When we come to a place in which we realize letting go of control and fear has become a necessity, I doubt there are many of us who naturally think of good boundaries as the way to do it! Quite the opposite. Most people have such a distorted view of boundaries, that they end up thinking of them as an ineffective way to grasp at control and end up throwing out the entire concept.
Fortunately, God has given us a wonderful picture of what good boundaries look like through His Word. As we learn how to use these parameters to protect ourselves rather than to make attempts at manipulating situations that are simply not in our control, we’ll find freedom and peace.
Letting Go of Control and Fear
Facing the reality that you’re married to a sex addict is terrifying! When that realization is coupled to the agony of betrayal, which it almost always is, the fear can be crippling. Most of us don’t know what to do. We have no idea where to turn. We know we’re going to have to DO something, and make some really tough decisions, but we have no idea HOW.
Living in that place for any significant amount of time tends to cause us to grasp at feeling some sense of control. We become hypervigilant, searching for signs of further betrayal everywhere. It’s enough to make us crazy… and it often does!
Of course, we CAN’T control another human being who doesn’t want to be controlled.
As that realization sets in, the fear escalates. “How can I protect myself?” we wonder. So, we try harder to find ways to manage the situation according to our standards. We make grandiose threats and ultimatums in an attempt to “scare straight” the one we fear we’re going to lose.
We set aside our own sanity and pour our everything into doing whatever we can to salvage the relationship. And still, things only get worse.
What we tend to miss in these situations is that at the heart of addiction is pride and rebellion, and our attempts to control the addict are only going to heighten those attitudes. That’s why we have to learn to recognize the sings of unhealthy boundaries.
Rules don’t squelch rebellion. Pride does not respond well to control.
Letting go of control and fear is the only chance we have of finding a way to salvage the relationship, but that doesn’t mean we just roll over and allow sin and debauchery to go unchecked. What we need is to learn how to use good boundaries to protect ourselves rather than to control others.
Signs of Unhealthy Boundaries
I’ll never forget the early days of our recovery. I started to realize that what I had always thought were good boundaries were really just my weak attempts at micro-managing my husband’s sobriety. It was no wonder they failed.
I started to learn how to identify signs of unhealthy boundaries. As we’ve spent the last several years working with other couples on their recovery journey, these signs have become even more clear. So here are a few measures you can use to evaluate your own boundaries to see if they fall under the “unhealthy boundaries” category.
Unhealthy boundaries are placed on others rather than around ourselves.
This is the first and most important guideline for setting good boundaries. We just can’t set limits (at least not effectively) on someone else, we can only set standards for ourselves. We don’t put a fence on our neighbor’s property, we build it around our own.
One of the most common signs of unhealthy boundaries is that they try to tell someone else what they must do or must not do rather than setting down what we will or will not do in response.
I cannot tell you what you can or cannot do, but I CAN tell you what I will do if and when you do something.
Unhealthy boundaries make a demand that cannot be measured.
A healthy boundary is going to be tangible, while an unhealthy one will be abstract.
For instance, “I need you to respect me.” is not a clearly defined boundary. It’s just a very general statement. On the other hand, “When you speak to me with disrespect, I will get up and leave the room,” gives a clear and measurable expectation. You have communicated that you intend to take action when you are spoken to with disrespect.
The state of someone’s heart (whether or not they respect you) cannot be measured. However, how they treat you can be. By laying out what you will do when you are spoken to with disrespect, you have built a boundary around yourself.
Unhealthy boundaries promise a consequence that cannot be enforced.
As we’ve already stated, one of the most common signs of unhealthy boundaries is that they are placed on someone else rather than around ourselves. When we promise a consequence that requires the cooperation of another, we’ve set a boundary we cannot enforce.
I cannot kick my husband out of our house, or even out of our bedroom. I can ASK him to leave as a result of a broken boundary, but if he refuses, I have to be ready to take the action myself.
Unhealthy boundaries say, “If you do x, then you will have to do y.” It just doesn’t work. We can’t control other people. We’re letting go of control and fear, not trying to hold on to it!
Good boundaries would instead say, “If you do x, then I will respond to your choice by doing y.”
Unhealthy boundaries sensationalize threats which later lead to regret.
This is one of the signs of unhealthy boundaries I see over and over, but hear very few people calling out. When we’re making our boundaries in an attempt to control someone else, they tend to have very extreme consequences.
For example, “If you lie to me even one time, I will file for divorce.”
Somewhere deep down our intentions are good. We want to communicate how seriously we take the offense and we have convinced ourselves that if we make the threat extreme enough it will somehow deter the offender from committing the crime. The problem is, when it inevitably fails, and the lie is told, we panic.
We don’t really want to divorce over this.
And then, we’re left with the decision to either not follow through with our boundary (which greatly undermines the validity of all future boundaries), or to take an action we really don’t want to take (which serves to further traumatize us rather than protect us). And that leads us to the last of our signs of unhealthy boundaries.
Unhealthy boundaries further damage you and the relationship instead of protecting.
The whole purpose of good boundaries is to protect. Our hearts are already broken, we’ve already endured too much trauma, our safety is already in danger. The last thing we need to be doing is adding to any of those problems.
Good boundaries protect our hearts.
Healthy boundaries minimize trauma.
Well established boundaries keep us OUT of harm’s way.
How Can I Protect Myself with Good Boundaries?
So you’re probably wondering, ”How CAN I protect myself?”
The answer is, with good, strong, Biblical boundaries. It’s time to learn how to define yourself according to Scripture and build a perimeter that will keep you safe. This article I wrote, which is part of the Biblical Boundaries series, walks you through the process of making good boundaries step by step and even includes a printable worksheet.
Good Boundaries Minimize Fear
What all this boils down to is, letting go of control and fear starts with good boundaries because good boundaries release the people we love to make their own choices and place them into the care of our Heavenly Father. As I explain in this piece, good boundaries allow the consequences of the choices of others to fall on them instead of on us and put God in control. When we learn to recognize the safety of that situation, fear is minimized.
Unfortunately, there isn’t anything we can do to make the people we love choose healing. Having good boundaries does not ensure they won’t choose to violate those parameters. There is no way to navigate this life free of pain.
Setting our standards around Biblical principles and putting justice in the hands of God does not mean we won’t be hurt. It does mean, though, that the pain we endure will be minimized. We may have to watch people we love experience the terrible consequences of the sin they’ve chosen, and that will hurt! But if we’re secure behind our border, we’ll be safe from the full force of those consequences falling on us. That is the purpose of a boundary. It protects.
If you need more help learning how to figure out what the Bible has to say about boundaries, we have a workbook designed to do just that! Check it out on Amazon with the affiliate link below.