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Several years ago, I was talking to my mentor at seminary and asking her for advice on how to deal with an on-going toxic relationship in my life. After explaining the seemingly complex and long-running saga to her, her response was simple and direct: “You need to establish healthy boundaries.”
I thought, “Healthy boundaries? What on earth are healthy boundaries?”
She proposed a solution that had never crossed my mind before, despite years of mulling over this increasingly problematic relationship.
My mentor went on to explain that some relationships in our lives, especially with family members, can be very difficult to traverse and cause a lot of pain and problems.
While we continue to love the person we’re having problems with, we also need to establish healthy boundaries with those with a history of hurting us, whether they mean to or not.
For example, I couldn’t get anywhere in this particular relationship with a family member. No matter how good our intentions seemed, we would always both end up very hurt and wounded when we interacted, and there didn’t seem to be any way around it. We both felt misunderstood and frustrated.
After having a particularly bad encounter with this family member, it would take me weeks to emotionally recover. As time went on, and the number of toxic conversations grew, I began to realize that this one relationship was essentially destroying my life.
I could find no more solutions, I felt like there were no other options, particularly considering that we’d already done therapy in the past. I had long prayed over the issue and I talked to other Christians who were deeper in their walk than mine. But finally, when my mentor shared this piece of advice with me and told me that I needed to create healthy boundaries, I began to find a solution forward.
I didn’t tell my family member about the decision to create healthy boundaries. I didn’t pick up the phone, call and say, “Hey, just to let you know – I’m establishing some healthy boundaries with you!” I knew them well enough to know they wouldn’t understand and it would just cause more frustration and pain.
Additionally, I also know that all change starts with yourself. I can only change myself, my thoughts, my behaviors. I can’t change anyone else.
But after I did set boundaries for myself and this particular relationship, I realized that, over time, this relationship did improve. It was a slow process, and I still have my boundaries in place. But it is now a much healthier and stable relationship.
The good news and silver lining in this story is that both of us are Christians and God was dealing with each separately as we learned together to have a healthy and God-honoring relationship. Of course, that isn’t always the case, and sometimes the only growth that you’ll see is God working on your heart, which is, of course, invaluable in and of itself.
Look, relationships are hard! There has never been a relationship between two people that didn’t require work, caused pain or wasn’t difficult.
Relationships are complex, deep, and can be very trying. Understanding this should help you have grace on yourself, knowing that it isn’t unreasonable or all your fault that the relationship is difficult.
But beyond the simple reality that all relationships being hard, there are certain types of relationships that are stuck in toxic cycles and are in desperate need of healthy boundaries.
Before we look at establishing healthy boundaries, there are some things to take into account about ourselves first.
We Are Accountable For Our Actions.
First a foremost, we are responsible for how we treat others through our actions and words. Just because someone says or does something mean or hurtful doesn’t mean we ever should retaliate (Matthew 5:38-40).
There is a strong calling from God to not return evil with evil, but rather respond with love.
We Are Accountable For Our Thoughts And Feelings
Nobody can force you to feel any particular way. It is always our choice in how we respond. Sometimes, (and…seriously, I understand) it doesn’t feel like a choice in regards to how we feel. But I can assure you it is.
You have a choice to respond or think, or even feel, the way you do when interacting with people. This was one of my hardest lessons I learned about creating healthy boundaries. I had to learn that I didn’t have to respond emotionally in the ways that I had been. I had to train my brain that I didn’t have to receive the grief, but instead, I was able to allow the Lord to lead me through it.
I have an excellent article on how to give something over to God and a video lesson, both of which could really help you because they contain a simple, but effective formula for giving something over to God.
There May Be Some Issues In Your Life That Need Work
It always takes two to fight. Rarely does a bad relationship happen solely because of one person. Usually, there is a strong pattern that occurs over and over in tough relationships.
We all have our part in arguments and hard relationships. The only person we can control is ourselves and there are legitimate things we can do to prevent arguments from escalating and getting out of hand. Below, I will discuss some of them.
Ways to move forward and establish healthy boundaries
Ask God To Reveal Your Brokenness In This Relationship.
As discussed previously, we all have a part to play in every relationship. There may be some brokenness in a relationship that you might be accountable for.
Turn to the Lord and ask Him to lovingly reveal to you where you may be contributing to the pain or problems of this relationship.
This can be an excellent growth opportunity for you. Remember our quest is to become more and more like Jesus as we walk with Him. Being open to His direction and the revelation of sin in our lives is the pursuit of every good and healthy disciple.
Ask God To Help You Find A Way To Restore And Redeem The Relationship
Prayer is always our best tool in any situation and it is no different here. Make the relationship and healthy boundaries part of your constant prayer, asking God to restore and redeem the relationship.
Understand that God will answer how He wishes, and it could take a lot of time… or it simply might not happen. But that should never stop you from praying. God loves a persistent pray-er (Luke 18:1-8). So make prayer for the situation your anthem and lift up the relationship over and over again to our good Lord and Savior.
Remember Your Call From Jesus Is To Love All People Even If They Hurt You Or Are Your Enemies.
Our God is restorative. God is love. The covenant we are under is one of grace and God expects us to extend grace to all people. Unforgiveness means not showing the same grace and love God showed you to others.
I want to really stress this point! True and holy forgiveness can only come from God. When it is hard to forgive, we need to rely on the power, strength, and guidance of God to help us forgive those who hurt us.
Sometimes forgiveness is a long road, but as long as you keep bringing it before God, you are in the right place! Allow Him to lead you through the process on His timetable.
Talk To A Therapist
It’s always a good idea to bring an impartial person into your thinking who is trained to help you see your behaviors and process the hardships. The benefits of good therapy are lasting and can be very helpful!
There is always an option also for relationship therapy if the other party is willing to participate. Of course, this won’t be a possibility in all circumstances, but if it is a viable option, then it is one you should take into consideration.
Pay Attention To Where The Conversation Starts to Spiral Downward
There may be certain topics or situations that will always be a trigger and lead to conflict. If at all possible, creating healthy boundaries means simply avoiding those subjects. If you are aware of the triggers beforehand that always lead to a fight or argument, and they are not necessary to talk about, then don’t. If you really want or need to discuss these issues with the person, you may need to bring in a therapist or mediator to be able to rationally and effectively communicate with each other.
If you are not aware of the relationship triggers, then reflect on recent arguments, and ask yourself what led to them. Was it something discernable? Can you trace patterns that lead to conflicts?
Create Actual Emotional And Physical Boundaries
Sometimes relationships can be very toxic, and in those cases, the suggestions above seem to not be helpful. In that case, if you still want to be part of the relationship, you should create strong boundaries and outline for yourself what you will not do. Prayerfully consider these boundaries with God, asking His guidance and love to lead you through this difficult situation.
For example, do you find that you always get into an argument with a relative while you are visiting their home and have been staying together for a few days, such as during a holiday? You may need to set a boundary where you stay at a hotel when visiting instead or make your trips to their home shorter.
Perhaps you realize that your conflict with another person always begins with an unexpected email that they send, written when they don’t have your voice and face in front of them. In that case, perhaps tell them that you’d rather avoid emails in the future and speak in-person only. If they don’t abide by this boundary and continue to send toxic emails, then you might need to let them know that you will be deleting all emails from them unopened in the future.
These are just two examples of what setting actual boundaries might look like.
You May Need To Walk Away From The Relationship
Sometimes, there simply aren’t any healthy boundaries or solutions. Maybe there is a pattern of repeated abuse or you are at a place where the relationship is destroying your inner being. In those instances, stepping away from the relationship, either temporarily or permanently, is the best solution.
Again, this doesn’t mean you don’t love the person, and there can’t be a possibility of reconciliation. The way you will continue to love them is to pray for them consistently. Ask the Lord to restore the relationship while you are physically not part of it. He is always present, even when we are not – and of course, He knows best.
In conclusion, creating healthy boundaries is rarely a simple task. The boundaries that are erected often need to be repaired and restored once set in place, because they are a change in your life – and change is hard.
However, strong healthy boundaries are one of the best ways to break cycles of toxicity and to create the ground necessary for moving forward.
Wounds are rarely able to heal when they are constantly torn open over and over, and God sincerely wants to help us recover from our brokenness through His love and grace.
Boundaries are just one way that God is able to take the hurt, pain, and loss in our lives and move us in a direction where we depend on Him more, and less on our ideas for how to fix the situation.
We have another resource that may be interesting and helpful for you: How to forgive and forget like God does.