|An image with the text "Jesus first, Others second, Yourself last." It spells "joy." Image source.|
Simply put, many of the struggles people experience in dating relationships are, at heart, caused by some problem in the areas of freedom and responsibility. By freedom, we mean your ability to make choices based on your values, rather than choosing out of fear or guilt. Free people make commitments because they feel it's the right thing to do, and they are wholehearted about it. By responsibility, we mean your ability to execute your tasks in keeping the relationship healthy and loving, as well as being able to say no to things you shouldn't be responsible for. Responsible people shoulder their part of the dating relationship, but they don't tolerate harmful or inappropriate behavior.In other words, freedom and responsibility are key factors in a healthy relationship. Freedom means that people are able to make free choices, without feeling like they're forced into it, too scared to consider alternatives, etc. (Hmm, sort of the opposite of what I learned in church- "you HAVE TO read the bible every day, and you HAVE TO go to church every Sunday, or else you're a bad Christian and you should feel guilty about it.") Responsibility means you do what you've committed to in the relationship, and you say no to things that aren't your responsibility.
Wow. I'm pretty much blown away by how healthy this all sounds.
Continuing on, a "boundary" is defined as the line which tells you "what is your emotional or personal property, and what belongs to someone else." I've heard this term before- but only within the past few years, in the context of relationship advice from a feminist perspective. (Purity culture's use of the term "boundaries" doesn't count, because it just means "God said you can't have sex- yeah nothing about this is your choice at all.") As I understand it, the idea behind "boundaries" is that there will always be some jerks out there- you can't change them, but you can set rules about the extent to which they will be allowed in your life. So they can go be a jerk and engage in destructive behavior on their own time, but you make sure you don't give them an opportunity to do that crap with you. The point of boundaries is to protect your own mental and emotional health. It's about setting rules on the way people treat you, and what kinds of behavior you will or will not tolerate.
I don't know about the rest of y'all who grew up in American evangelicalism, but this sounds like "moral relativism" to me. What an idea- that you're okay with the fact that someone is a huge jerk, but you won't let them be a huge jerk who affects your personal life. That certain behviors are allowable in some situations but not others- for example, if you're at someone else's home, you have to respect their rules, but at your home, they respect yours. What about absolute truth and morality?
And what's this about setting boundaries in order to protect yourself, rather than trying to give of yourself in order to help other people change? I mean, if something is right, it's right- and we should try to get everyone to do it. If something is wrong, it's wrong- and we need to make everyone NOT do it. Don't you care about them? Don't you care about how their sin is ruining their life? Maybe by treating them with unreasonable kindness and vulnerability, sacrificing your own mental and emotional health, you can get them to realize they need to repent.
And- gasp- they might even be going to hell! How could you be so selfish to set a boundary and cut a destructive person out of your life- don't you know you could be the only bible they ever read? How are they going to hear about Jesus? You know, Jesus suffered unjustly too- you think your "hurt feelings" can compare with that?
Okay, yeah obviously I don't believe any of that stuff I just said, but that's the Christianity I was taught, and it is VERY MUCH opposed to this whole "boundaries" thing. We learned in Sunday school that you should put Jesus first, others second, and yourself third. Always give up something if it helps other people. The idea that sometimes you have to put your own needs before others' would be unthinkable- no one would ever say that out loud in church. (Well, maybe they would say that you should take care of yourself so that you can be stronger and better able to serve others. It's just a means to an end. You don't matter- serving others better is what matters.)
I wrote last week that if you're in purity culture, "Boundaries in Dating" would be essentially unreadable. It doesn't address purity culture's ideology at all, and a purity-culture reader would be baffled at how a CHRISTIAN book could talk about dating without talking about the risk of becoming impure, permanently damaged, losing parts of your heart. "Boundaries in Dating" is working off completely different assumptions about the basic definition of dating, so it would actually be impossible for a purity-culture reader to even understand what the writers are trying to say.
Well, turns out it would also be incomprehensible to a Christian who had always been told that they need to put others before themselves, that taking action to care for their own emotional health is "selfish".
Because I don't see anything here along the lines of "many Christians believe that it's wrong to set boundaries to protect themselves and say no to people who treat them badly, because they've been taught that they need to 'consider others better than themselves.' Here, let's explain why we disagree with that." It's all just about the benefits of having boundaries, and the potential harm if you don't have them- all of which is so practical and healthy I'm honestly shocked to read it in a Christian book, you guys- but nothing for readers who may believe that as Christians, they're not even allowed to care about consequences for themselves when people need God's love! they're in danger of going to hell! the bible says lay down your life for other people!
Y'all. I had to question and reject pretty much everything I believed about Christian morality in order to get to a place where boundaries sound like a really really good idea, very solid advice that everyone should know about. I've learned all about feminism, become a feminist, and done the hard work of unlearning purity culture. It has taken years. And my concern is that, if you're in the type of Christianity I used to be in, the book "Boundaries in Dating" won't be able to help you at all.
So I'm perplexed at how it could be possible that the "Boundaries" books are very much regarded as Christian books, I've heard them highly recommended by church people, and I haven't heard of anyone who says "Henry Cloud is a false teacher!" (Specifically, I saw Dr. Cloud speak at a Women of Faith conference years ago. Everyone there had great things to say about his books. And Women of Faith was totally promoted by my church and tons of other churches.)
How can this be?
I submit that a lot of Christians don't actually believe the things that are said in church. And I don't mean this in a "so many people go to church but they're not REALLY committed to God, they're not real Christians, they talk the talk but don't walk the walk" way. No, I mean stuff that's said at church (like how you should always put others before yourself) is really unhealthy, and fortunately, a lot of church people don't actually believe it.
They might not even realize they don't believe what's said at church. Someone stands in the pulpit and says "you should consider others' needs before your own" and they hear "you should consider others' needs before your own. Within reason, obviously." And then they tell me I'm the one who misunderstood, I was supposed to just know there was an implied "within reason, obviously" attached to all those sorts of statements. "You take everything too literally," they say.
Yeah okay. I was supposed to just know that. After a lifetime of hearing sermon illustrations about people doing ridiculous things that make no sense because God told them, and look at what a great example of faith they are. And how we can't trust our own minds, we have to obey God instead, even when God's commands seem unreasonable. And how the world won't understand our devotion to God because we're so "crazy for Jesus." You want to know why I believed common sense was the enemy of Christianity? Because Christians ****ing said it was.
(And I'm angry about it.)
Yeah. So. So far, the book "Boundaries in Dating" seems to be incredibly good and healthy. But unfortunately, all that useful advice is inaccessible to good evangelicals.
After I finished writing this, I did a google search for "boundaries false teaching" and found a couple results about the exact thing I'm talking about here- how Christians are supposed to believe boundaries are heresy. You shouldn't protect yourself; you should always sacrifice to help others- dying to self is what Christianity's all about. You shouldn't be in control of your own life; you should submit to God. I won't link to those posts here because that stuff is really triggering for me, but THANK YOU, fundie website with bad web page design, you've proven my point.
A blog series reviewing the book Boundaries in Dating: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Relationships
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