sure what motivates it, but some just seem to have loose tongues and let it all hang out, or can’t help airing their dirty laundry. It’s kind of like gossip. Those who gossip to you will gossip about you. Those who share inappropriately to you will share inappropriately about you. If a conversation is not able to help those involved and those discussed, it probably shouldn’t happen.

Becky: Lots of good thoughts. I appreciate this greatly. I think it helps especially with friendships (particularly with girls, who do love a good gossip). I've definitely observed to be true the idea of focusing on good in relationships. Now, I'm wondering more about how this applies to relationships between guys/girls. The idea of using emotional intimacy as a way of manipulating others, especially in how they think of us, rings true - I can think of instance in which I've done that in my relationship. But what do you have to say about the appropriate level of disclosure in dating/engagement/marriage relationships? Does it change, like physical intimacy does? I'm trying to think of a good example, but none immediately comes to mind. Maybe it would help to define "emotional intimacy" . . . like you said, I think most emotions can be categorized as about others or about ourselves. Those emotions about others can be covered with what you said about gossip. But I think that there are emotions about ourselves that we desire to share with someone, and not with the motivation to manipulate them. I guess it depends on what our motivation with sharing is then. Okay, I think I answered my own question, to some extent. It's still hard to verbalize though (sorry, just thinking out loud here). . . and do those boundaries change as a relationships increases the level of commitment?

Dad: Yeah, I didn't really make the points regarding guy/girl relationships. It is definitely a huge category in this discussion, and probably one which needs to be addressed. I suppose I was trying to focus on the areas you need to focus on right now.

The thing that happens in a romantic relationship is there are a whole new set of feelings that cloud our thinking. Guys and girls often approach these relationships for different reasons. Guys are much more motivated by sight and touch, whereas girls are looking more for affirmation and security. The potential to develop co-dependence is tremendous, and I'd guess more common than a healthy inter-dependence.

One speaker I heard on Focus on the Family said that guys are willing to give love in order to get sex (or you could say some level of physical intimacy), and girls are willing to give sex in order to get love. in a relationship of this type, the end result is that only the guy gets what he wants, because what he is giving isn't really love at all. Now I know this isn't your situation, but you need to examine your motives in having a boyfriend. Are you seeking someone who is motived to get close to you so you have someone to lean on to help you through this difficult emotional time? What are you willing to give in order to get that? Is he struggling with growing into manhood, and finding a girl who struggles with something he can try to help, or at least be a good listener, make him feel needed and thus affirmed in his transition? If either is the case, it is an unhealthy, co-dependent relationship. Now I may have overstated it, but you get the idea, I think.

There is just so much more emotion in romance than friendship. Two mature and well-adjusted young adults can better handle the additional emotions of romance, than one or two who are struggling just coping with themselves. The temptation is thinking that finding the right mate will solve your individual struggles. This is way false. Individual struggles don't cancel each other out when adding a new person to the equation. They just add additional struggle. It may be more mathematically accurate to say they multiply into additional struggle.

Of course you will never be perfect enough to enter a romantic relationship, but being well on your way to your own maturity is essential. Strong emotional struggles need to be under control before you open the romantic feelings that will inevitably complicate your life.

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