On "Healthy Boundaries"

My recent book Unclean is mainly preoccupied with analyzing failures of welcome, hospitality, and missional engagement in the life of the church. I basically argue that the opposite of love is Otherness. And the psychological dynamics that create the experience of Otherness is the psychology of purity, disgust, and contamination. This suite of psychological processes erect emotional, cognitive, and behavioral boundaries between the self and the Other. Love, welcome, hospitality and missional engagement, by contrast, dismantle these boundaries. In the words of Miroslav Volf, love is the "will to embrace."

Given this analysis, one of the more provocative things I do in Unclean is to take on a fundamental truth of contemporary psychotherapy, the concern over "healthy boundaries." It is almost a given in modern psychotherapy that the client will be directed to erect, monitor, and maintain "healthy boundaries" between herself and others. In Unclean I challenge this notion (see Chapter 8).

Given how I'm challenging a sacred cow in modern psychotherapy, I've been very interested in seeing how the Christian psychological community responds to the argument in Unclean. In light of this, see Dan Brennan's summary and reaction to my argument in Unclean and how my analysis might relate to his own work exploring cross-gender friendships in the church (see Dan's book Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions).

If you want a visual depiction of my analysis in Unclean, try the Coke commerical "Border":

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32 thoughts on “On "Healthy Boundaries"”

  1. Richard,

    i can't remember if i've asked you before, but what's your take on codependency?


  2. I found this post really interesting - I've read your stuff about purity and contamination before but hadn't really connected it with the things I've been thinking about in my research. But this post helped me join the dots. It seems to me like a lot of contemporary continental philosophy is hugely concerned with these issues - someone like Judith Butler, for example, spends most of her work worrying over the violence of language, which for her is to do with drawing boundaries. She thinks that we can't speak without drawing lines in the sand, without cutting some people off and making them less than human. And I see that, but I think that there's something that she misses - that it's only the drawing of distinctions that lets there BE anything at all. How does God create? By dividing between night and day, land and sea. Christian theology has drawn pretty heavily on neoplatonism, which is really all about the idea that creation was the fracturing of a single whole into multiplicity, and that redemption is about the reunification of all things. But what that really means is death, the end of individual existence. And so for me, a bit question is how to manage this tension between the concern about the violence of borders and the impossibility of existing without them. I wonder if there's something in the model of the Trinity - unity in multiplicity, although that obviously doesn't just resolve all the issues.

  3. So glad to see you mentioning Dan Brennans work. I loved how he challenged the boundaries issue in his book - it's really a must-read.

  4. I must admit I've not read your book yet. I am still in the stage where I'm doing well to read a few blogs ... otherwise, it's required reading only for me. However, I will presume to speak a bit on the boundary issue and hope that I'm not totally off target with the points you have made. I speak from a practical standpoint rather than a philosophical one. 

    I think boundaries enable me to love others more. Especially my family. I was raised in an enmeshed family system where I was not seen as a fully separate human being. Therefore, my parents (quite unconsciously) castigated me for any difference of preferences, opinions, choices. I was only a reflection of themselves ... and they did not see that this inhibited my sense that I was loved for myself. It has taken me many years to become aware of this pattern and to change it in my own life. Especially in my relationship to my daughter --- in "detaching with love" (perhaps a current psychobabble term, but meaningful to me) I have learned to love more. I am not diminished if she makes a choice I would not have made. She is not diminished if she prefers something that I don't. 

    Unity without absorption ... that is my understanding of the Trinity, and it is my understanding of good human relationships as well. 

    I now think of "boundaries" as analogous to a cell wall --- letting in what the cell needs for life, letting out the toxins that would kill it, enabling the cell to attach to other cells and form structures, but delineating what is "cell" and what is "not cell." Lack of appropriate boundaries (enmeshment) will lead to a backlash in which you defensively put up, not a permeable cell wall, but an impenetrable fortress wall --- because I think we all have a drive to maintain a sense of what is "me" and what is "not me."

    People without appropriate psychological boundaries are vulnerable to one of two miseries --- either absorbing others into the self and ignoring their uniqueness and free will, or allowing one's self to be absorbed into others and abdicating one's responsibility for the life given to us all by God.

  5. I think I essentially agree with you in principle, but I'm not sure that I fully understand your use of "otherness" being the opposite of "love". God is love and yet he is "Wholy Other" from us even as he is "God With Us". I assume you are using a limited defintion that focuses on negative boundaries such as disdain.

    I haven't read your book. However, given what I see here and in the book review, personal experience has taught me that a discussion of these things is not complete without a review of what risks are involved on both sides.

  6. Kim,

    I hear you.  I think when "healthy boundaries" are challenged, its easy to assume the alternative is "unhealthy boundaries" - I've been in sticky messes like that and it's no good for anyone. 

    I dont really have a problem with wanting boundaries - I just want to challenge what "healthy" means.  To use Dan Brennan's work as an example....one traditional boundary is not eating a meal alone with a member of the opposite sex (that your not related to, or that you're not available to be in a romantic relationship with).  I dont think that's a healthy boundary, I think thats a boundary made out of fear...though I know it might be necessary for certain people who have a hard time controling themselves. But that doesn't mean that I think there should be no boundaries - I just think what's truly healthy can include a lot more than is traditionally imagined.

  7. The use of "other" here reminded me of how Martin Buber uses it.  That to "other" another person is to refuse to see who they are and refuse the possibility of relationship in the moment

  8. I hear you too, Kim.  I too grew up in much the same situation.  I'm very consciously setting my own boundaries at the moment.  I think when you grow up in a household where fear and guilt and other emotions are all bundled up into shame, it takes a lot of unravelling.

    I feel like for me now (40) I am actually setting into place healthy boundaries so that in fact I can lay them down again.  I feel like I'm going back to an earlier developmental stage, doing it again and better, so that I can love better.  I do not think you can love very well when you don't know where you end and others begin.

    Of course, the ultimate paradox, and one I just find over and over again, is that it's never either/or but the old both/and.  In so many situations it's like an onion, layered round and round and round.  I build up to break down, I build my boundaries so I can freely let them down.  The paradoxes never end.

    Loving your blog, Richard.

  9. This is the passage of "Unclean" I read on the Metro this morning. (If you're unfamiliar with subway transit etiquette, while commuting to work one is supposed to read intently with head bowed or listen to music while staring blankly at the door. We may be packed in like sardines, but we all pretend we're the only passenger on the car.)

  10. Does the book offer individual case examples? - if hypothetical ones, then? – or just a focus on "missional engagement in the life of the church" – with church as a generalized corporate entity? I’m thinking of buying the book. I’m not interested in another generalized romance and divorce with the elusive corporate pair-bond partner, "church." And how s this different from an appeal to virtue ethics?

  11. Otherness is written into God's loving nature, into His triune self, into His creation.  As George MacDonald puts it:

    '"I am an individual; he is an individual.  My self must be closer to me than he can be.  Two bodies keep me apart from his self.  I am isolated with myself."

    Now, here lies the mistake at last.  While the thinker supposes a duality in himself which does not exist, he falsely judges the individuality a separation.  On the contrary, it is the sole possiblilty and the very bond of love.

    Otherness is the essential ground of affection.'

    I think your readers are right to point this truth out, and suspect you are using 'othering' in the technical, rather than the vernacular sense, Richard?  Perhaps this underlies the debate here?

    Wonderful book, by the way - a treasure.

  12. I'm glad you said this. I wanted to respond but couldn't figure out where to start.  Had to go through my own journey of boundary setting and detachment from my porn and sexual addict christian professor husband. 

    If I wasn't a regular reader, I think I might post a whole bunch of scripture on the importance of purity and holiness in a Christian's life and the wounds and damage that sexual sin inflicts upon "the temple" and the "one flesh", but I know Richard well enough from following the blog to trust that his motivation can't be self-justification of works of the flesh.

    I am supportive of males and females being able to fellowship cross gender w/o all the legalisms.  To me, the legalisms are a symptom of the objectification of women.  If people like my husband saw women as more than one dimensional (like porn pictures) I don't think it would be as easy for him to make such selfish choices which cut me to the core.

  13. Wow.  I am so sorry for the hurt you have been through - but I cant tell you how much I love your last paragraph.  I have long suspected that what you say is true, and your testimony is powerful because of where you've been.

    I really do think that as friendship between a man and a woman grows (rather they be married to each other, or to other people) they are required to leave their idealizations of each other behind, and are called to love the real person in front of them. 

  14. Hi All,
    Thanks for all the comments, reactions, and additional reflections. A couple of quick thoughts:

    In the book I do talk about how there is a time and place for the establishment of boundaries. Generally, therapists recommend this when there is concern that a person is being abused, used or used up. But it seems clear, to me at least, that the establishment of boundaries in these cases is not a sign that things are going well. That is, generally speaking, the erection of boundaries here has signaled the failure of love (for self or from others).

    This observation leads to a second point. When we talk about love in modernity we tend to focus on the individual. And for a finite person to love they have to monitor inflow and outflow across a "healthy boundary." If the outflow is too much a boundary is recommended so that the person doesn't become depleted, expended, or used up. Again, in certian cases this makes perfect sense. But we would not consider this situation--balancing inventories across the boundary of selfhood--as the model of Christian agape.

    Which brings me to my third point. Modernity (and modern psychotherapy) can't really talk about love. For two interrelated reasons hinted at above. First, love isn't individualistic. An individual can't love for long without getting used up. Love is a real loss, a real depletion, a real sacrifice, a real emptying, a real expenditure. Love gives its life away. The only way, then, that this can be maintained is in a communal setting. Think Acts 4. Think the Trinity. I love by expending myself but am filled by someone emptying into me.

    This notion--a Trinitarian, communal notion of selfhood and love--doesn't make much sense in modernity. What we have in modernity is, rather, relationship-as-economic exchange. Independent agents monitoring inflow and outflow across a boundary with the goal to make sure the accounts "balance." And yes, there is a logic to that idea, particularly in cases of abuse. But it's not a model of Chrisitan love.

  15. The example from Brennan's book puts a new spin on the conversation for me ... and while a prohibition against eating a meal alone with a member of the opposite sex may be a too-rigidly drawn boundary, I also hear in "Me"'s comment below a real-life example of the devastation that ensues when sexual boundaries are broken down. 

    I think it is Buddhist teaching that says "Everything is nothing." When I first heard that saying, it was nonsensical to me. However, it has come to be more meaningful to me as I ponder it. Without distinctions between things (people, ideas, permitted/prohibited, inside/outside), none of those things exist. If I am everything, the concept of "me" is meaningless. "I" can't be in relationship with anything or anyone if I don't exist. 

    I think it was the apostle Paul who said, "Everything is permissible, but not everything is good for me" (or something like that). Rather than doing away with the idea of appropriate boundaries, perhaps we should commit ourselves to being thoughtful about the way we set them. 

  16. Richard, thank you for mentioning Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions. As I mentioned in my blog, I was fascinated by your critique on boundaries and modern love and especially how men and women love each other. "Boundaries" serve good purposes mutual love and trust are not present. 

    As you know, "healthy boundaries" have really helped women gain a voice in relationships in marriage and in the broader community and your critique. As you point out in your book and in your response here, you're  not suggesting we do away with boundaries. I think of evangelical feminists who  "live" on the "boundaries" of evangelicalism and feminism. 

    One of the things I enjoyed about your book was that you embraced cognitive and emotional union as love. For the first 26 years of my adult evangelical pilgrimage, marriage was the overwhelming context for "oneness" or deep emotional union. One could easily find books in Christian book stores emphasizing union within marriage. Very rare though, was friendship and union ever mentioned. Then, as my friendships with women began to grow with the support and blessing of my wife, I began to research friendship. I was amazed to find this rich stream in Christian history and spirituality of the emphasis of love and union in friendship outside of present-day evangelical spirituality and love.

    For my own study and purposes, "the other" is a member of the opposite sex--starting with your spouse--if you are married, but then, your "neighbor." What does it mean to love someone from the opposite sex if you're not married to them? I'm not telling you anything you don't already know, but the "disgust" boundaries for deep emotional connection ("union") with the other (especially if either one is married) are present and ubiquitous. 

    I believe in the 21st century with the equalization of sexes, there will be deeper conversations about the goodness and beauty of healthy but nevertheless deep love in friendships between the sexes. 

  17. Okay, I should learn to wake up before writing a response. "Boundaries serve good purposes *when* mutual love and trust are not present" is what I intended to write. And, I edited something else in the first sentence of the 2nd paragraph and see I left "and your critique" at the end of the sentence instead of dropping it. Should read, ""As you know, 'healthy boundaries have really helped women gain a voice in marriage and the broader community." Sorry!

  18. I suppose we will have to agree to disagree on this. I don't believe that the concept of healthy boundaries are only applicable when a relationship is abusive or otherwise dysfunctional. I believe that the failure of learning appropriate boundaries as an automatic and seamless process (in childhood) results in relationship selection and relationship behaviors that may degenerate into dysfunction and abuse. Of course, there are other aspects to this process besides appropriate boundary-setting, but I think this is one of them. I also think that people that learned to set appropriate boundaries as a part of a healthy family don't think of it that way. It is too much of an automatic process. It's only when our relationships have become painful, and we realize that something needs to change, that some of us take on the extremely difficult task of consciously learning this skill. 

    Even Jesus implicitly set some boundaries --- when He withdrew for a time from the crowds for rest and prayer. Also when He refused to prioritize His mother and brothers over the other people clamoring to see Him. As God the Son, He was infinite (I believe the traditional designations are omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent) ... as the Incarnate Christ, He had physical, emotional, cognitive, attentional limitations. 

    One of the variables I face every day as I write my dissertation proposal is "self-silencing" --- as I delve into the self-silencing literature and introspect on my life and friendships, I am becoming more and more convinced that women have radically different self-construals than men in our culture/civilization. This may be why it is women who have spoken up in reply to this post, in "defense of healthy boundaries." Although ostensibly the Western self-construal is "independent and individualized" I think this is a male construction ... meaning both by males and for males. Female self-construal is far more weighted toward the interdependent, communal, collectivist model. So, while you are giving a critique of the individualist/independent self and its dangers, the women replying in this blog may be saying that the female model of self has its own set of dangers, different from the male model. 

    I love that Dan Brennan, in his reply below, mentioned "evangelical feminists". I would definitely put myself in that category. Also, as a United Methodist, I know I am coming out of a different tradition and a different set of experiences than you, and possibly most others that converse on your blog. While I cannot claim that women have consistently had equal status in my religious tradition, the possibility of female leadership and engagement has always been there, dating from the 1700s. This may have impacted my experience on the matter under discussion now. 

    Richard, you always make me think ... even when we are coming from radically different perspectives. Thank you for that. 

  19. i took Richard to have a narrower sense of "boundaries" than you are using, but perhaps he'll define "boundaries" for us.  (But i'm definitely siding with you so far.)


  20. Hi Kim,
    I appreciate you making me think. I'm aware there are limits to what I'm suggesting. You are helping me see where the weaknesses are. This is why I wanted to post about this part of the book, to get feedback like this

  21. I've read Brooks' book. I quote from it in my book. It's an interesting take on trying to move past the "centerfold syndrome" from a secular perspective. 

  22. No disrespect to Richard, but I always scroll through new posts for your comments, Andrew, knowing they'll have wise thoughts in them.

  23. Kim T. I do very much appreciate your response. In some sense boundaries are always going to be there and be necessary. There will be boundaries and limitations. I do think that Richard makes a point insofar as communal love does make those boundaries shift, porous, or permeable. I think that is definitely applicable under your female communal model. I think you are spot on about the Western male construct. 

  24. One of the distinctions I have found helpful in my life and work is that between 'responsibility to' and 'responsibility for' others.  Until recently I have found this to be something of a 'golden rule': I'm responsible for fulfilling my responsibilities to others, and I need to allow others to take responsibilities for themselves.

    But recently, I have been reading The Brothers Karamazov.  In this book, the idea of 'being responsible for all' is explored - of setting an example of universal brother and sisterhood ('siblinghood' isn't quite working for me...!).

    This idea has really challenged me and given me an alternative model to that of feeling responsible for someone else's problems.  I think my way of conceptualising it has to do with Kim's remarks about interconnectedness.  If each of my interactions with others is significant (and we're all connected by six degrees of separation) then I have a measure of responsibility for all.  I suspect Dostoevsky would go further and see the cross as the supreme example of 'taking on the sins of the world'.

    This is an incomplete thought-process for me.  Responses very welcome...

  25. Hi Andrew,
    I've been thinking along similar lines within the context of family, and how power is distributed, and the responsibility for the power one has. A child born last into a family is powerless, and can only react to the circumstances she is born into. Older siblings set the tone for her expectations of the world, either with welcome inclusion, or bitter torment. Parents, like political governors, have the responsibility for executing justice tempered with mercy. But even in that smallest arena, bribery and flattery can corrupt. Somehow, the power structure never changes, even as decades pass.

  26. Hi Patricia

    I know what you mean, I think.  My own experience of family was to live in denial of power structures (and my own power) for many years.  But, by the grace of God, I am slowly learning to accept the necessity of understanding and working within this dynamic and to accept my own power and its limitations.  (I think this is a recurring theme in the sermons and novels of MacDonald, too, perhaps...?)  Apart from grace, these structures may seem inexorable, but my hope is that none of them are finally.

    This part of my journey has allowed me to gain some understanding of the importance of scapegoating in the gospel and in the world (via Richard's very helpful discussion and signposting) and to begin to challenge the abuse of power when exercised against the young people on whose behalf I seek to work, as well as against the lives of women, those with heritages different from my own, and others.  My experience so far is that it gets you into hot water and polarises opinions!

    I feel like an infant in this area sometimes, but I hope at least I better realise what some of the important questions are these days.


  27. I, too, feel that I'm only beginning to understand these dynamics, although they have been shaping my life all along. I found MacDonald's Seaboard Parish trilogy especially to explore the powers that play out in families, both for good and ill. My own observation of real life has been that Cain still trumps Abel every time, with impunity. I would like to see more exploration of the scapegoating from the standpoint of what can the scapegoat do?

    I'm glad for those youths and women who have you as an ally. You have a gracious way with words and understanding.


  28. Thank-you as always for your kind words, Patricia.

    I think Girard/Heim would answer your question by presenting the cross and resurrection as the ultimate fulfilment and abolition of sacrificial violence - the story that makes it impossible to persist in truly believing in the scapegoating myth.  Jesus is both undeniably innocent and undeniably back from the dead.  By breaking these two key elements of the scapegoat myth, he forces us to confront the propensity for violence, projection and blame in ourselves.

    I suspect the scapegoat can do very little except follow this example - to have the strength and integrity to refuse to live down to the shortcomings imputed to them and to refuse to find a hole to disappear into.  My only excuse for this cold comfort is that I have experienced this myself in my own humble way.  It was the hardest time in my life and, in retrospect, perhaps one of the most precious.

    The challenge for the rest of us, then, is to be attuned to scapegoating in all in various forms and to stand alongside the victim in solidarity - amplifiying their voice if they wish it.

    Seaboard Parish is on my ever-dwindling "MacDonald not yet read" list, so thanks for the signpost.

  29. Richard, as a trained Family Systems Therapist, I take some issue with what seems like your equating lack of boundaries with intimacy. Yes, the Trinity is "three-in-one" but as such illustrates the "godliness" of the concept of differentiation. 

    We are "one body" but many parts, as Paul said, showing a remarkable understanding of human physiology for his day. When cells are healthy, there are barriers between them allowing the healthy stuff in and the unhealthy stuff to get out. When those cell walls break down or are absent, we generally refer to that as a "tumor."

    The trick is to be able to be independent and yet the consummate "team player" at the same time. Only Jesus was able to fully accomplish that.

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