Setting Boundaries

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I have long loved Robert Frost’s Mending Wall. (Go read it, I’ll wait.) Like most of his work, it leaves itself open for wonderfully simple insights, and one line has long stood out to me:

“Good fences make good neighbours.”

I’ve always pictured a scene from the film Shawshank Redemption as the perfect scene for that poem. The picture (above, Andy’s Oak) epitomizes what Frost was trying to say about fences, though in a round about way. The wall in that particular image is the symbol of trust, friendship, and respect that developed between Andy and Red, and it becomes a basic–but powerful–metaphor to all that is good in life.

When I first encountered this poem, I remember asking, like the voice of this poem, why? But as I’ve grown and experienced life, I’ve learned that fences do indeed make good neighbors. Fences make good neighbors, good friends, good family, and even good spouses. Over the last few months and even years, I’ve had a lot of opportunity to ponder the purpose of healthy boundaries in our lives, and I want to share a few of the ideas I’ve come across.

Identity and Self Worth

I’ve found that boundaries help define who we are, and perhaps most importantly, who we are independent of others. My self-worth and identity are not found in the approbation of others. Neither is my confidence. While we all can benefit from the positive influence of others and the positive contributions they make in our lives, any relationship that begins to be defined by and requires another person in order to be sustainable is concerning. Even in the marriage covenant, I would hope that Courtney’s ability to find value in herself and know who she is goes far beyond my approval. Similarly, we are responsible for our own happiness (or sadness) and condition rather than dependent on another person.

That being said, I readily acknowledge that there is far too little of building in this world, perhaps especially in marriage and in family. While I do not allow the opinion of another to limit me, I would be the first to say that a friendly word of praise and encouragement is weighty and substantial. You should give it often.

Personal Responsibility

You and you alone are responsible for the mistakes you make, the consequences of those mistakes, and any efforts to repair them. You are responsible for your decisions, and you owe it to the other half to own those decisions. Anything less is selfishness and pride at the root.

There was a time when in the name of making peace, I would allow others to require of me things beyond my ability to give. I have since realized that peace making is not enabling poor behavior. Enablers do not provide ways in which to eliminate the cause of conflicts. Rather, like Chamberlain of old, they sacrifice that which is of most worth in order to falsely proclaim, “Peace in our time.”

Asking me to bear through an inability to express yourself maturely, refusing to accept responsibility, and any other effort that disregards your need to own your actions and decisions is offensive, out of line, and emotionally immature. It speaks to a wealth of issues beyond the immediate offense.

Commitment and Respect

I’ve found that in many relationships, the level of commitment and respect is different for the various parties. This is healthy. It’s normal. It’s also really hard to deal with. I’m sure we can all think of a relationship where you were willing to give much more (or less) than the other. Where that imbalance exists, conflict also exists.

It’s hard to be expected to give (or receive even) more than you are willing; respect for each other is key to finding a way through that murkiness of any relationship. I’ve had several good friends who have existed in that place for a time, and it’s a wonderful feeling. I’ve also had several who have not and could not arrive at a point where the imbalance could be resolved. That’s okay, too. Friendships can ebb and flow naturally, and seeing one end doesn’t diminish the original value… unless you choose to diminish it by not respecting the decisions of others. Which leads to my next point….

Accepting Decisions

Related to this is the need to be able to accept decisions. There are those who feel that relationships are fully two-way streets, and they almost are.* A healthy relationship is both give and take, it is honest, and it provides for safety and security. However, in matters where decisions are made, it is not a group decision. If one is ready to move on, they need to have the right to do so freely, without anger, and without needing to make the decision again and again. Friendship does not imply ownership; if it did, it would not be friendship.

*I will, of course, make exceptions for covenant relationships, especially marriage and family relationships. While a single party still has the right to make decisions for their own benefit, those decisions would hopefully be made in counsel with the other party. It doesn’t always work out that way.

Absolutes

To end this, I wanted to list a few absolute boundaries that are automatic and should be in place in any relationship:

  • Abuse–This includes emotional, physical, mental, verbal, or any other abusive behavior. And in my mind, this isn’t “give them second and third chances” territory. While I am eager and willing to work with you through your troubles, abuse is out. Period. You abuse me, and I reserve the right to end things on my terms, immediately, without recourse.
  • Games–This is a matter of personal responsibility and includes manipulation, aggrandizement/minimization, exaggeration, deflecting blame or responsibility, and any other tactic to influence or sway the opinion of another. It’s pathetic and calls into question your motives and ability to have real conversations. If you witness this behavior, it should serve as a warning flag of the other person’s ability to maintain a healthy relationship. In my experience, this is often the first and most visible red flag.
  • Communication–We owe it to each other to be honest, but there’s a big difference between sincere, honest communication and whining, fighting, nit-picking, and whatever else. Blunt and frank are not excuses for willfully causing pain in another and counts as abuse. You can be direct without being rude, and if you can’t do that, Thumper’s advice was spot on: If you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all. If a relationship matters to you at all, it is much better to find yourself in a position where you can speak reasonably and gently than not. Obviously, this rule is secondary to protecting yourself (see Abuse).
  • Commitment–I’ve often said that when you are my friend, you know it. When you are my friend, you will never see me speak ill of you. You will see me defend you. You will have my full willingness to help, to lift, and to comfort. There is no place for gossip, for back-biting, for name calling, or any other practice that calls into question my commitment to you. I assume the best before I assume the worst. I choose to look past your faults and see the things that were valuable (obviously, this only extends to a certain point when boundaries are being crossed).

Good fences do make good neighbors. You owe it to yourself and to those around you to walk the fence line on a regular basis and make sure it is sturdy and solid. It’s much easier to have it in place and hold the line than it is to repair it.

To end this on a lighter note, this sign came to mind as I wrote that last paragraph:

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Eh… maybe that’s not as funny as I think it is. I thought it was funny…. Isn’t that enough? 🙂

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