Boundaries in Relationships: Lysa TerKeurst
Is it unloving or selfish to set a boundary? Are Christians ever called to walk away from a relationship that's no longer safe or sustainable? Lysa TerKeurst deeply understands these hard questions in the midst of relational struggles.
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Is setting a boundary unloving or selfish? Lysa TerKeurst navigates tough questions in relationships, offering insights on walking away when needed.
Boundaries in Relationships: Lysa TerKeurst
David: Hey there! David Robbins here, president of FamilyLife®. I don't need to convince you that we are living in some dangerous days. Clearly, today's family has outside forces pushing in against us. As First Peter 5:8 says, [paraphrase] “Wise are those who are watching out for the roaring lion who's looking for someone to devour.”
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Lysa: In isolation, that's where the enemy can really, really do a number on us. So, whether you're in a difficult friendship, and you're worried the friendship may end; or if you're in a difficult parent relationship with your parents; or even if you're the parent and you've got children that you're having a difficult relationship [with]; or a marriage or whatever it is, don't stay in isolation. It's not that you want to tell everybody, but you need to tell somebody and choose wisely who those “somebodies” are.
Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I'm Shelby Abbott and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com.
Dave: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: I didn't know it growing up in this home, but watching my dad drink every night—women; [he] took me on trips when I was five and six years old with his girlfriends while married to my mom—I never realized my mom couldn't set a boundary. She just let it happen.
Ann: And she knew about all of it. He let her know about all of it.
Dave: Yes, again looking back, [I think], “Mom, come on!” She did not choose to divorce him until my older brothers, 10 years older, said to Mom, “You can't let this go on. He is destroying our family.” And again, I'm a little boy at the time, thinking, “It's the worst thing that ever happened to my life when my mom and dad got divorced.” It was the best thing for me. I'm not saying divorce is good. I'm not. I'm saying, “It's a really hard decision she made.”
But if I would have stayed being raised by that man, I'm not the man—I'm not sitting here right now. I'm literally not sitting here right now. My mom saved my life by making a really hard boundary choice, saying, “I'm not going to let this chaos go on anymore.”
Ann: It's interesting, too, because your dad started getting some help—
Dave and Ann: —after—
Ann: —that. Yes.
Dave: Yes. That decision changed his life for the good!
Ann: We're pretty excited! We have Lysa TerKeurst with us in the studio today. Lysa, welcome back!
Lysa: Thank you so much! I'm just proud of your mom for realizing that she wasn't powerless in the situation. At first, it sounds a little bit like she's powerless.
Dave: Yes, yes.
Lysa: I understand that we are to deeply respect the institution of marriage.
Lysa: And at the same time, we have to look and see that Jesus prioritized the sanctity of life over even the institution of the relationships in marriage.
Your mom was in a terribly unsafe situation. I think sometimes, in relationships like that, we can start to feel powerless because the other person won't change; and I get that. It can feel very powerless. But while you can't change another person, you can ask yourself, “What can I do?” A good way to establish this is, “Okay, if this, then this.” It's not meant to be a threat, and I would always suggest, “Don't do it in the heat of the battle, but think logically, using the logical part of your brain.” Like [saying], “If you drink, my kids will not get in that car with you. If you have another affair, I will not continue to live with you.”
Of course, we want to take steps, not leaps. We want to be very careful about that; but you're not powerless in a situation where another person refuses to change, because you have the ability to keep yourself safe, sane, stable, and self-controlled. But that may mean you have to limit that person's access to you until either they become more responsible with the access you've given them, or you make the choice to say, “Goodbye.”
Ann: I just counseled a woman a few weeks ago who called and said, “I think my husband's cheating.” And it hadn't been the first time. She asked me, “How do I approach it?” I said, “First of all, you are praying, you're gathering friends, you're in the Word. It's not an empty threat that you're going to make. You need to really seek Jesus on what this looks like.”
But I did say, “I would start by saying, ‘I'm choosing our family, our kids. I'm choosing Jesus with us. But it looks like you are not choosing us, based on the decisions and the things that you're doing. So, I'm going to always choose us, but until you can do that, and it looks like you're doing that—in other words, you're not cheating on us. You're not drinking. You're not partying. You're not doing drugs—until that stops, to me, that says, ‘I'm not choosing our family’.’” So that can be a healthy boundary?
Lysa: Absolutely. Of course, that's a serious situation. When I went through a divorce, there was some criticism; people expecting me to stay no matter what. I get that because I deeply respect marriage, and I intended to keep my commitments. And [do] you know what? I did.
In the end, I didn't walk away. I had to make the gut-wrenching decision to accept reality. When you accept reality, then sometimes their choices, or sometimes just the place that this broken-down dysfunctional relationship is—it is no longer safe. It's no longer stable. It's no longer allowing you to remain self-controlled. I think that we need to just say: “Sometimes, there are really hard choices that have to be made, but I refuse to stay in a marriage that does not honor God.”
It sounds like that's where she's at.
Dave: We're in a culture where we think the most loving thing to do is lay down my life; take the abuse; take the verbal abuse. There are times when the boundary is healthy, and it's actually, you say, “A boundary is God's idea.”
Lysa: It is, yes. We see it from the very beginning of the Bible when God established the foundation of the world. We see boundaries there, and it continues all the way through Scripture.
I also have deep compassion for people because the motivation of saying, “Stay;” the motivation there is: “Let's protect marriages.” And I do think marriages need to be protected. But there's a big difference, as my friend Leslie Vernick says (this helped me a lot): “There's a very big difference between a difficult marriage and a destructive marriage.”
Ann: What's the difference?
Lysa: A difficult marriage is the typical difficulties that you go through when you try to do relationships with other people. A destructive marriage is where you are having to diminish the best of who you are to cover up the worst of who someone else is. There are different levels; there are different situations; there are different scenarios, and that's why I say, “If you feel like you're in a destructive marriage, don't go at it alone. Get other people.”
Sometimes, it's beautiful when you draw boundaries; sometimes boundaries are—because they're effective communication tools—making the other person aware and making you aware. And then, if you have really smart people, go get a counselor that is specifically trained in that exact dysfunction that you're walking through. Sometimes, the redemption of God—sometimes it is reconciliation, and it is beautiful; and boundaries provide such a healthy way to get there. Sometimes, God's redemption is a rescue, and sometimes that's true as well.
That's why it was important for me, as I wrote Good Boundaries and Goodbyes, to make sure that we did some heavy lifting with the biblical theology of a “goodbye.” One of the most fascinating things that I discovered in my research was the original term “goodbye” wasn't initially goodbye. It was “God be with ye.” Then it was shortened to “God,” and then it was “B-W-Y.” Then it eventually became “Goodbye”.
If you go back to the original meaning of that, isn't it fascinating that so many of us, maybe because of friendship breakups, or maybe because of family of origin drama, or just devastation or abuse or trauma or whatever it is; we will experience “goodbyes” in our life. I have never heard a sermon preached on a goodbye. I have never even heard somebody teaching on it.
So, it was important to me to say, “We don't want our relationships to end. We don't want goodbyes;” but sometimes that does happen, and we have to acknowledge it. Why let it get to a place where the goodbye is just so awful and treacherous and terrible? Why not take a step back and say, “God teaches me to pray for my enemies, and when I pray for my enemies, I know I'm positioning them—I'm asking God to position them—to be blessed. And in order to be positioned to be blessed then God is going to handle what needs to be handled over there. It's not my responsibility. I can't control it. I can't manage it.” But isn't it so much more beautiful that, instead of “Goodbye and good riddance,” if we were to say, “Goodbye. God be with ye. Goodbye. God be with ye. Goodbye?”
So, I had a really profound moment at the very end of the book where I had to decide what I was going to do with my wedding ring. It was a deeply hard moment for me. I remember, I was in my closet. When I was by myself.
Ann: How many years had you been married?
Lysa: Almost 30. I took my wedding ring off. I just stared at it, and I thought, “I don't know what to do with this.” But two weeks before, a college friend of mine found my childhood Bible in a box in her attic. She figured out how to get in touch with me. She got the Bible to a friend of a friend who passed it on to another friend, who then passed it to my daughter and my daughter had just brought me the childhood Bible. When I opened it up, there were some Scriptures that I had highlighted from all those years ago and some notes that I had written that were such confirmation from the Lord that I was doing the right thing, as hard as it was.
So, I wound up taking my ring and tucking it in the pages of my childhood Bible, and closing it, and putting it high on the shelf with all the other special mementos that I've saved from over the years. It was like bookends of my life: a little girl who was reading Scripture, who dreamed of a life that would one day be hers, and then, the ending of this portion of my life that I thought would be forever. Yet, God is still creating redemption even in the midst of the twists and turns that I didn't see. But it was just a really powerful moment to be able to tuck my ring inside that Bible. And as I did, I prayed, “God be with ye. God be with ye. God be with ye.”
Dave: Yes. When I read that, I teared up.
Ann: Me, too.
Dave: I mean, I can—
Ann: —I'm doing it now. —
Dave: —see you. That's a hard moment, obviously.
Ann: Even at the beginning of the book, you talk about how we all long for the Hallmark Movie life—
Lysa: —we do.
Ann: —don't we? But as I hear you share that, that's a God life. He's with you at the beginning, and He's with you at that portion, too. He's always with us. He always hears us. But it's sweet when we can trust Him and, as you're saying, bless others who have hurt us.
Lysa: That's right. That's right. So that was another important part of this book: not only drawing healthy boundaries with the motivation to be—to protect our relationships. It's effective communication, and communication is an opportunity. Healthy communication does help us protect our relationships.
Then, it was also important for me to tackle the subject of goodbyes, because sometimes that is a reality as well. Again, when we say, “Goodbye,” we want to take steps, not leaps; and boundaries allow us to take those appropriate, healthy steps. But then, if and when the “goodbye” happens, we want to honor God all the way through the end. We will not do it perfectly. Goodbyes hurt. There will be a lot of strong emotion and yet, the secret really is to always come back to the Lord and ask the Lord, not, “Where is my future going to go from here?” Or “Why did all of this happen?” But “What now, God? Let me just honor You with what's right in front of me today.” And then the next day, “Let me honor You with what's right in front of me the next day.” At the same time, recognizing that God does want us to preserve life—the sanctity of life. We've got to keep all of that in mind and get wise counsel around us.
Dave: As you think about even that thought, the sanctity of life, with your own children, how do you think your decisions—set boundaries and make some hard decisions—have affected them? I know that I mentioned earlier, when my Mom and Dad divorced, I was 7. [I] ended up moving from New Jersey, and my dad was an airline pilot, so we had a really nice house in a gated community and had a lot of money. Then I remember growing up with not much money, [with a] single mom in the 60s when there weren't a lot of single moms.
Short long story is I did a marriage conference near that city, and Ann wasn't with me. I was speaking with another couple. I borrowed a car and I drove. I thought, “I want to see if I can find my old house.” It was an adventure to get through this gated thing; but anyway, I got to the house, walk up to the door, and the person says, “Oh, you must be little Davy.” And I'm [thinking], “What?” [The person responds,] “We bought the house from your dad.”
Anyway, they knew me; knew our family. I literally got to walk through this house that I hadn't been in since I was seven years old; but here's what I felt: I felt trauma. I remembered each room. I remembered the driveway. I mean, as I walked around, it wasn't a good feeling, which I thought I would have. It was—I remembered fights and yelling and drunkenness and just abuse. I remembered getting in the car, feeling, “Wow, I am so glad my mom made that decision.”
So, that was my experience. You made a big decision. How has it impacted your kids, [do] you think?
Lysa: Well, I think anytime there is an ending of a marriage, it affects the kids dramatically.
Lysa: I mean, there's no escaping it. My parents got divorced, and I was definitely affected by that. But I have also seen that my kids have learned, themselves, how to draw appropriate boundaries. So, while there was a lot of trauma, there was also this beautiful thing that happened: everybody was kind of forced to go to get good, Christian therapy, and we've all benefited from that.
I won't paint rose-colored glasses over it because, my goodness, there's just a lot of hurt and a lot of pain; but my kids are really good at boundaries! So good, in fact, that we have healthy boundary conversations. As adult children, they've had to set some boundaries with me, and I've had to set some boundaries with them, but because we've been on this journey together, boundaries don't feel so shocking. Boundaries feel appropriate. Boundaries—it's kind of understood that healthy relationships have healthy boundaries, and we've used them as communication tools.
So, do I ever get upset when they set a boundary with me? Of course, I do! I'm like, “Wait a minute!” But we can have healthy discussions, and the sign of a healthy person is that they respect healthy boundaries. I want to be a healthy person. Therefore, I have learned to respect healthy boundaries, and I think my kids have done the same. So, sometimes I think people are shocked, saying, “Wow, you guys just talk about stuff.” It's like, “Yes, we do,” because communication is a very high priority in our family now and setting boundaries is part of that.
Boundaries don't have to be this awful thing. Boundaries actually help define where the freedom is so that we can operate freely within the boundary lines. Sometimes it's hard, of course, but it has done a lot to improve my relationship with my kids and also make my kids healthier people. I'm glad for that part.
Ann: What if you have kids or a spouse—if you've set this boundary of saying, “I feel like we need to bring a third party in to get help. It feels like we aren’t able to communicate. We're not doing a good job at this, especially with our kids in tow when they're watching this;” but the spouse says, “No. I'm not doing that?”
Lysa: That's a really challenging situation. Remember, we can't put a boundary on another person, but we are responsible to put a boundary on ourselves. If we need therapy, and the “we” is not cooperating, then it's a “me” now. So, “I'm going to go to therapy. [I] would love for you to join me. That's your choice to do it or not.”
Remember, the ultimate—really—communication with the boundary: “If this, then this.” right? So, we always want to do it from a motivation of love and a motivation of seeking each other's highest good. But it's not seeking the other person's highest good to enable them to stay in what could be toxic behaviors, extreme dysfunction, addictions; whatever it is that different people and different relationships are dealing with. We can't control them, but we can absolutely exercise self-control, and if we need counseling and they're not willing, then it's a “me-thing,” and now, I'm going to go.
Ann: I've loved, too, your honesty in every book. You're super honest about where you are; where you've been; where you're going. I love your passion for Jesus; that it's all about Him, learning and giving more of ourselves to Him every day, and being able to receive from Him. I'm just wondering, would you pray for us?
Ann: Pray for those [who] are [thinking], “I need this. I'm not sure what to do.” You know what to pray.
“Lord, I pray right now for the person listening that [is] in some kind of a difficult, possibly even destructive, relationship. And Lord, whether it's a friendship or parental relationship, or one of their kids, or marriage, or whatever it is, Lord, they're listening to this, and they've heard: ‘Where there's chaos, there's usually a lack of a boundary.’ They feel the chaos, but the boundary makes them scared, because every boundary will cost us something.
So, Lord, I pray that You would give them wisdom; that You would meet them in the pages of Scripture; and that You would just lavish Your grace and Your mercy on them, because when you're hurting, everything feels so much harder. But Lord, I pray that you would just wrap your tender mercies around them and help them see that there's always a way with You. There's a way forward, and sometimes there's a way out, Lord. Sometimes, Your redemption is reconciliation, and sometimes it's a rescue, but only You know, Lord. So, help us to be obedient today.
Lord, I pray that You would just shed enough light on the very next step that that person is supposed to take who we're lifting up today. Lord, be with them. Be with them. Be with them. In your name we pray, Amen.”
Dave and Ann: Amen.
Dave: You know, I feel like those conversations with Lysa were so critical for our day.
Ann: I think I want to say her prayer and listen to that prayer every day, because I know that I tend to be a pleaser. I want people to be happy. I don't want them to be disappointed in me, and I want them to like me. So, putting up boundaries can be really difficult.
Dave: Yes, and I think we live in a world where we think, “To really love someone, it means you never set a boundary. You just affirm, and you agree, and you let them in any part of your life.” It's such a helpful conversation to say, “No, a real loving thing sometimes is a boundary that's healthy,” and as she said, “that's God's idea.”
Ann: Yes. I think it will tend to have a lot of great conversations coming out of this with friends and family, maybe, who you send this to. We personally just want to thank you for listening to FamilyLife Today, but also many of you give financially. Thank you! We need that to allow this show to be possible for many.
Dave: Yes, I would just add, thank you, not only for listening and sharing this with others (and I know you're going to share this program), but this doesn't happen without you becoming a financial partner. You're part of our family when you do that, and if you've never done that, jump in! Help us continue to create great programs and give you tools that you can share with others.
Shelby: Yes, that's well said. And the cool thing is, right now is a great time to give because of the generosity of some donors. Every gift that you give is going to be matched dollar-for-dollar, up to $2.5 million. That's happening all this month. So, you can go online to FamilyLifeToday.com and click on the “Donate Now” button at the top of the page. Or give us a call with your donation at 800-358-6329. Again, that number is 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Hey, I'm Shelby Abbott, and you've been listening to David and Ann Wilson with Lysa Terkeurst on FamilyLife Today. Lysa, earlier, was talking with the Wilsons. She's written a book called Good Boundaries and Goodbyes: Loving Others Without Losing the Best of Who You Are. It's a book that really guides Christians to set healthy boundaries and align relationships with biblical principles. So, if you want a copy of Lysa's book, you could go to FamilyLifeToday.com and click on “Today's Resources.”
Now coming up tomorrow, I am going to be in the studio with the President of FamilyLife, David Robbins, his wife Meg, and Dave and Ann Wilson. We're going to talk about exploring healthy relationships, setting boundaries, and breaking generational cycles, with more insights from Lysa Terkeurst, Ted Lowe, and Mark Jobe. That's coming up tomorrow. We hope you'll join us!
On behalf of David and Ann Wilson, I'm Shelby Abbott. We'll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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