Beyond Boundaries: Learning to Trust Again in Relationships

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Dr. John Townsend introduces Beyond Boundaries

The Draw To Relationship

You and I are “drawn” to seek out relationships with others. We have an internal drive that propels us toward others. In fact, we have lots of other drives as well: we go online when we are information-driven. We walk to the kitchen when we are hunger-driven. We go shopping when we are clothing-driven. And we talk to people when we are relationship-driven. This isn’t really an option. We are simply designed this way by God.

Our draw to relationship can be for companionship, business, love, or romance. The draw is strong and compelling. But it is not always well-informed, healthy, or full of good judgment. And so we often make bad choices, or we don’t handle our relationships the way we should. We seek people out, not expecting to have to set boundaries. Then, after a relational struggle and some time in figuring out what happened, we again seek people out – we hope, in a wiser way. It is important to understand how completely drawn we are to finding others.

The problem of moving beyond boundaries begins by acknowledging a simple reality: we need to move beyond our self-protection because we are inevitably and permanently drawn to connect with others.

No one enters a relationship expecting a disaster. We don’t anticipate things to run off the rails. We start off with hope, a desire for something good. We hope that friendship, intimacy, safety, and substance will develop. We hope that over time, the relationship will deepen and enrich our lives and perhaps lead to further commitment. This is where we want the relationship to go. In the beginning, we become interested in a person for many reasons: looks, shared interests, character, values, preferences. And once we determine that there might be potential for something good, we invest time and energy into seeing what can happen. But we always begin by hoping for the good.

This drive is not really a choice; it’s an undeniable part of the way we’re wired up. We are designed to seek out relationship and to hope that it will be a positive thing. We experience a “draw” – a move or a desire – to find someone outside of our own skin with whom we can share life. We want someone to understand us, to spend time with us, to help us find solutions to our problems. We are drawn outside of ourselves.

God created this draw toward relationship. The draw is toward Himself, and we are told to look for His presence:

Seek the Lord while He may be found. – Isaiah 55:6

It is in relationship with God that we find ultimate connection and meaning. And by God’s design, the draw is also toward others:

Two are better than one. – Ecclesiastes 4:9

We are at our best when we are connected deeply to God and to the people who matter most. That, along with a meaningful purpose and task, creates the best life possible.

Human connectedness provides a host of benefits for us. People who have healthy relationships live longer, have fewer health issues, and suffer fewer psychological disorders, to name a few areas.

Relationships are simply the fuel for life, and they help power our activities and inner worlds in the directions they are to go. Isolation and destructive relationships, by contrast, are something to recover from, not something that benefits us.

Though most of us are aware of all the advantages of connection, we are not drawn to it primarily because of these benefits. We seek relationship because we want it and need it at a deep level that cannot be ignored. It can be pleasurable and fulfilling to love and be loved. And it can be painful and unfulfilling when things break down. We seek out jobs we feel passionate about, restaurants we love, and movies we feel alive in, all because we long for the experience of connection. The same is true for relationships.

Now let’s take a closer look at where the real trouble began – the thing that made it necessary for you to start setting boundaries and withdrawing from bad situations in the first place.

Understanding the Problem

Play the video segment for Session 1. As you watch, use the accompanying outline (pages 14–16) to follow along or to take notes on anything that stands out to you.

Watch the Video: Session 1 of Beyond Boundaries

Notes

We can live an island-like existence, but God did not design life this way. We were meant to be connected and in relationship.

God never designed us to live like an island forever – protected and guarded and safe.

We can move beyond isolation and withdrawal, even when there’s been a lot of damage, and move back into intimacy and vulnerability the way that God intended.

Four sequential events:

1. We were designed for relationship.
 Vertical relationship with God (Psalm 42:1) 
Horizontal relationship with others (Ecclesiastes 4:9)

2. There is damage.
 We are not good to each other (Genesis 3). 
Functional trust: You trust someone because they are dependable. 
Relational trust: You know all of me and still accept me; you’re safe.

3. We need boundaries.
 Boundaries help us when a relationship is difficult. 
Let your yes be yes and your no be no (Matthew 5:37). 
Defining boundary: Your values, beliefs, and what you stand for.

Protective boundary: Protects you from harm

4. We experience the return of desire. We are relational beings.

Double-bind: We need relationship and we fear relationship.

Beyond Boundaries is about learning when it’s safe to trust again and how to open up to the right sorts of people.

Action steps

4. Admit to someone you trust that you might not want to move beyond boundaries.

5. Write down two protective boundaries and two defining boundaries you have.

6. Ask God to prepare your heart to move toward vulnerability and intimacy again.

Discussion

Take a few minutes to talk about what you just watched.

1. What part of the teaching had the most impact on you?

Designed for Relationship

2. God created us with a desire for connection so we would be drawn into deep and life-giving relationships – with Him and with other people. The psalmist describes his draw to relationship with God as an intense thirst: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God” (Psalm 42:1).

  • How do you experience your desire for relationship with God? In other words, what makes you aware of your need for God and of your desire to be closer to Him?
  • Similarly, how do you experience your desire for relationship with others (family, friends, a spouse, etc.)? What makes you aware of your need to be with others and of your desire for strong and authentic relationships?
  • What similarities or differences do you notice between your desire for connection with God and your desire for connection with others? For example, is one desire stronger or more frequent than the other? Easier to recognize? Harder to act on or experience?

3. On the video, John uses an island to describe how boundaries keep us safe for a time but can also cut us off from developing trusting relationships. Using the same analogy, imagine there is a sign posted on buoys off the coast of your island. Which of the phrases below comes closest to describing what the sign might say?

  • NO ACCESS – I pretty much hold everyone at arm’s length in one way or another.
  • RESTRICTED ACCESS – I rarely entrust myself to others. If I do allow someone into my life, it’s typically on a temporary basis.
  • GUARDED ACCESS – I trust and connect with a few people, but I’m cautious about allowing new people into my life.
  • FAIR ACCESS – I have long-term and trusting connections with others and am generally open to allowing new people into my life.
  • OPEN ACCESS – I work to strengthen connections in my existing relationships and actively seek out new relationships.

Overall, how have difficult relationships influenced your “access”, the degree to which you are accessible or open to connecting with and trusting others?

Damage and Boundaries

4. When relational trust is damaged, it changes the way we experience life. Which of the following common responses to loss of trust do you relate to most? If you feel comfortable, share an experience that illustrates your response.

  • Withdrawal – I become careful, reserved, and avoid situations in which I might feel vulnerable.
  • Movement to task – I over-invest in tasks related to work, career, school, activities, hobbies, or service.
  • Unbalanced “giver” relationships I become the “giver” in my relationships to avoid being the “receiver.”
  • Bad habits I develop a troublesome behavior pat- tern, such as eating or sleep problems, obsessive behavior, or an addiction.

5. We establish protective boundaries in relationships to separate ourselves from people who have harmed us. Sometimes those boundaries are formal and clearly articulated to the other person; and other times they may be informal or unspoken, such as emotional withdrawal.

Protective boundaries that are clearly articulated to another person include statements like these:

  • If you continue being thirty minutes late to events, I will take a separate car.
  • I need a better work ethic from you in the office or we’ll have to make some changes.
  • If you won’t stop drinking too much, I will take the kids and move out.
  • I want to see my grandkids at times when you don’t need a babysitter; otherwise, I feel taken advantage of.

Have you ever had to establish this kind of protective boundary with someone? Or has someone else ever set this kind of boundary with you? Briefly describe the situation and the impact the boundary had on you.

Protective boundaries that are informal or unspoken might include such things as:

  • Emotional withdrawal or distancing
  • Choosing not to talk about certain topics
  • Limited interest in new relationships
  • Unwillingness to be vulnerable
  • Maintaining a pleasant relationship rather than a close relationship
  • Little demonstrated desire for connection or emotional intimacy

How have you experienced this kind of boundary, either in yourself or in someone close to you?

The Return of Desire

6. We need relationship and yet we also fear relationship. It’s not uncommon to feel pulled back and forth between the two desires – one says, “I want to get closer,” and the other says, “Warning, danger!” Generally speaking, which are you more aware of in your life right now – your desire for relationship or your fear of relationship? Why?

7. As you work through the six sessions of this curriculum together, what do you need or want from the other members of the group? Use one or more of the sentence starters below, or your own statement, to help the group understand the best way to companion you. As each person responds, use the chart on pages 22–23 to briefly note what is important to that person and how you can be a good companion to them.

It really helps me when…


I tend to withdraw when…


I’ll know this group is a safe place if you…


In our discussions, the best thing you could do for me is…

Individual activity: What I Want to Remember

(2 minutes) Complete this activity on your own.

1. Briefly review the outline and any notes you took.

2. Write down the most significant thing you gained in this session – from the teaching, activities, or discussions.

What I want to remember from this session is…

Dr. Townsend offers this webcast for further enrichment of Beyond Boundaries

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Your Turn

Come join the conversation on our blog! We would love to hear from you about learning when it’s safe to trust again and how to open up to the right sorts of people.

John Townsend

Dr. John Townsend is a psychologist, popular speaker, and cohost of the nationally broadcast New Life Live! radio program, and a cofounder of Cloud-Townsend clinic and Cloud-Townsend Resources. He is coauthor of the bestselling Boundaries and author of Boundaries with Teens and Hiding from Love.

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