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Boundaries: the ultimate expression of love?

Updated: Jan 30, 2020



Recently I had a conversation with a friend whose loved one is struggling with addiction. I listened as this friend expressed his concern along with his sorrow and frustration over how the addiction was impacting him personally.


I asked him what sort of effect his loved one’s struggles were having on him personally, outside of the obvious heartache it created. He shared with me that the situation had negatively impacted him financially as well as relationally.


My friend shared that he had loaned this person a great deal of money over the years, none of which had been repaid. He had bailed them out of jail several times, took them into his home only to have them steal from him (which caused no small stress on his marriage), and had allowed this person to borrow his car which they promptly kept for a week, only to return it with a dent and covered in filth inside and out.


I asked him why he continued to allow this person’s addiction to have such a significant impact on him and his family. I was curious as to why it seemed he felt almost obligated to pay a price for a debt that was unquestionably not his. Having walked a bit of this road myself, I had compassion for his struggle, yet admitted to my friend it seemed his “help” might actually be “harming”.


“I don’t ever want them to think that I don’t love them.” He said sheepishly.


“I get that.” I replied. “But maybe the question isn’t whether you love them or not. Maybe the question should be ‘what is your definition of love’?”


As my friend and I continued our conversation, he mentioned he had begun to feel tremendous resentment towards this person and admitted he had begun to resort to lying and avoiding them in order to prevent any further damage to his own life.


He also shared with me that when he was growing up, “saying no” was seen as an expression of disrespect and lack of love for the person making a request. In order to feel loved and to ensure his parents felt loved by him, he found himself saying “yes” to all kinds of things that he was unqualified to take responsibility for. Including being made to feel responsible for his mother’s emotional wellbeing.


Mom was an alcoholic.


When we grow up in an environment that teaches us to be responsible for others in ways that are beyond our scope of responsibility or even ability, when what we see modeled are lives without boundaries, it makes it very difficult to create something different for ourselves. Even if internally we recognize the need to build those boundaries and hold firmly to them.


Guilt can override our ability to keep our boundaries intact. Particularly if that guilt is reminiscent of our earlier life experiences and was used as a means of controlling us.


But just because that has been our experience, it doesn’t mean we can’t learn something different.


Sometimes it’s helpful to start by redefining what “loving well” really means. Loving well isn’t always about rescuing someone. Sometimes, it’s about doing the harder thing and allowing someone to sit in their consequence and pain, allowing God to use it to bring them to wherever they need to be.


When we live without boundaries, we ultimately live with resentment. And if we resent someone, we aren’t loving them well either.


Researcher and author, Brené Brown, shows us in her work that people who practice whole-hearted living, being able to accept people where they are and believing people are essentially doing the best they can, have one specific characteristic in common: they live boundaried lives and they don’t compromise those boundaries.


We see examples of the importance of boundaries in Scripture as well. While it’s true, we are called to “carry one another’s burdens…” (Galatians 6:2) We are also told later in the same passage that “each man should carry his own load.” (Galatians 6:5). I really appreciate this because it illustrates the tension between helping and allowing someone to take responsibility for themselves.


It can be difficult to recognize the difference between hurting and harming. And we must be willing to sacrifice our own comfort to step into “hurting” someone if ultimately it will keep them from “harm”.


But be ready. Because when you begin to construct and enforce boundaries, it can invite a great deal of friction into what is likely an already strained relationship. Lean into that and know it’s a sign of growth! Probably for more than just you.


That friction is the result of others pain and fear over what your boundaries might mean for them. It’s possible, if someone is really unhealthy, they may lash out and employ whatever means necessary to get you to change your mind. But stay strong! Remember, you’re doing this for them and for yourself.


The hope is that once they realize the love has remained, even when the enabling has ceased, the dynamic of the relationship can change and perhaps they can open themselves up to what getting help really looks like, and how being truly loved really feels.


This has been a road I’ve traveled myself, so I get how difficult it can be. Don’t go it alone! Find someone to hold you accountable with those boundaries, and someone you can go to when your heart is breaking because you’ve found the courage to say “no” when everything in your life has conditioned you to say “yes”.


You need support. And possibly a cheering section. Listen closely, I’m cheering for you!


And here’s an often-overlooked benefit. Usually, the person attempting to violate your boundaries has none of their own. When you establish and implement your boundaries in relationship with them, you’re modeling what living with boundaries looks like. And that is a beautiful example of Loving Well.


For more resources on boundaries, check out Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life by Henry Cloud, John Townsend. If part of your struggle with boundaries is feeling you can't be ok unless others are ok, then I highly recommend Codependent No More by Melodie Beattie. Lastly, I also suggest Brené Brown's work titled The Gifts of Imperfection to learn more about whole-hearted living and the practices of courage, compassion and connection. For other helpful resources, visit www.itsmyoutloudvoice.com/favorites. Check out our blog archive at www.itsmyoutloudvoice.com/blog.