Enablement and Boundaries

One of the most common issues that you will encounter in Christian counseling is people that have boundary issues — as in that let themselves get walked on. In the world, the entire basis of your counseling is different — it’s based on selfishness: “How do I meet my needs?” but in Christianity, counseling is based on the idea that you should be pleasing God and loving others. Now this definitely does not mean that everyone you counsel will be selfless or oriented toward love, but that there is an underlying presumption of caring about others. Furthermore, Jesus paints this caring in very stark, radical terms — turn the other cheek if someone strikes you, give him your shirt off your back if he asks for your coat,  love your enemies. All of these ideas lead Christians to conclude that God wants you to be a doormat.

And what this means is that a very common problem among Christians is enablement, or what Cloud and Townsend have called “boundaries.” Worldly people have boundaries issues as well of course, but it seems to be a very common theme with believers. The basic structure of the problem is that a Christian feels that he or she must keep helping or be in relationship with someone who is hurting them. They feel that they do not have the right to say no or defend themselves. What I like to point out to people in these cases is that submitting to someone who is in sin, is participating in their sin. Do you let someone rape you just because they want to? No, you defend yourself. The first step of getting someone free from enablement is to help them see this basic issue. Jesus certainly was not teaching that you allow yourself or others to be violated over the long term. He was teaching that we should love in response to evil. I can love and forgive you and yet still believe you should go to prison for your crimes. I can love and forgive you and yet still not allow you back into my life.

It’s not good for me and it’s not good for you. Letting you use me, only teaches you to sin. Me loving you requires I let you experience the consequences of your sin instead of me experiencing them. This is because the consequences or the fruit that you sow from your sin are what lead you to repentance. I’m not going to be mean to you or punish you, but I’m also not going to let you put it on me so you can keep sinning. What enablement does, effectively is prevent this cycle. Everyone else experiences pain, while the sinner enjoys their sinful lifestyle on your expense. It’s like you sleeping in the basement while your lazy uncle sleeps in the presidential suite on your dime. You are only helping him perpetuate a fantasy about his life which is not true — that there are no consequences for sin. It’s much better that he find it out in this life, than in the life to come, when punishment is eternal.

Common patterns are women who enable their husbands, parents who enable their children, and moms who overrun boundaries with their kids. A large number of women, particularly nice women, are natural enablers. They feel bad when they make other people feel bad. That means they want to make other people happy all the time. That means they will make you happy even if it is making them miserable. That means they are very prone to enable people in their lives. Husbands/boyfriends, mothers and children are the most likely candidates for this kind of situation. In the case of a boyfriend, it is the typical abusive pattern, where he takes and takes, and never gives and make her feel bad for not giving more. In the case of a mother, it’s usually her putting all of her emotional burdens on the daughter and sucking her try emotionally, and in the case of the children, it is them always demanding and mom never feeling the strength to say ‘no.’   Of these, the children are the most common and least dangerous. The solution is more involvement from a male figure who doesn’t mind telling the children no, and will pry the woman away so she can get her own sanity time. Unraveling a woman’s enmeshment with her mother or spouse is a significantly more complex thing, however. The average woman is bonded to her mom in a way that is borderline freaky. It’s like they live in each others’ head.  This can be a source of comfort, guidance and strength when it’s healthy, or it can be a really negative thing if it’s not.

With spouses, the trick is that in Christianity we are conditioned not to leave a marriage. This used to be primarily women, but more and more it’s the men too. You are in a relationship with someone who is clearly taking advantage of you in serious ways, and you keep going with it because God hates divorce. It gets deeper and deeper until the point where you fear for your life, or you are far away from God or deeply compromised because of your spouse. The fact is that God does not want you in that situation.   Your first allegiance is to God, over your spouse. Many people think that divorce is the only option, but actually I believe the most Biblical option is separation. It’s the classic  “I’m taking the kids to stay with my parents until you work this out.”  It’s that step which lets the other person know that their actions are serious and they are seriously hurting you, but that you are committed to them, that you love them, and that you are not throwing them in the garbage because they failed. In all but the most severe situations this is a very good option. Sometimes even a weekend alone is enough to bring the person back to their senses. And I don’t mean that it’s a light option. I mean that if your relationship is structurally unhealthy, you should use separation as a way to help rebalance it, and assert that you are also an actor in the relationship and that they cannot simply put all of the weight on you and take advantage of you.  You see?  You are giving them a choice from a posture of love. In a truly severe situation, like your husband or wife may try to kill you or your children, you should get out fast, file divorce and don’t look back. This person isn’t married to you, they are married to the devil.

Today’s culture has most American parents grossly enabling their children, in ways that would have shocked our grandparents. We think we can’t tell them no for any reason or make them feel bad. This symptom grows and grows until the child has wrecked their life on drugs, is living in your house, in jail or dead. Parents have to see that their role is to shape the behavior of the children. Once the child is older, however, a shift like that is going to be radical and difficult. And it may involve or create separation, just like the marriage. From a posture of love you have to let the child know that you will not be doing all of these things to help them sin and bail them out when they do. It’s hard because they lash out at you, but it’s better for their soul. You do it in love with an open hand hoping they will learn and come to sanity. Some do, some don’t.

Some people simply live their whole lives as enablers and pleasers in all relationships. The problem with this is that when you let everyone have their way, the devil always has his way. When you submit to everyone, you submit to the devil too. You can’t make everyone happy. And part of being a Christian actually involves making some people mad. Not because you are mad, but because they hate the truth. That means you can’t be a pleaser. You have to step away from the demands and expectations of others and stand for the truth, let their emotions fall where they may.

What is a boundary? It’s a limit with a choice attached. If you want to be in relationship with me, you can’t violate me in this way. You have to be responsible for yourself, and I will be responsible for myself. I’m not going to allow you to take over my emotions and soul. If you do, I will take actions to separate from you. That boundary is a positive thing. Like the old expression “good fences make good neighbors.” This doesn’t mean we are supposed to live in isolated bubbles of separation, it just means that when someone overruns your fences all the time, it’s time to remind them that it’s your property. 🙂 The neighbors that you love can always come through the gate and are welcomed inside. The ones who need boundaries are the ones who jump fences.

These are the kind of people who put demands on you and make you feel bad for not meeting them. This might be emotional or it might be financial and otherwise. You can love them but still insist they keep on their side of the fence. Some people will learn from this, others will simply leave you alone and find someone else to take advantage of.

The bottom line with counseling these kinds of relationships is understanding the basic principle of individual responsibility. People need to assert themselves and separate from those who are sources of unheatlh in their lives.  You will need to take apart their religious reasons for doing so and show them that in some cases real love means separation or consequences. Note, you cannot do it for them. It is a foolish mistake to try to make a choice for someone else. This is why the police do not get involved in domestic violence disputes. You should not either, no matter how much it stirs your conscience. The woman (or man) is feeling bad and so she calls for help so someone else will get this man out of her life, but the fact is that only she can do this. If you get involved, you find that the next day the couple has made up and you are the enemy. Because again, someone who stays in this situation is actually a participant in the sin. The correct thing to do is coach the person to make their own choice to come out of the relationship. Until they make a choice, there is nothing you can do for them except show them how not making a choice is hurting everyone including the person they supposedly love.

Your role is to show them consequences and “give them permission” to stop the cycle of pain that being someone else’s punching bag causes.

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  1. My wife won’t stop smoking, its a $5.63 a day habit; @$30 a week, $120.00 per month. That could be a payment but instead only minimal payments on credit cards can be made and now I’m contemplating filing for chapter 7. She has ruined my credit and is limiting her own credibility, though she doesn’t know it nor would admit to it. It seems as though if I try to persuade her to change I come across as the ‘bad’ guy not only in her eye’s but also in the church. She has no understanding of credit and its useful limits, only mindful of her selfish whims and desires. Next time she wants cigarettes I might drive towards them but just keep going
    Do you have a suggestion or comment?

    1. I’m sorry that I just saw this. I recommend that you get separate bank accounts, and have her support her own habit.

  2. I married my husband under God and follow the Biblical principle that I am to have no “what am I getting out of this” expectations, however where’s the line? I admit and deeply understand my own struggles born from having to protect my mother during my developmental years from domestic violence. This instilled in me a feeling of being responsible for everything. But it has confused me in my life and my marriage, as my husband provides nothing for me. For example, we agreed to move to another state for employment reasons (I couldn’t get a job paying the minimum survival rates where we were and he was happy living on Medicare and working part-time to keep money in his pocket, so I pursued and got a job making over $70,000/year with health/retirement benefits in a state where he could easily get a full-time job. We discussed it extensively and agreed we’d relocate; however, after nine months, he has yet to move with me leaving me to pay all the expenses in the new location on my own. Another example – Earlier in our relationship, I was in law school and he basically gave me the ultimatum of law school or him… I quit law school – my fault entirely. My car just broke down (on which I pay a car payment) and he refuses to help me with it ($3000 to fix) so it’s not getting fixed until I can save the money to fix it…which I don’t have a cent to save because he’s living in another state leaving me to pay all the bills here while he’s taken out a $25000 home equity loan on the house we agreed to move from where he still lives. So essentially I’m married but living a single life, I provide him with health insurance, get no emotional or financial support from him and see him when he comes to visit me for a couple of weeks every other month. What is God looking for me to do? I get stuck because not only does my husband have an explanation for everything, but you can look at everything from two sides…now he wants me to move back to where there is no work which is also very far from my family, and I want to finally learn the lesson God’s trying to teach me….to stop being selfish or stop being a doormat…..?

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