I heard a true story of a rural elementary school that was built on a large piece of real estate. When it was built there was no need to fence it in because there were no safety dangers. The teachers on yard duty just had to keep an eye on the group as they played during recess. As time went on, the adjacent area grew busier and the rural streets were paved and car traffic came closer to the school. The teachers had to set an imaginary boundary for the kids quite a distance from the street for safety. But now the kids’ play area was greatly curtailed. The balls would often roll into the “forbidden zone”, but the kids couldn’t fetch them without adult assistance.
Eventually a high fence was constructed around the play area close to the street that included the formerly off-limits part. The kids could once again use the entire playground because it was safe. Where the imaginary line had been mostly adequate, it had still carried some limitations and risk.
This is a great example of soft vs. hard boundaries.
Whether hard or soft, they are both designed to protect. In relationships they either protect us or others, or both. In abusive relationships, hard boundaries are usually set (“Do that one more time and I leave.”) A soft boundary I might set is to avoid talking about a particular subject (like politics) with certain people. I do not want to cut off the relationship, but I do want to avoid the danger zone.
Another soft boundary might be with time issues. With someone who is constantly late, I might be flexible to a certain degree – but when they are excessively late I may confront them or cancel an appointment or date. In this case I extend some grace but protect them from my anger or resentment when they push my limit.
When interventions are done with addicts, the family and friends always set a “bottom line”. This is a classic hard boundary – and it is absolutely necessary. It is usually very difficult for the family, but love for the addict compels them to suffer the pain of setting and following through no matter what. But if they waffle on the hard boundary in any way the intervention will be a failure. Softer boundaries can be set when the addict completes treatment.
I hate to set boundaries. I don’t like conflict. I hate for people to be displeased with me. But when we set boundaries, people will be angry or disappointed with us. It is unavoidable. I have had family members voice this to me directly. But I am willing to endure the discomfort in favor of emotional health.
Sometimes we set hard boundaries because we are unwilling to navigate the uncertain waters of softer ones. This is a mistake because it often wrecks or ends relationships. We have to be very careful not to set limits with anger or hostility. The goal is not to punish, but protect.
How about you? Do you struggle with this issue? Do you have a hard time settings limits, perhaps because of codependency? Are you harsh in the way you handle disappointments with people? Are you in denial about the need for certain limits in your life? Are you suffering because you are afraid to make a healthy choice, even when you know it must be done?
Those who are in abusive relationships often struggle the most with this issue. If this is you, get some help. Strengthen yourself by enlisting a support team and experiencing the kind of freedom that God would want for you. You might start by reading the book “Boundaries” by Cloud & Townsend.