Understanding boundaries

Understanding Boundaries: How to set boundaries in relationships and life

How are you at understanding boundaries? Do you know what they are and have healthy boundaries in place? If you have always wondered, What are boundaries? and want to understand them better, then this post is for you. First, we’ll define boundaries in relationships. Then, we’ll provide examples of what healthy boundaries are. Finally, we’ll add in a unique twist to help your understanding of boundaries grow!

So grab a cup of coffee, tea, or another favorite beverage, and let’s examine how to set boundaries in relationships and life. 

Understanding Boundaries

Before going deep, let’s define important terms and examine some foundational boundary principles.

What are Boundaries?

Understanding boundaries is not always easy. So what are boundaries exactly?

Boundaries are a natural part of life. They are everywhere. Stated simply, a boundary is a barrier that holds in the good and keeps out the bad. Skin is a natural boundary that protects our physical body by keeping diseases a bay. When someone is bothering us, we might even say, “He is getting under my skin,” to describe the boundary violation.

Boundaries are Fluid and not Fair

A fence with a gate is another example of a boundary. A fence defines the property line and keeps intruders out. On the other hand, a gate allows us to welcome friends and family into our home. A fence with a gate is an excellent example of how boundaries are fluid and not fair.

By not fair, I mean that not everyone has permission to enter, and the rules are always changing. Family, for example, is welcome in our home at any time. The delivery man, on the other hand, is welcome when he has a parcel to deliver. And neighbors come over when we invite them for a BBQ. The point being, you and I get to decide whom we invite into our lives and how close they get to us.

As you can see, understanding boundaries is important and complex.

Boundaries in Scripture

Jesus modeled healthy boundaries.

John is known as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” In other words, Christ had a best friend. Jesus also had an inner circle. Peter, James, and John were present when Jesus was on the Mt. of transfiguration. They were closer than the 12 disciples, who were closer than the crowd.

Understanding this helps us understand boundaries. Not even Jesus had a close connection with everyone. Boundaries are fluid. They sometimes change (think going to college and finding a new best friend). And they are not always fair. Meaning we get to pick the people who will be closest to us. There is no standard on what is “fair” here.

Boundaries, Relationships, and The Dunbar Principle

Understanding boundaries in relationships is important because human beings simply don’t have the capacity for hundreds of best friends. According to Robert Dunbar, human beings are only able to maintain about 150 relationships. This includes roughly:

Boundaries in relationships are important for two primary reasons.

  • First, human beings are God-designed for relationships. We function best in the context of a community. This is seen in Genesis 2:18 when God states it’s not good for man to be alone.
  • Second, the human capacity for connection is limited. We simply cannot have a close bond with everyone.

Understanding Boundaries in Relationships

What are healthy boundaries in relationships? Relationship boundaries are similar to physical boundaries. Relational boundaries hold hurtful people at bay while allowing safe people to get close. Boundaries help define where others end, and we begin. Boundaries also define how close each person will get. In accordance with Dunbar’s principle and Christ’s example, intimate friends will know more about our inner world that moderate friends.

Healthy Relationship Boundaries are Balanced

Healthy relationship boundaries are balanced. The two unbalanced extremes include enmeshment and when boundaries become walls.

What is enmeshment?

Enmeshment is a therapeutic term for two people with few relational boundaries. When someone is enmeshed, it’s as if he or she is fused with the other person. The enmeshed person will have difficulty expressing thoughts and opinions of her own, either out of fear of offending the other person, insecurity, or because this person is no longer used to developing opinions of her own.

Signs of enmeshment include:

  • Having another person speak for you.
  • Having someone else make personal decisions for you.
  • Needing a significant-other around to feel safe and to function well.

Adults with an enmeshed relationship have an adult-child relationship. In other words, healthy boundaries allow intimate friends to get close, but never so close that there are almost no lines between where I end and the other person beings.

Remember, Peter was part of Jesus’ inner circle. Yet, when Peter suggested that Jesus not fulfill His mission of dying on the cross, Jesus responded with the words, “Get behind me Satan!” Now that is some boundary! Christ made it abundantly clear that He was staying the course—His course—regardless of the opinions of his inner circle. This is an adult-adult relationship at it’s best.

Healthy boundaries make room for the adult to adult relationships that God designed us to have. Click To Tweet

When Boundaries Become Walls

The opposite of being enmeshed is having boundaries that become walls. When this happens, there is no intimacy. We define intimacy as into-me-see. Intimacy is the ability to peer into another person’s inner world, while simultaneously allowing ourself to be known. Into-me-see involves a mutual sharing of thoughts, feelings, hopes, fears, and dreams. And it’s important because human beings are God-designed to connect.

When boundaries become walls, safe people, and good things (like intimacy) are held at bay. The person becomes so guarded that not only are hurtful people and things kept out, the good, kind, helpful ones are too.

What do healthy boundaries in relationships look like?

Up to this point, we have examined boundary theory. Now, let’s dive into the practical. The most basic, boundary defining word is “no.” Yet, sometimes words are not enough. In addition to verbalizing boundaries, we also must be able to enforce them with actions.

Parents who say “no,” and then relent after their child does one of the following is not setting a true boundary in place.

  • cries
  • throws a tantrum
  • makes a threat
  • begs and pleads
  • uses logic and reasoning to argue the point, etc.

Personal boundaries will be tested. Parents who relent are reinforcing the idea, manipulative behaviors will get you what you want.

How are boundaries reinforced?

Setting boundaries starts with the word “no.” Reinforcing boundaries involves backing up that “no” with actions. This might include:

  • Choosing to end a conversation.
  • Walking away to keep the boundaries in place.
  • Making use of time-outs and other consequences.
  • Enlisting the support of family members and friends.
  • And, in extreme cases, contacting law enforcement.

Let’s look at a quick example:

A dad who tells his teenage son that he is not allowed to use drugs sets a boundary. A dad who enrolls his teenage son in an addiction recovery program after learning his son regularly smokes marijuana is enforcing a boundary. If that dad later finds drugs in his son’s room and contact the police, that dad is continuing to hold to his boundary in place. He is also sending a strong message to his son about what is and is not acceptable in the home.

Understanding Boundaries on a Deeper level

As you can see are a topic I’m incredibly passionate about. I fell in love with Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s classic book, Boundaries: When To Say Yes, How to Say No, shortly after graduating high school. I studied boundaries in college, taught them to others in my work as a therapist, and use them personally.

When it came to und3erstanding boundaries, I thought I knew all there was to know. Then, during one of our family meetings, my wife explained boundaries in a way that I hadn’t heard before. Her unique twist was both positive and easy to understand. Whether you’re looking to increase your understanding of boundaries or looking for an age-appropriate language to teach this valuable concept to your children, you love this section on how to set boundaries–with a twist!

How to Set Boundaries—With a Twist

Having healthy boundaries in place is part of creating a healthy life. The one caveat is that that the word “No,” can feel negative. A few weeks ago, while explaining the concept of boundaries to our girls, Jenny stated, “We say ‘no’ to some things, so that we can say, ‘yes’ to something else.” This is pure genius!

Boundaries are not only about keeping the negative out. Healthy boundaries make room for the positive. If your family is busy like we are, you will have to say “no” to some good things to make room for the great things in life.

Healthy boundaries make room for the positive. Click To Tweet

What does “no” mean?

In setting boundaries, the word “no” can mean several different things. No can mean:

  • “Never, under any circumstances, will this be an option.”
  • “No, for now, but we will revisit when the circumstances change.”

Sometimes it’s helpful to clarify. In our family meetings, we let our girls know that our “no” meant “no for now.” We found that this was helpful to them. We also highlighted the many “yes’s” that this boundary created.

Why are boundaries important today?

Growing up, I loved playing The Legend of Zelda on the original Nintendo. The Star Wars trilogy were my favorite movies, and I loved the Narnia books. I found myself returning to each of these forms of entertainment, time, and time again. These classics were far ahead of their time. Nevertheless, another reason for returning to these favorites is that back in my day—yep, I’m getting old—there simply were not as many options.

Today, a $10 a month Netflix subscription allows our family to access more movies than we could watch in a lifetime. A monthly Kindle subscription puts a library of books at one’s fingertips. For almost all of us, boundaries are becoming a way of life. We can’t possibly say “yes,” to everything. More than ever, us parents need to teach our children:

1) How to say “no,” to the negatives in the world because access to danger is quicker and easier than ever before.

2) How to say “no,” to the good things in life so that there is room to say “yes,” to the great things!

healthy boundaries

In Matthew 5:37, Jesus said, “But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’” Supporting our children in putting healthy boundaries in place is a great way of helping them apply this Scripture.

Boundaries Books and Resources

For more great boundaries insights, check out a few of my favorite books and resources below!

Diving Deeper into Understanding Boundaries

You can use the questions below for further reflection and discussion.

  • Why is understanding boundaries important, in your opinion?
  • If a friend asked you, What are boundaries? What would you say?
  • How does the idea of every “no” being a “test” to something else resonate with you?
  • What new boundaries do you need to put in place, and why?
  • What other thoughts would you add to this post?

Jenny and I would love to hear from you. To keep the conversation going, leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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Jed Jurchenko

Jed Jurchenko is the husband to an incredible wife, daddy to four amazing girls, and a foster dad to one more. He's served as a children's pastor, marriage and family therapist, psychology professor, award-winning writing coach, and life coach. Jed is the author of 23 books on relationships, parenting, writing, and doing life well. In his free time, you'll find Jed reading, preparing for an upcoming marathon, barbecuing, paddle boarding, and enjoying life with his incredible family. Find out more about Jed's books, coaching, and courses at www.ithrive320.com.

6 thoughts on “Understanding Boundaries: How to set boundaries in relationships and life”

  1. Jed,

    once again, what a great article. I am with you on loving boundaries. However, like you, this is the first time I have heard it put the way your wife did. “Say no so you can say yes to the best” Phenomenal! Thank you for sharing this post and adding value to my life. It is the little aspects like this that make significant impacts.

    1. Hey Joshua,

      Thanks for the kind words and for joining in the conversation. Sorry for getting your comment approved so late. I was bummed to find that Akismet had marked a couple of excellent comments as “spam.” I’m going to have to keep my eye on this. Sure appreciate you and the words of encouragement!

  2. In my experience – particularly with pseudo-psychologists within the church – the word “boundaries” has been often misused. Rather than helping to deter manipulative behavior, these unhealthy “boundaries” are set in ways that are actually used as manipulation. I’ve frequently heard people say things like, “Well, I’m making my husband sleep on the couch until he learns to appreciate me; I just have to set hard boundaries with him.” I know one mother who threw each of her kids out of the house and refuses any contact from them whatsoever (for decades now), claiming that she had to “set boundaries” until her kids admit that she was “110% right and they were 110% wrong about __________” (her words). In fact, from the outside, her adult kids are quite reasonable and should be setting the boundaries, not the other way around.

    Like so many good words and concepts, misuse can tarnish them in people’s ears. But it’s not always practical to reinvent new words for what used to work just fine. I say all of that to say this: it’s nice to hear the word “boundaries” given back its good name here in your post!

    1. Thanks Erik,

      These are some excellent thoughts. You’re right, the term “boundaries,” is misused and abused far too often. True boundaries don’t punish or force change–although sometimes others do end up changing as a result. Instead, boundaries are about protecting our-self from the hurtful actions of others, negative influences, or as in my example, from a sheer overwhelm of activities.

      It’s a little bold, but when someone talks about “setting a boundary,” as a means of changing someone else, it may be helpful to point out that what is being done, “sounds more like punishment.”
      I like your idea about reclaiming this tool and giving boundaries back its good name 🙂

      Thanks for the great thoughts!

  3. Hi Jed,

    The imagery of skin and fences and gates is good stuff for explaining how boundaries can help us. As a people pleaser, I used to have a hard time setting boundaries. Cloud and Townsend’s book was one that helped me. My biggest problem was in being too agreeable. I’d say yes to most everything people asked me to do, then regret it later.

    With my kids, most of all I’ve tried to model healthy boundaries in work, family and church. I know they watch and learn as they see me exercising the power of “no.”

    1. Hey Jon,

      This is such a great way to support our kiddos in learning this concept of boundaries. I’m also a firm believer that healthy boundaries are easier caught (by watching mom and dad), than taught in a formal training. Jenny and I are right there with you in hoping that our kids pick up what we model.

      Thanks for this excellent addition!

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