Set Boundaries for a Better Relationship
Dr. David Hawkins
The Relationship Doctor
I can think of no more important skill to help us relate in
a healthy way than setting boundaries. You can learn healthy communication
skills, and that will help. You can learn how to manage conflict—that
will be of tremendous value. You can learn to pray and laugh together,
and that certainly will have powerful results. But, if you don’t
know how to define and maintain your personal and relational boundaries,
you’ll be in serious trouble. That was the topic of my last article,
concerning living with paper fences.
Let me remind you of a couple of facts:
• God is the author of boundaries—defining the world with
• He established boundaries on what He would bless, and what He
would not bless;
• He made each of us unique, with different talents, skills and
• We have different family backgrounds, values, beliefs and preferences;
• It is our responsibility to define our personal and relational
values, and reinforce them.
These facts confuse many of us. Too many people think they can tell
others how to live, or that others should automatically respect their
preferences. However, we must be very careful about telling others what
they should think, feel or do, and likewise, must guard our boundaries
carefully so others do not presume they can tell us what to think, feel
It is our responsibility to be clear with others about what we will
tolerate, and what we won’t tolerate. These boundaries clarify
expectations, much like rules in a game. These boundaries help create
predictability and stability in a relationship.
As a Clinical Psychologist, many of the problems I face concern boundaries—or
more specifically, the lack of boundaries. Let’s discuss the situation
of two people who wrote in to our message board. (Keep those cards and
The first is an anonymous woman who writes the following:
“My boyfriend keeps bringing up information about his old girlfriends,
in spite of the fact that I’ve told him I don’t want to
hear about them. I’ve told him nicely not to keep talking about
them, but he keeps doing it. Can you tell me why he does this?”
Answer: “No, I can’t.” While I could guess, I don’t
want to speculate and don’t think it would be helpful if I did.
We could all make guesses as to why he does it, but we’d just
be guessing and that is not the point.
Practicing what we know about boundaries—not living with paper
fences—what is the thing this woman needs to do? All together
now: Tell this guy in no uncertain terms to knock it off or you’re
out of there. You don’t really need to know his motivations; he
needs to know you mean business and you’re not going to keep dating
an insensitive clod. Either respect your boundaries, of not wanting
to bring a third party to this dance, or politely, and ever-so-kindly,
tell him goodbye, adios.
It’s all about boundaries; what you will and what you will not
tolerate. It’s all about letting people know you expect to be
respected, and you’re going to teach people how to treat you,
Remember folks, boundaries have edges. Sometimes they hurt. When we
dare to use the words, “Stop it,” or “No, I won’t
live with that,” people tend to take notice. When we say, “Feel
free to talk about other women, but not with me,” folks tend to
This leads me to a second response to the message board.
A woman writes: I have a fear of communicating with my husband. In
the past two years when I've tried to communicate, he has belittled
me, yelled, told me he doesn't care how I feel and that he doesn't love
me. He totally disregards me on occasions such as my birthday, Valentines
Day, etc. He claims he's never been into these holidays but yet he bought
my seven year old son a birthday gift. My birthday was two days ago
and he was well aware but chose to not even say Happy Birthday. It hurts
but knowing I will only feel worse if I confront him, and cripples me
from speaking to him. Any suggestions?
This woman is living in an extremely difficult situation. What is
paramount about her note is that she lives in fear, and it is crippling
her. This is a hallmark of an abusive relationship.
I’ve talked about men like her husband in my book, Dealing
With The CrazyMakers in Your Life. This book speaks extensively
about people who use aggression, like her husband, to paralyze us. His
intimidation, belittling and yelling have done just that--paralyzed
Like dealing with the bully in the sandlot, cowering and living in fear
simply gives them more power over us. While standing up to bullies is
never easy, it is the only way to get them to understand that their
intimidation is no longer effective. We won’t be mesmerized by
their tactics any longer. Here are some principles to consider:
One, cowering to bullies only gives them more power. They learn to
be rough and tough for one reason—they can! And it works to get
what they want, which is more power. When it doesn’t work, they
don’t do it.
Two, you can begin in small ways. I’m not suggesting you puff
out your chest and belittle your husband in return. I’m not suggesting
you disrespect him. I’m suggesting small steps, such as firmly
letting him know your honest feelings.
Third, pursue counseling. While it is unlikely he will go for help
with you, start counseling for yourself. Do it so you have support and
encouragement. Determine to live your life, learning about boundaries.
Recapture the ground he has taken from you. Re-define what is important,
what you’re feeling, think and want. Re-member what God has done
for you, and what He’ll do for you now.
Fourth, know that you cannot change him—you can only change
yourself. He may always be a bully, but you don’t have to hide
in the corner of the playground. When he treats you badly, leave his
presence. When he yells, tell him to please lower his voice if he wants
you to listen. We have been entrusted with being stewards of ourselves—we
were bought with a price, and we are to take good care of ourselves.
We cannot help others, serve others or utilize our gifts, talents and
treasures if we are constantly putting out emotional fires on the home
Finally, there are times when we need to leave the playground of the
bully. If, after developing assertiveness skills and regaining your
self-respect, your husband continues to abuse you, consider a temporary
separation so he can reconsider his actions toward you. When he truly
discovers he cannot continue to violate you and your boundaries, treating
you with such disrespect, it is quite possible that he’ll realize
his errors and reconsider his actions. Bullies are often tough on the
outside, with pretty soft underbelly.
In both of these situations the women are tolerating too much. They
are allowing the men in their lives to treat them with disrespect. While
they are not causing the disrespect, they are enabling it to continue.
Change will not be easy—it never is, but respecting one’s
self, and setting clear, inviolable boundaries, begins the change process.
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