Human relationships seem contradictory because two paradoxical, true things happen. First, every person wants connection, closeness, and intimacy. Second, every person wants to be free and autonomous. These two needs are apparently in conflict. The closer someone gets to us, the less free we sometimes feel.
Which will we choose if we have to choose: connection or freedom? People almost always pick freedom. The Bible indicates that freedom is a gift from the Lord and without it, one would not be able to feel delight—to be happy. Love and freedom are closely intertwined.
A functional relationship must strike a balance between intimacy and freedom. When a problem arises in a relationship, no matter what the area of conflict is, the real issue is often power. Who is in charge, you or me? Boundaries are on the line.
There are two categories of boundaries in a relationship, what I call “macroboundaries” and “microboundaries.” Macroboundaries are a familiar idea to most of us. Macroboundaries are boundaries between people or nations. When someone breaks a macroboundary, he or she has violated an external boundary. For example, a person who physically harms another breaks this type of boundary. Crossing these is an act of aggression and can lead to conflict or war. It is commonly accepted that violating macroboundaries is wrong.
The second category is more subtle. When someone breaks a microboundary, he or she has violated an internal boundary. We all have an internal state—the realm of the mind, of our consciousness. There are several types of microboundaries. I’ve included ways these can be violated in the chart below.
|Intentions, Desires, and Motives|| |
|Thoughts, Opinions, and Beliefs|| |
|Family of Origin|| |
|Experience of the Body|| |
When someone makes assumptions about another’s internal state, that person crosses a microboundary. In short, microboundaries are respect in action. Any time we speak to another person as if we know what they think, feel, or should think or feel, we cross a boundary. Crossing these boundaries always causes trouble. Just as violating a macroboundary can lead to conflict, violating a microboundary can lead to anger. With microboundaries in mind, do you see why marriages fall apart? Why adolescent children become estranged from their family? Why aging parents encounter friction with their children and grandchildren?
Anger is a misunderstood emotion. Many people think of anger as an unhealthy, negative frame of mind. In reality, anger is a God-given emotion to help us defend our boundaries. The teachings of the Bible indicate that anger is love burning to defend itself.
When experiencing conflict in a relationship, people mistakenly identify anger as a problem with the relationship itself. If we stop crossing microboundaries, we solve this problem and may be able to salvage the relationship. A fight is not about content; it’s about process.
For example, if a mother assumes something about her son’s political attitude and speaks as if she knows her son’s opinions, the son may become angry. His love for those ideals burns, making him defensive about his parent’s assumptions. The son does not strike back because he hates his mother; he strikes back because something he loves is at stake!
Why do people so often cross microboundaries? Because it’s easy, for one thing. People are constantly changing, and it takes a lot of work to get to know someone every day. It’s simpler to make assumptions about a person’s internal state and to move on with your own life, rather than spending the time and energy to see the ways your loved one’s life is changing.
We also cross microboundaries because we think we know better. Every time we do so, it’s a power play in which one person tries to mold the other. However, the Heavenly Doctrines teach that the most destructive thing to a relationship is a love of dominion (see Heaven and Hell 380).
The teachings of the Bilble consistently emphasize the importance of refining our internal state: patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. The only person for whom you will change is yourself.
Think of a child assigned to do a chore, and just as she is about to do it, her sister reminds her that she has to do that chore. What’s her reaction? She doesn’t want to do it. Just as the sibling interferes with her sister’s will to do the chore, when you interfere with a loved one’s microboundaries, you are removing his or her chance to discover, change, and improve.
Change is the issue every time we communicate. We’re here on this earth to make internal, spiritual change. But our natural stance is that we don’t want to change. We’d rather say, “If it weren’t for you, I’d be happy.”
Carl Rogers wrote a book titled On Becoming a Person. In it, he encourages people to approach others with “unconditional positive regard.” He speaks of the value in permitting oneself to truly understand another person. We have to permit ourselves to understand our loved ones. We instinctively evaluate and judge something another person does. We say, “That’s unreasonable,” or, “That’s correct,” or, “That’s silly.” In doing so, we violate microboundaries. Rarely do we permit ourselves to understand our loved ones because understanding is risky. The ultimate risk is that we might be changed by that understanding.
When we permit ourselves to understand another person, it can be deeply enriching. First of all, we learn about that person in ways that change us for the better. Second, and more importantly, by understanding them, we permit them to change for the better.
People have to know who they are before they can change. If you’re lost and holding a map, you have to know where you are before you can move toward your intended destination. If I understand my spouse, she can accept all her bizarre thoughts, bad feelings, moments of courage, and so on. You set your loved ones free when you strive to understand them.
The way people speak to each other impacts others’ sense of free will. Good communication is not a contest. No one wins, and it’s enjoyable for both sides. Respect your loved ones’ internal states. Be careful as you approach a microboundary. Say, “It looks to me as if…” or, “I don’t know. You tell me.” “You” statements don’t work. They cross microboundaries and undermine a person’s sense of autonomy. We cannot judge each other’s internal state.
Perhaps you work hard to respect your loved ones’ microboundaries, but they don’t return the favor. What if someone crosses your microboundaries? Don’t strike back. It’s a typical pattern in fights that if one partner crosses a microboundary, the other partner will respond in kind. Instead, notice what it feels like to have your microboundaries violated and use this knowledge to inform your future interactions with others.
We are humans. We are not perfect angels, and we are not beasts. We’re half and half. We’re made in God's image and likeness, but we have a very imperfect natural element. I tell counseling students, “Less is more.” This applies not only to counseling but to relationships as well. Talk less. Fix less. Listen more.
When we respect microboundaries, we can better preserve the bonds of love while leaving our loved ones in freedom. After all, God does this for us. He never pressures or forces us. He never stops loving us and rejoices when we choose to seek Him.
Rev. Mark Carlson is a minister and licensed marriage and family counselor in Pennsylvania.