My roommate had beaten me to campus. That was obvious when I opened the door to my newly assigned dorm room and found someone else’s personal items strewn all about. Katie wasn’t there, but she had suitcases on both desks, clothes and bedding on the top and bottom bunks, and a random assortment of makeup and hair products filling up the sink.
A few hours later, Katie swept into the room. She was dressed like a gypsy and when she saw me, she squeezed me and told me all about herself in one big long gush. I liked her at once.
But we were not very much alike. Katie came from a home where the entire family often watched movies piled up together in one great heap on a tiny couch. In my home, that would have been considered torture. In Katie’s house, no one ever shut doors and no one ever asked to borrow anything because everything was up for grabs. They shared everything from clothes to water bottles to the latest information about everyone else’s business.
In my house, I had my own room with a door that I shut. Often.
When Katie used my lipstick and left her toothbrush on my desk or tried to fix me up with guys she knew, I did not know how to respond. I thought I would offend her if I told her that some of her behaviors bothered me.
So I did the least loving thing I could: I said nothing. I stayed away from the room and studied in the library and told myself I was sacrificing for her.
Of course, I wasn’t sacrificing at all. I was being selfish. I did not trust her to respond to my concerns in a loving way. I did not trust her to understand me, and I did not try harder to accommodate her. I simply avoided the situation by putting up one great big wall.
I was relieved when, after only one semester, I was able to get a single dorm room. My stint of living with an opposite personality was over.
But then I got married. Not long after, we began to have children. Lots of them. I found myself surrounded by six people who are not always like me. I also found myself tempted to put up walls when confronted with differences, instead of constructing healthy boundaries.
In fact, sometimes, I hold back from enjoying my children because I’m afraid of what might happen if I enjoy them. Will the entire house dissolve into chaos? Will they expect me to play with them all the time? Will they be able to get control of themselves when playtime is over? If I let them do this something this time, will they want to do it all the time?
Perhaps you’ve had some of those same thoughts, or resisted engaging with your children in certain ways because you know you can’t engage them that way all the time. That is where boundaries can be helpful.
Boundaries provide the parameters which ensure that the needs of every member of family are considered and respected. Boundaries validate the unique personalities present in a home and affirm the fact that it’s okay to need different things in order to be your best. They also ensure that each person’s needs are guarded by everyone else in the home, whether they share the same needs or not.
That creates an environment of trust. In a home with healthy boundaries, we can appreciate each other’s differences, enjoy unique or fun opportunities, and even venture outside of our comfort zones without being required to stay there. We can feel safe in expressing differing opinions without fear of rejection or giving offense because our boundaries can be adapted to include all types of people.
But establishing boundaries can be difficult, especially if you have not seen healthy boundaries demonstrated in your previous relationships. I have found the following things to be essential to the process.
First, boundaries must take into account the changing needs of every member of the family. That means that boundaries must be flexible. They are not laws or commandments or even rights. They change over time based on a variety of life circumstances. For instance, a family with a newborn will have far less boundaries than a family with a teenager. A family dealing with a disability or a traumatic event may have more boundaries than a family who is not facing those challenges.
Families change, so boundaries need to be flexible. Often, they require compromise. A family who is ruled by the boundaries of the dominant member of the household is not healthy. As you establish boundaries for your home, consider the fact that you may be living with someone whose needs are very different, yet just as important, as your own. It’s vital to consider the needs of others before yourself. If you don’t, your boundaries will quickly become walls which cut off intimate relationships instead of fostering them.
Second, boundaries must be communicated effectively and understood by all members of the family, particularly if the members of the family have different personalities. I do not need to tell my introvert daughter that she needs to knock before entering my room. She does that instinctively. But my social son needs me to explain to him that I shut my door because I need time to recharge, not because I don’t value his presence or desire to be with him. I tell him that by knocking on the door instead of charging through, he is showing me he loves me and cares about my needs.
It is tempting to fail to communicate our needs because we fear rejection. We have boundaries, but we don’t let anyone know what they are until it’s too late. Instead, we allow our loved ones to “discover” our boundaries when they cross them and we react in an unloving way. This does not create an environment of trust and security. Quite the opposite. It creates an environment of fear, like the feeling of living in a foreign country and being uncertain of the rules.
Be sure everyone understands the boundaries and why they are important. It is one thing to say, “Don’t come in my room without knocking.” But it is better to tell your children why you feel better when they respect that boundary, and how it helps you be a better parent. If you cannot think of any reasons why a particular boundary helps you to be a better person, then perhaps it is not a healthy boundary at all.
Third, boundaries need to be reinforced lovingly and consistently. Sometimes, I am lazy. I don’t reinforce a boundary until I am exasperated. I forget that the reason I have boundaries in the first place is so I do not become exasperated! It is crucial that I guard my boundaries before I become so emotionally involved that I cannot respond righteously toward my children.
It is not loving to allow my children to cross boundaries some of the time, but suffer the consequences other times. If I want to create an environment of trust, I must be consistent in upholding the boundaries our family has established. If I find that I cannot reinforce a boundary, or the boundary is no longer working to create a healthy home, then it needs to go.
Finally, boundaries need to be reciprocated. I cannot expect my children to respect my boundaries if I do not respect theirs. It’s as simple as that! But when every individual in a home feels safe to express his or her needs knowing they will be guarded by everyone else, it is easy to love and enjoy each other.
Do you find it difficult to allow yourself to enjoy your children? Perhaps it’s time to set some healthy boundaries.
For further thought:
1) If you are living with a child or spouse who has opposite needs as yours, consider Philippians 2:3-4.
2) Did you have healthy boundaries in your home growing up? How did the effective or ineffective use of boundaries impact how you feel about yourself and the way you interact with others?
3) Evaluate how you’re doing in the four areas of creating healthy boundaries. Which area do you struggle with the most? What are some steps you can take to improve?