A Conversation with Dr. John Townsend
By Jim Mueller and Duane Careb
Dr. Townsend, why are boundaries so important in marriage?
First off, we probably need to define the term. “Boundaries” is one of those terms that sort of sounds off-putting and disconnecting. When you understand what they’re meant to be and the way that God designed boundaries, you can see how they would fit very well in marriage. Boundaries are basically a property line. They let us know what we are responsible for in our lives; what we are responsible to take care of, and to protect and to grow, and what we are not responsible for, but what we want to love and respect in another person. In marriage, you need boundaries. When God created marriage, people were supposed to become one flesh, one covenant together, but yet two souls. The Bible never says you become one soul. And so, there was always a tension in marriage. We are supposed to serve each other, sacrifice for each other, give up time, energy and our hearts to each other to make a better thing called a marriage. But then there are also times when we need to be sure that we are protecting our own soul and that of the other person. That’s where boundaries come in.
Many of us define boundaries as being some private protected area where others can’t enter into or maybe a set of protective behavioral limits that we should not wander away from. So I appreciate your definition of boundaries being that personal “property line”.
With good boundaries you can become so much more deeply intimate with your spouse than you’ve ever dreamed, because you know who and what you are, what your values are, what your emotions are, and you know what hers or his are also. When people don’t have good boundaries, the real problem is you begin to take ownership of something you weren’t intended to. A classic case in a marriage is when one spouse says, “I’m unhappy because you did A, B and C.” Without good boundaries the spouse is going to say “Oh, my goodness, that’s right. His or her unhappiness is my problem and I’ll try to make this unhappy person happy.” And yet the Bible says in Luke 9 everybody has to pick up his or her own cross and carry it. So all of a sudden, you are carrying something you weren’t supposed to carry. We are supposed to care about that person, live for that person, sacrifice for that person, but we can’t be that person. The appropriate response with good boundaries is, “Oh, my goodness, honey, I would never want you to be unhappy. Let me know what I did that influenced you that way or that caused you to feel that way.” Then you are helping but you are not owning their emotions.
What would you say to those who think it’s selfish to establish boundaries in this age of considering the rights of others?
Boundaries are kind of like a two-edged sword. Certainly a person who has selfish motives can use boundaries for really bad purposes, such as withdrawal of love, controlling someone else, punishing someone. That is never how God intended boundaries to be. The Bible says that boundaries are not about selfishness. Boundaries are ultimately about stewardship. Look in Matthew 25, for example, the “parable of the talents”. One person made their five into ten, and one took two that turned into four. Then you have one person that took their one talent and buried it because he was afraid and the master came back and was displeased with him. If we don’t take good care of our emotions, our values, our time, our energy, our heart, our feelings — all these things — then we’re not good stewards. We won’t be developing them, maturing them, growing them up to create something that God can use for His purposes. The classic case is somebody in a marriage that gets burnt out giving too much, caring too much, not taking care of themselves. Then all of a sudden, they have nothing to offer God or the world or people in ministry because they couldn’t take stewardship of their life.
Dr. Townsend, how does having boundaries fit into the biblical principle of submitting to one another or submitting to our spouse as is mentioned in Ephesians?
I think it’s impossible to submit without boundaries. When a person owns their life, their feelings are their feelings, their time, energy and values are theirs. Then they have something to give. Without boundaries, your life is fragmented, it’s divided, and it’s easily controlled by other peoples’ crises and the needs of the moment. There is no way to submit to each other because there’s not a self to give. They really have no life to submit.
Who benefits more from the value of setting boundaries, the person who is setting the boundaries or the person that you would be interacting with?
When there are no boundaries, one person ends up over-burdened with things that God never intended and one person ends up not owning the life they are supposed to. So it’s good for the goose and good for the gander. I’ve seen so many marriages where having people establish good, loving, respectful boundaries with each other cleared the air between them.
Describe the implication of God’s design for accountability in marriage, through the establishment of boundaries.
I believe that accountability is an important subset of setting boundaries in a marriage. If both people have the value of “We will grow, we will look at ourselves, we will be accountable for what we are doing”, you’ve got the recipe for a very good marriage.
What if my boundaries hurt or upset someone else?
Well, you might be doing something right. (Laugh) Boundaries do cause disruption. They do cause conflict. When you set a boundary with someone, all you’re doing is what the Bible says. You’re speaking the truth in love — like it says in Ephesians. When you set a boundary, you’re telling the truth. To understand the function of boundaries and pain, you have to understand that there are two kinds of pain in God’s word. One kind of pain is growth pain, or “love pain”, and the other kind of pain is “death pain”. Death pain should always be avoided. We should never use boundaries to cause someone pain that injures them, that harms them. But “love pain” is really good for us. The writer of Hebrews talks about, in Chapter 12, how all of discipline seems to be painful and yet for those who are trained by it, it brings forth a peaceable fruit of righteousness. When one person says to the other, “This really is a problem and I’m not going to tolerate your behavior in this area”, that will cause pain, but it won’t cause injury. It will cause hurt, but it will cause growth. So, you’ll have to always evaluate. We talk about evaluating the fruit and the functions of the pain you’re causing to your spouse. Does it cause death or does it cause life?
How can we effectively say “no” when our spouse really expects us to say “yes”? Especially if we fear that if we don’t say “yes” that we will be rejected or it may be an indication of our lack of honoring or submission or respect for our spouse.
There are two anxiety-producing possibilities. One is that the spouse will do something that will hurt us or we might lose their love. And that’s a painful thing. And the other is it will be pointed out that we did something wrong.
Yes. I think you understand where I’m coming from.
It’s really important to go through that kind of little analysis like we just did because boundaries in a marriage have to be motivated by the right thing. When we can’t set boundaries in a marriage, it’s generally because we have some motives that need to be looked at. In the first scenario of “I can’t set boundaries”, or say “no” to my spouse because I’m afraid I’ll lose his or her love. That is a fear that needs to be dealt with because it is a reality fear. There are some marriages that are sort of held together. They’re sort of like “terrorists marriages” where one spouse never says no because they don’t want to lose the love or they don’t want somebody to have a tantrum at them or get mad at them or have a rage attack — or whatever. They’re kind of held hostage by their fear of either the loss of what they need — love — or by the presence of something they don’t need, which is anger and rage. If that’s the case, the couple needs to sit down and talk about what that’s doing to them. The “terrorist spouse”, may be doing that unknowingly — not realizing that they pout, withdraw, and have a fit. They may not even be aware of what it’s causing to their marriage, but it’s causing great harm to their marriage and it needs to be an issue that the couple talks about. Both need to be able to embrace the “no” and the honesty and the truth and the reality of the other.
The second scenario is where it might be pointed out that I’m not being submissive or I’m not being loving. Again, now we’re talking about pain and it’s always painful to look at ourselves, our weaknesses, our sins. But yet the Bible teaches that that is the only path of growth. The narrow road of growth is to look at ourselves with a lot of grace and a lot of humility. When it’s pointed out that our “no” was an unloving, self-centered “no”, we need to be corrected on that gently and loved and move forward. So, in either case, it tells us about the state of the marriage.
From that answer then, does it seem logical that boundaries could or maybe even should be negotiated or compromised between the couple?
I think that’s very important. You know, the Bible teaches differently about matters of value than it does matters of preference. Regarding preference, those matters are very negotiable. They depend on whose needs are more important at the moment, whose schedule is the most important, and maybe who’s under the most stress or whatever. That’s very negotiable. But then there are non-negotiables in a marriage that are based on biblical values. For example, you don’t negotiate on infidelity. That’s a zero tolerance. You don’t negotiate on abuse. You don’t negotiate on deception. Every couple needs to sit down and draw out their little constitution of what’s acceptable and not acceptable in their marriage and then stick to that. Then all the other stuff falls into place, like, “When do we move to another location for a job versus the kids’ needs?” Or “What do we do with our discretionary spending?” All those are on the negotiable end.
Many of our viewers here at Growthtrac may be looking for guidance as to the primary place to begin with boundaries. What would you tell them?
Probably the first step that a spouse needs to take is that my boundary is that God comes first. Whatever we do as a couple, I will always try to figure out what it is that God would want: in our parenting, our finances, our closeness, our sex life, what we do with conflict. There may be a boundary; I may have to set one. That’s always the first place to start. The second thing is to establish your basic values. In the book, Boundaries in Marriage, we have several values that both the husband and wife could look at. For example, what is the value of honesty? It means telling the truth even when it hurts someone’s feelings. The value of “faithfulness”: I will be faithful to my spouse emotionally, sexually and spiritually. A value for love: “I will put my spouse above all others”. When you look at those, then you’ve got God in the center of the picture with these basic values surrounding that. Now you have the architecture for a really strong marriage because both people are on the same page.
What?s been the most challenging aspect of your counseling practice with married couples?
Probably the most important thing is to get both sides of the couple, even if there is no love between them or there is so much hurt and misunderstanding, to both learn to love
God and to listen to Him. Then as they understand His principles and what He says about relationship and begin to get on track with Him, the love from Him flows to each other and they begin to be one again.
Dr. Townsend, is there any final thought you’d like to share with our viewers?
I am “pro-marriage”. I think it is one of the greatest gifts that God can give anybody when they experience all its benefits. I would always tell people to work on their personal, spiritual maturity and character within the context of marriage. Even if the other person doesn’t come along, doesn’t see it that way, you really can’t lose. Righteousness always creates light that helps the other person to either see it as a model or see it as an invitation or to sometimes set a limit when someone needs a limit set against them. You can never lose by becoming more spiritually mature.
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