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Focus on the Family Broadcast

Setting Boundaries in Your Most Difficult Relationships (Part 1 of 2)

Setting Boundaries in Your Most Difficult Relationships (Part 1 of 2)

Lysa TerKeurst reflects on the death of her marriage and how she had to place boundaries in her life to protect her own mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. She offers insight, biblical wisdom, and encouragement to those needing to establish boundaries with others. (Part 1 of 2)
Original Air Date: November 8, 2022

Lysa TerKeurst: The real struggle sometimes in relationships is where we feel like we cannot say what we know needs to be said either because we’re afraid of the change that, that might happen in that relationship, we’re afraid that that person might reject us, abandon us or, you know, ghost us. And here’s what I say, if we’re that afraid that this person would reject us, then you’re really in a relationship where that person is probably going to reject you eventually anyways. And so I think boundaries give us an opportunity to have those healthy conversations that need to be had.

John Fuller: Lysa TerKeurst joins us today on Focus on the Family. And, uh, we thank you for joining us. Your host is Focus president and author, Jim Daly, and I’m John Fuller.

Jim Daly: And John, relationships with our spouse, with our children, with our friends are some of the most, uh, joyful experiences on this side of heaven. But they can post challenges as well in all those categories, right?

John: Right. Right.

Jim: I think as a parent of two boys, that’s where Jean and I are like, “Ahh!” half the time, especially back when they were teenagers. (Laughs)

John: Oh, yeah. Yeah. That’s, that’s the time that everything kind of blows up…

Jim: It is.

John: … and who knows what’s gonna happen.

Jim: But sometimes, uh, you know, to protect your own mental and emotional and spiritual well-being you have to draw a line, create a boundary. Um, some people are good at doing that, others are not as good.

John: Mm-hmm.

Jim: And today we want to talk about how you can successfully draw those boundaries and help have a, I think, a more shalom, God’s peace…

John: Hm.

Jim: … orientated life.

John: Well, and we have Lysa TerKeurst, uh, here with us. Um, she’s been on the broadcast a number of times. A very popular guest. As the president of Proverbs 31 Ministries, she’s encouraged millions of women. Um, she’s helped them strengthen their faith and their relationships. She’s written a number of books and the one we’re talking about today is called Good Boundaries and Goodbyes: Loving Others Without Losing the Best of Who You Are. And, of course, we have that here at Focus on the Family. Give us a call, uh, or stop by focusonthefamily.com/broadcast.

Jim: Lysa, welcome to Focus.

Lysa: Thank you. It’s always so nice to be with you guys.

Jim: Well, this one’s in Grand Rapids, so a little different.

Lysa: I know. I was so surprised when I saw the travel itinerary. I was like, “Wait. I thought I was going to Colorado Springs.”

Jim: (Laughs).

Lysa: So, good thing the plane knew where we were going.

Jim: Well, we have plenty of friends here in Michigan and so we’re, uh, visiting some of those friends and doing some other things and it just worked out that we can do this together. So thank you for making the effort.

Lysa: Oh, yeah. It’s such an honor.

Jim: Yeah.

Lysa: It really is.

Jim: Hey, let’s, uh, let’s kick it off, uh, John mentioned Proverbs 31, uh, what a wonderful ministry for so many women. It, this area of boundaries, when you look at it, uh, I, I don’t mean to make a gender distinction here, but I think women, I guess, have, um, such a desire to help those around them in significant ways that boundaries can be very difficult and feel kind of counter spiritual maybe in some way. That if I’m not doing everything, if I’m not killing myself by helping others then I’m not living up to the expectation that I have for myself. Speak to that and what women, uh, tell you through Proverbs 31.

Lysa: Yeah. Well, I’ll speak just on my own behalf of my, my struggle with boundaries. You know, I didn’t write this book from the point of, like, oh, I’m so good at boundaries, you know?

Jim: (Laughs).

Lysa: I, I wrote it from my point of struggle and recognizing that where there’s chaos in relationships…

Jim: Hmm.

Lysa: … there’s usually a lack of boundaries. And I think the reason I personally struggled with boundaries is because I had a big question mark, “Are boundaries actually biblical? Is God okay if we draw boundaries? Is it unkind? Is it unchristian?” And I think if we don’t have the biblical confidence that boundaries are okay, then we’re always going to tip toe around them and maybe avoid them.

Plus, boundaries can be awkward. I think sometimes when you people hear the word boundaries, they have a couple of different reactions, neither of which are good. One is, oh, somebody did a boundary and with me and really used it as punishment or control or manipulation, and that boundary just felt terrible.

Jim: Hmm.

Lysa: Or they say, “Oh, you know, I’ve tried boundaries and they just don’t work for me.” So it’s funny when you say the word boundaries people have usually a little bit of a, like, hesitant reaction…

Jim: Mm-hmm.

Lysa: … to the word boundaries.

Jim: No, it’s really true. And I, I think it’s hard, I think it, like you mentioned in the Christian ethos we feel guilty having boundaries because it’s almost like if you get slapped in the cheek, give them the other cheek, right?

Lysa: Mmm.

Jim: There’s lots of scriptures that caution us to go the extra mile.

Lysa: Absolutely.

Jim: And, uh, we can, we can muddle that whole thing in terms of self-protection.

Lysa: Yes. Well, I put on, um, my Instagram Stories one time tell me verses, the Bible verses that, um, have made you feel like boundaries are unbiblical. And people sent in lots of Bible verses. So I spent time with my theological team at Proverbs 31 Ministries and we, we went through those verses. And in the back of the book, Good Boundaries and Goodbyes, there’s actually a resource. It’s many pages of here’s what these verses mean, here’s what they do not mean, here’s how they’ve been weaponized, and here’s a script you can use if somebody uses this verse to tell you that a boundary is unbiblical.

I, I, you know, I, one of my most favorite research, theological research times with these verses is, you know, people said, “Well, Jesus said lay down your life for your friends,” you know, and Jesus modeled that. He laid his life for his friends. And that’s absolutely correct. Jesus laid down his life for a high and holy purpose. But not to enable bad behavior to continue.

Jim: Huh.

Lysa: So we must not confuse the good command to love with the unhelpful and often harmful behavior of enabling.

Jim: Yeah. And, and that’s a brilliant distinction, really. Um, and we’ve talked about, uh, the context for your life and things that you’ve gone through, so these next questions are things that you’re openly talking about so I’m not putting you on the spot here. But, um, your ex-husband, Art, and what took place with that is a great example, I think, of what you’re describing. Can you tell us what happened and just give us that brief synopsis and we can use that as an example?

Lysa: Yeah. Um, you know, I never expected the death of my marriage. It, it was completely not something that I felt like would ever, would ever happen to our family. And that’s why I call a divorce, the death of a marriage because that’s really what it was to me. It was the saddest, hardest, most heartbreaking deal that I ever walked through. And, um, you know, I think there were many, many years where we both fought really hard. Um, and toward the end, I fought really hard. But at some point you have to accept reality. And this was an unsustainable, um, reality. And, honestly, at that point for me it would be unbiblical to stay.

So I’m always careful because, you know, I always want to honor him and so I’m careful with what I say and what I don’t say. But what I do know is I didn’t walk away. At some point I had to accept reality and that’s what got me to this place.

Jim: Well and you did fight. I mean, I can remember the interviews we did before, during and after-

Lysa: Yes.

Jim: … and, you know, it didn’t always work its way into the program, but we would talk where you were at and what things were happening. In that way, boundaries applied to a difficult marriage.

Lysa: Mm-hmm.

Jim: Um, you know, your own experience, the other women at Proverbs 31 Women who share with you their struggles. What, what does that boundary problem look like in a married construct?

Lysa: Yeah, that’s a great question. Um, I think the easiest way to think about boundaries is first of all, you’ve got to have biblical confidence that God is okay with boundaries. Because if you don’t have that kind of confidence, then you’re always second guessing, “Is this the right thing to do or not?” But if you know that boundaries are not just a good idea, they’re actually God’s idea, you can approach it in a different way. Always with the purpose, the driving force of a boundary, should always be love. It should not be punishment, control or manipulation.

So when I dug into the Bible, right from the very beginning in Genesis 1, I see that God established even the foundation of the world using boundaries. You know, he separated the day and the night. He separated light and darkness. He separated the sea from the land. And, you know, so we see these appropriate boundaries where one stops and another begins.

But then I got to Genesis 2. And think of all the topics, all the subject matters that God could have chosen for his first conversation, first recorded conversation with man, and God chose the topic of a boundary.

Jim: Hmm.

Lysa: And so in Genesis 2, we find God saying to Adam, “You are free…” which is important because boundaries are for the sake of defining where the freedom is. Boundaries are not for the sake of just becoming so restrictive that you box a relationship in where it can’t grow and thrive. So God says, “You are free.” So he’s establishing the freedom. “You are free to eat from any tree in garden. But not the tree that’s in the middle of the garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, or you will die.” And so, again, when you understand that God never intended the human heart to carry the weight of the knowledge of evil, God wasn’t being overly restrictive, he was actually being protective.

And so freedom and protection are both so important when we talk about boundaries.

Jim: Hmm.

Lysa: And especially in the beauty and the treasured nature of such an intimate relationship in a marriage. You know, boundaries should be the way that you open up wonderful communication between you and your significant other that this is what’s okay and this is what’s not okay. So sometimes when we think about boundaries, we think about this hard, awful conversation. And sometimes boundary conversations are really hard and awful. But sometimes they can be the way that you fight for the relationship so you don’t spend time, so much time, fighting against each other.

Jim: I think those boundary setting opportunities can be very manipulated.

Lysa: Mm-hmm.

Jim: Um, you know, a person that feels wounded because my husband doesn’t do such and such, or he always does such and such. It’s not perhaps a biblical violation of the marriage, it’s his temperament, it’s his personality. You married him.

Lysa: Mm-hmm.

Jim: Um, but how do you discern what is a healthy boundary and what’s an unhealthy boundary? I think it, it’s so clouded.

Lysa: It really is. Okay, so I want us to think of two really important words, access and responsibility. And again, as I continued to study and look for examples of God drawing boundaries, or indications that God is okay with boundaries, when I got to even the way God constructed or instructed the construction of the tabernacle which eventually became the temple, certain people were allowed certain access to certain parts of the temple. It wasn’t because those people were more valuable than the other people. It’s that they were required a different level of responsibility. So, by the time you get to the Holy of Holies, then only the high priest once a year had access to the Holy of Holies to make atonement for the people. But the high priest had to be perfectly cleansed and purified before he stepped into the Holy of Holies or he would drop dead. And so the highest access required the highest responsibility and also had the highest consequence for a boundary violation.

Jim: Hmm.

Lysa: So I like to think of these two words, access and responsibility. To the level that we give someone access to us, and that’s physically, financially, emotionally, relationally, spiritually. If we’re giving level 10 access, then the person we’re giving that access to needs to bring level 10 responsibility.

Jim: Hmm.

Lysa: Where a lot of us get in trouble is we’re giving level 10 access, but if someone is unwilling or incapable of anything more than a level 3, the distance between those two is where you will find dysfunction, where you’ll find chaos, and where there’s chaos, there’s usually a lack of boundaries.

So here’s an example of an unhealthy way to set a boundary. And this was my mistake, so I’m gonna own this confession time, okay? That I would want this person to lift up their area of responsibility to match the level of access I’d given them so much, so I decided to put a boundary on them. And when you try to put a boundary on somebody, you’re using external pressure to try to create an internal change. And we all know if that person is unwilling or incapable of making that change for themselves, you can create temporary behavior modification, but you’re not gonna really have them become more responsible with the access you’ve given them. And so instead of putting a boundary to try to force someone else to change, on that person, we have to put a boundary around ourselves and be self-controlled enough to reduce the level of access down to the level of responsibility that that person is demonstrating.

Jim: Hmm.

John: Now you’re not, um, there’s so much here, Lysa. And, and I’m wondering where does love fit into this picture, kind of going back to what Jim was saying. Because if I have a boundary and, and it gets transgressed, well love says to overlook the transgression or does it?

Lysa: Well, good question. God’s really clear about what love is. And I think sometimes, like I said before, we confuse the good command to love with some bad behaviors of people pleasing and, um, you know, trying to enable someone. Or even step in and save them when we can be a friend, we can be a spouse, we can be a parent but we cannot be the savior.

John: Hmm.

Lysa: And so, yes, the motivation for a boundary always has to be love, seeking the other person’s highest good as they seek your highest good, as well. So the motivation should be love. But it, part of love is good communication. Part of love is honesty. Part of love is being patient and kind. And if we allow so many boundary violations that it wears us down to the worst version of ourself, then we’ll be guilty of doing the exact opposite of what God’s definition of love should be.

Jim: Hmm.

John: Well, this is Focus on the Family with Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller and our guest today is Lysa TerKeurst. We’re talking about, um, some really, uh, difficult but really good things to bring to the table here. Lysa’s written about this in her book, Good Boundaries and Goodbyes.

And we’ll encourage you to get a copy of that book from us here at the ministry. Our number is 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY. And the details are on focusonthefamily.com/broadcast.

Jim: Lysa, in the book you mentioned, uh, a comparison to Hallmark films-

Lysa: (Laughs).

Jim: … which I think is hilarious and, uh, we probably need a little light heartedness in the middle of this heaviness. But talk about the Hallmark movie and how it distorts things.

Lysa: Right. Well, I think we all have visions of how we want life to be, how we want relationships to be. And so, you know, I talk about how sometimes at Christmas especially, I’ll be watching one of these, you know, wonderfully delightful, sometimes slightly cheesy movies, right?

Jim: (Laughs).

John: Right.

Lysa: (Laughs). And I’m thinking they have the same story line every time. Like, the girl is in some kind of distress and suddenly she bumps into a guy at a diner and-

Jim: (Laughs).

Lysa: … um, you know, she accidentally spills a little coffee on him. And then he just thinks it’s delightful. And then she finds out he’s a prince of a foreign land and then-

Jim: (Laughs).

Lysa: … you know, they fall in love and he whisks her away to the castle to live ever, you know, happily ever after.

Jim: Never worried about the shirt. (Laughs).

Lysa: Never worried about the shirt, right? But then I said, but this is how life often goes. She’s working at a diner. She’s spills coffee on him. He gets so irate with her that he just says things that crush her heart. She goes home. She is still infuriated with him. Then something happens and he loses the ability to be the king of the kingdom again and so she decides to save up her money, buy the castle (laughs) and, you know, it’s just that’s life, right? Life is messy and it’s unpredictable and it’s hard. You know, love and relationships are so wonderful until they’re not. And I’m the biggest proponent of marriage. I love marriage. I believe in marriage. I think marriage is the most precious connection between two people.

So in writing this book, I’m not encouraging people to quickly, you know, push their spouse away or ghost their parents or, you know, run away from their responsibilities in any way. Boundaries are not to shove others away, they’re to help hold us together. And really it’s so that we can open up communication and, and talk about things.

You know, one time I was having this counseling session and, um, the Christian counselor that I go to see he watched me over and over and over say the word expectations. You know, it’s like, “Expectations of this and unrealistic expectations and..” you know, all the stuff. And I use the word expectations like a lot in this one session. And finally he stopped me. He said, “Lysa, I wonder if we might choose a different word than expectations. Because expectations are really simmering resentments in disguise.

Jim: Hmm.

Lysa: What if we made the focus of our conversation our needs, where the other person has the option to meet those needs or not?” An expectation implies you better do this or else, right? So when I shifted to needs and desires, then I’m able to more clearly communicate and give an opportunity for love to blossom but not demand that love meet exactly what I think love should meet.

Jim: Yeah. And one of the, you know, critical areas in marriage, particularly, but in all relationships is expectation. I remember I, I wrote a book and the reviewer of the book said, “Jim Daly’s best advice is don’t really expect anything out of anybody.”

Lysa: (Laughs).

John: (Laughs).

Jim: That wasn’t what I was trying to say, but what I was trying to say was just keep your expectations reasonable in your relationships. Don’t have such high expectations that there’s no way that person, whether it’s your spouse, your son or daughter, your mother-in-law (laughs) is gonna let you down if they’re too high. So how do, how do we even establish in boundaries context the healthy expectation? What does that even look like and are we capable of doing that?

Lysa: Okay. Well, I have another confession.

Jim: (Laughs).

Lysa: I am a people pleaser. I really struggle with people pleasing. And so, as I dug around into what, what was driving this…

Jim: Hmm.

Lysa: … because, you know, my people pleasing would tip over into co-dependency. And a good definition of co-dependency is, “If you find yourself saying ‘I need you to be okay so I can be okay. So are you okay so I can be okay?’” Okay? You know?

Jim: Yeah, exactly.

Lysa: And, and having this, this thing in me that I want everyone else to be happy. So for me I would rather sacrifice my needs, my desires, and all on the altar of keeping everyone else happy. But here was the real danger of that. When I pushed myself to really consider, “Why was I trying to keep everyone happy?” It wasn’t just to please everyone. I was keeping them happy because I was afraid if I didn’t they would take something from me that I felt I must have from them in order to be okay in the world. And when I got really honest, I wrote this in my journal; We will always desperately want from other people what we fear we will never get from God.” And so my people pleasing wasn’t necessarily to please the other person, it was actually because I wanted something from them and I feared if I had healthy boundaries, appropriate boundaries, I feared that they would take that away from me and then I wouldn’t be okay in the world.

And so the Lord really had to work on my heart. And all of this ties up even into marriage. You know, if we put so much pressure on our spouse to be everything for us, then I think we’re setting up a dynamic for our spouse to, in essence, be our god and supply everything when that’s not possible and that’s too much pressure to put on the beautiful but sometimes fragile nature of this intimate relationship called marriage.

Jim: It, those are such powerful observations. I’m sitting here a little bit stunned with everything that you’ve said because there’s such great wisdom in what you’re saying. You know, just even in the dynamic of husband and wife and what that does, those expectations. You know, husbands tend to withdraw if we’re not meeting your expectation because that’s part of a desire that we have. We want to be that everything for you and, and wives have that same goal. But then we get, you know, a little bit of a frown from our wives and we go, “Uh-oh, I’m not behaving properly and I’m not sure why.” How, how do you clear up that conversation so that it’s healthy, it’s mature, and you can get to some solid relationship in the spousal area, particularly, to where you’re really heart to heart with each other?

Lysa: Well, I think it’s really important to do a little bit of work to look at what has happened in our past in order to understand that what we don’t work out we will eventually act out. And often in the construct of a marriage, my counselor often says that. And in the construct of a marriage, you know, it’s easy sometimes to pull past, unhealed pain into present day arguments or into present day conflicts or into present day tensions. And it all gets multiplied and it’s much bigger. My counselor also says when it’s hysterical, it’s historical.

John: Hmm.

Lysa: So if you’re having an out of proportion reaction to something at hand…

Jim: Hmm.

Lysa: … typically there’s work that needs to be done as an individual before we even try to come together as a couple. But I’m utterly convinced that communication, good healthy communication that we chose at the right time, not when we’re tired, not when we’re hangry (laughs), not right before we’re supposed to go to bed, you know. But if we carefully chose those times, then attempt to have the good conversations about what you need and what they need, and that’s such a wonderful bonding opportunity if done properly.

And, you know, I, I’m convinced more relationships die not because we attempt to have the challenging conversations and they go poorly, but because we refuse to have the conversations that we desperately needed to have.

Jim: You know, Lysa, this, this portion has flown by. I want to come back and keep the discussion going and talk more about your book. But as we’re ending day one, and I’m always mindful of that person., it may be dozens, it may be hundreds, that are listening going, “Wow. Lysa’s describing me. That’s where I’m at. I do take a lot and I have high expectations.” What are some things they can do after hearing this, other than get your book, which would be a great in-depth resource, obviously. But what can they do to say, “Okay, I got to reevaluate where I’m at with boundaries, what my expectations are with my husband, with my wife, with my kids, with my business partner, with those that I work with?”

Lysa: Absolutely. I would say take steps not leaps. So don’t listen to this conversation and suddenly think, “Oh! I’ve got to draw boundaries in all my relationships.”

Jim: (Laughs).

Lysa: You know? Um-

Jim: That’s what would happen.

Lysa: But take a step not a leap. And maybe identify one place in one relationship where there’s some chaos, where you find yourself saying, “Oh, I just can’t take it anymore.” Or “Uh, I’m just so worn out from this hard situation.” So where there’s chaos there’s usually a lack of a boundary. So identify that one place. And ask God to help you know when would be a good time to have an appropriate conversation. And when you have the conversation, remember you’re not putting a boundary on that other person to try to control them or manipulate them or even punish them. You’re putting a boundary in place so that you can remain self-controlled so that you can love others well without losing the best of who you are.

Jim: That is so good. Uh, Lysa, I hope people are feeling it and that, um, they could see the deficit that they may have in this area.

You know, we have caring Christian counselors at Focus that can help as well so we want you to contact us. Focus on the Family is basically just a big help house.

John: Mmm.

Jim: And we want to be there for you. You can call and, and if necessary, we’ll put you in touch with a counselor.

Also, a great resource, Lysa’s book and I hope you can support the ministry. Do, do ministry with us. Uh, get the book through Focus on the Family. Send a gift of any amount and we’ll send you the book as our way of saying thank you for being part of the ministry. If you can’t afford it, we’ll get it into your hands. It’s the content that matters and we’ll trust others will cover the cost of that.

John: And right now, uh, as we enter into the holiday seasons we have a wonderful opportunity for you to give families hope. Uh, we would invite you to donate and help us extend the ministry and reach out to those who are experiencing a lot of family conflict and, uh, these kinds of issues that we’ve been talking about. They just get magnified at this time of year.

So please, donate as you can. Uh, when you call 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY. 800-232-6459. Or stop by focusonthefamily.com/broadcast.

Jim: And also, John, uh, we have, as we normally do this time of year, a great opportunity to double your gift. Uh, we have friends that have put up a matching gift so when you donate and get a copy of Lysa’s book, uh, others will match you dollar for dollar to do more ministry. So it’s a great way, a fun way, to try and do more for the kingdom in 2023.

John: Yeah. Help us, uh, reach out and double your gift, uh, effectively by donating today. Again, our number is 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.

Jim: Lysa, again, thanks for being with us today. Let’s come back and keep the discussion going.

Lysa: Sounds great. Thank you, Jim.

Jim: Mm-hmm.

John: And on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for joining us today for Focus on the Family. I’m John Fuller inviting you back as we continue the conversation and once more help you and your family thrive in Christ.

Today's Guests

Good Boundaries and Goodbyes Book Cover

Good Boundaries and Goodbyes: Loving Others Without Losing the Best of Who You Are

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