Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Filtered Relationships: Why Relational Boundaries Matter

Photo Credit: tonx (Creative Commons)
I'm learning to filter the relationships in my life. Like my coffee pot in the morning, I'm learning to allow the best things to pass through a filter of relational discernment while keeping the "grounds" at a healthy distance.

On the one hand, I wholly embrace a posture of relationships unfiltered--relationships characterized by openness, authenticity, and the sharing of one's heart. This is built on a foundation of trust, knowing the other person is with me and for me, and I for them.

On the other hand, I don't believe it's healthy to expose my whole heart with just anyone and everyone. Boundaries are necessary for healthy relationships, even relationships unfiltered. Without boundaries, the two selves in a relationship begin to lose shape and continuity, blending together in codependency and identity confusion.

We can take on the same posture with relationships as with media consumption: like sponges, funnels, and sieves.

Sponges soak up every relationship, opening themselves to anybody and everybody around them. But they quickly become waterlogged with relational weight, carrying the burdens of relationship on themselves and having spent their whole hearts on others. They answer every text message, say "yes" to every invitation, and allow the needs and desires of others to define them. Because of the lack of boundaries, they becoming relationally engorged, bogged down by a mile of friendships that are each an inch deep.

Funnels, on the other hand, allow every relationship to pass them by. Perhaps relational wounds and hidden shame or pain prevent them from sharing their hearts, so they allow potential friendships and connections to slip past. They keep up invisible walls in order to keep themselves safe, sometimes tacitly and unknowingly. Their relationships lack risk, which means they also lack depth.

Sieves have a sense of self-differentiation; they have a healthy identity in themselves, which allows them to open their heart to others. Author Edwin Friedman describes differentiation as "the capacity to be one's own integrated aggregate-of-cells person while still belonging to, or being able to relate to, a larger colony." Sieves filter their relationships through a process of prayerful discernment, asking the Lord to guide and direct the depth and interconnectedness between two people.

Donald Miller talks about this filtering process and healthy boundaries in this insightful post
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received was given to me by my friend Ben. We were taking a break from a writing project, sitting out on my deck when I brought up some trouble I was having with a friend. I’d grown a little tired of this friend using me and I was losing trust. 
Ben said something I’d never forget, he said You know, Don, there are givers and takers in this life, I got rid of the takers years ago and I’ve had it for the better. I’d recommend you do the same. To be sure, this was reductionistic but Ben was making a general point. 
The point is this: Some people aren’t trustworthy. He’s right. And if we don’t believe that, I think we’re being naive. 
I took Ben’s advice. I let the friend go and I’ve hardly talked to him since. I simply lost trust in him. There were too many lies, too many victim speeches, too much manipulation. 
It’s remarkable to me how some people can’t learn and can’t change. He’d had a track record of building communities only to hurt people, play the victim and then walk away and build another. 
To me, though, letting my friend go doesn’t contradict being accepting and forgiving. In fact, it was much easier to forgive my friend after I created a strong boundary against his schemes. I have no ill will against him, in fact, I’m grateful, my friend taught me what an untrustworthy person looks like and I am no longer naive.
Miller goes on to say this:
All of this may sound calloused, but as we get older, we realize there are people in the world who refuse to mature. Maturity means we are honest, safe and transparent. A mature person understands their faults and admits to them. An immature person is looking for power in some kind of game. 
If you want to be mature, surround yourself by mature people. 
Am I being unkind, leaving people behind? Perhaps. But being left behind was their decision. If a person wants to lie, make fun of others or not deal with their own depravity, they need to spend some time alone until they can learn to grow up.
I know it can sound unkind or unloving to set boundaries between oneself and another person. Shouldn't we embrace everyone? Shouldn't we love and accept all people? If there is a relational rift, can't it be mended by the reconciling power of Jesus? Absolutely. Yet Christ himself chose to spend more time with some people and less time with others. He was in close proximity with repentant sinners and his ragamuffin band of disciples. Yet he would not placate to the games of the religious leaders around him or allow his identity to be wrapped up in their lies. He often went to lonely places by himself, intentionally giving himself space to be renewed by the Father.

I love the response of the father in the parable of the prodigal son. He doesn't run after the younger son who leaves, dragging at his ankles or holding his hand while he rushes into sin (sponge). Neither does he reject the son with a "never come back!" and a change of the locks on the doors (funnel). He allows himself to grieve the loss of his son--and his son is lost--but eagerly waits with open arms for the son's return so that reconciliation might happen. 

The father has the same posture with the older son, the one who stays outside during the celebration for his brother's return. He goes out to speak with him (a decidedly non-funnel approach), but doesn't drag him indoors to celebrate or stand around pleading with him (sponge). He lovingly invites him into a realm of trust and grace, one where lost sons are welcomed home, no matter the nature of their disorientation. This isn't conditional love; this is allowing others to have their self-created distance instead of forcing relationship upon them.

I'm advocating for using love-soaked and Spirit-led discernment in the relationships I keep. It requires the self-awareness to make sure I'm not setting a boundary against the speck I see in someone else' eye while a log resides in my own. It also requires a desire to please God over pleasing people; sometimes obedience and faithfulness to the Lord will lead to a relational fallout. Trusting the Lord with the future and outcome of a seemingly-broken relationship is an act of faith. I want to always have a posture like the father of the prodigal--open arms, graciously waiting, eager to forgive, anticipating celebration and reconciliation.

What do you think? What relationships need filtering in your life? Are you a relational sponge, funnel, or sieve?

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