How to Set Healthy Boundaries with Boundless Love


How to Set Healthy Boundaries with Boundless Love

3 Lesson for Building Healthier Relationships

While scrolling through the internet the other day, I came upon this funny quote:

“Old Farmer’s Advice: Your fences need to be horse-high, pig-tight and bull strong!”

Well, I thought that was great advice, if only I were dealing with horses, pigs and bulls.  But the reality of the situation is that I’m trying to learn how to set boundaries for myself, and for other difficult people (like me) whom I love but I’m not quite sure where to draw the line.  Setting boundaries for complicated human beings is like trying to keep water inside a colander: it’s messy, it forever tends to push the limits to get out, and there is no Farmer’s Almanac to tell you exactly how to do it.

Where does my boundary stop when I’m trying to show others love by bending over backwards to meet their needs? 

How do I set healthy boundaries for someone dealing with a mental difficulty, who doesn’t like my boundaries, or any boundaries at all? 

How do I put my own “oxygen mask on first, and then help someone else put on theirs,” without feeling guilty? 

These are just a few of the really tough questions that I’ve asked myself over the years – when dealing with a rebellious teenager, a loved one intent on self-harm, and even most recently, two parents suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s.

From these experiences, here are three lessons I’ve learned about building healthy relationships with boundaries:

Lessen One: Tend Your Own Garden

The first thing I’m beginning to realize is that I’m capable and responsible for tending my own garden!  If I’m so busy looking over the fence and trying to “fix” my neighbor’s garden, or pulling up all her weeds while she sits and watches, I will soon notice that my own garden is wildly overgrown and beyond subduing.  My weeds of resentment, exhaustion, bitterness and anger begin to wind around my neck and choke the life out of me. 

Maybe that’s partly what Jesus meant when He said, “Love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31). It’s ok to care for myself AS I care for my loved one.  We are both of equal value and precious in His sight. We can truly improve our relationships with our loved ones when we set healthy boundaries that provide space and personal nourishment for each one of us.

Someone once said, “You must love yourself enough to set boundaries.  Your time and energy are precious. You get to choose how you use it.  You teach people how to treat you by deciding what you will and won’t accept” (Anonymous). Oh, how we need the wisdom of God to help us decide when we need a break!  It has also been said, ”If you get tired, learn to rest, not quit.”


Lesson Two: Don’t Cave into Fear

I think one of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with when setting boundaries is FEAR.  And chances are I’m not alone.  I’ve often heard caregivers of a mentally or emotionally imbalanced loved one say, “But what if I set this boundary and it results in more unhealthy behavior?” Or, “If I set boundaries and consequences, she’ll pour out all this venom on me, threaten to leave and I’ll never see her again. I couldn’t face that.”  Or, “They won’t like me anymore.”

Those “what if’s” will get you every time!  But consider “what if” you don’t.  What if you continue to let your loved one descend from one negative behavior to another, without any consequences? What if you treat them as if they are fragile victims who need bailing out of their own self-imposed webs of tangled destructive behaviors every time they ask for help?  Sometimes the “what if’s” can paralyze us from taking any action at all, and we’d rather just throw in the towel. 

If that’s the case, I’d recommend getting your own support system to back you up during those hard times of boundary setting. Maybe finding your own counselor who can encourage you to follow through with the consequences you’ve set; maybe going to Al-Anon meetings if your loved one has an addiction problem; or maybe finding a support group for families of those living with anxiety, depression or other life challenges, such as Grace Alliance’s Family Grace Group  – maybe all of these support systems can help you take the next step toward healthy and responsible living, not only for your loved one, but for yourself as well.


Lesson Three:  It’s More about Grace than Getting on Their Case

So you might ask yourself, “Where does grace fit in when I’m trying to establish some ‘bull strong fences’? Won’t they think I’m a push-over if I show them grace and let them get by ‘just this once’?” 

I think grace is not about giving in, but about making sure that our loved one knows that we love and accept them and treat them with respect, even when their behavior yells that they don’t deserve it.  Grace is knowing that ultimately we are depending on God to take care of our loved one, and that no matter how hard we push or how many rules we set up, it’s not up to us to change them – only God can really transform one’s heart and mind.

“WE ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE!” Responsible TO, yes; responsible FOR, no. So grace is really something we give ourselves, knowing that we’re going to make mistakes in dealing with this messy world of mental problems.  We’re in uncharted territory where reason often doesn’t make sense, and if you say yes, they’ll say no.

But perhaps there’s one more thing about grace to which we can all relate.  All of us need affirmation, encouragement and something to celebrate, not to punish. Maybe grace leans more toward helping your loved one find what “sparks joy” in their heart and gives them purpose and meaning, rather than trying to keep them insulated from negative behavior with a switch and a threat.  Maybe sincere words of affirmation and praise can go much further in helping someone find the light than berating them because they continue to live in the darkness.


The Bottom Line

Ultimately, the tremendous gift we were given as we began walking this uncharted territory with our loved one is the gift of GRACE.  As we learn about the complexity of the brain and how so many variables control how we might respond to the world around us at any given moment, we understand how ALL of us need to be rescued. We need to be rescued from the mistaken belief that we can “fix” somebody else, or even ourselves, without God Almighty’s powerful work in us.

We need to be rescued from believing that just by trying harder, praying harder, or worrying harder we can make life work the way “WE wanted it to work.”  And we need to be eternally rescued by a loving God who does guard us with fences for our own health and happiness, but has no boundaries for his limitless and lavish love.

As He says in Hosea 14:4, “My love will know no bounds!”

*Want more information about building healthy boundaries with family and friends? Check out our small group curriculum, Family Grace, created to empower families and marriages to discover biblical and neuroscience insights and practical tools for the personal lives and to walk alongside their loved one’s journey through anxiety, depression and other life challenges.

Tricia Martin.jpg

Tricia Martin is a lover of nature, an artist, and a grandmother of three extraordinary children ( all grandparents say that!), with a fourth on the way.  She loves to travel with her husband, Jim, spend time in the beautiful North Carolina mountains, and co-lead a Family Grace Group full of exceptionally courageous and loving people in Charlotte, NC.