There’s a lot of painting going on at my house right now. I have never been a big fan of painting—painting walls and such. I enjoy painting in an artistic way, but the big patches of wall or ceiling as well as the careful techniques required of trim and edges have not been a favorite of mine. Which means that it comes as a surprise that as I work on the walls and trim and doorways and doors this time I am finding a peculiar satisfaction in seeing the result of my work. I have gotten a great deal better at not making a mess of things (spilled paint) and my trim work has improved as well. All that is beside the point I started to make when I sat down to gather my thoughts.
In the process of painting I removed several doors. I’ve removed the door to the utility room, four bedroom doors and two bathroom doors. The door to the utility room is inconsequential to anyone, but the rest of the doors and their removal have had an interesting effect. My boys have gotten to the age that they like their privacy. They like to have doors they can close when they go to their bedrooms and doors they can close when they go to the bathroom. The bathroom doors have the added advantage of a lock, which they all use in order to keep bothersome brothers out when they don’t want them in. As for bedroom doors with no locks, I find that when the doors are closed and a brother enters without permission, there is a great deal of shouting that takes place: “Get out of my room! Don’t touch my stuff! Leave that alone! DAD!!!”
My boys are learning about boundaries. Boundaries are lines that identify the character of the space beyond them. Many people are familiar with the Robert Frost poem about walking the stone wall with his neighbor and restacking the stones that have fallen one way or the other during the winter months. Good fences (boundaries) make good neighbors. Yes, they do.
We have other kinds of boundaries as well that are less about a physical line between spaces. We have contracts that identify boundaries between co-signing parties (like a business agreement) and we have less identifiable boundaries that are no less significant when transgressed, like cultural boundaries. I recall learning in college about these differences when someone from another country would talk with an American student. We Americans prefer about 2.5-3 feet between us when having a conversation. Not so with other cultures. Consequently you might see a conversation taking place as one person continued to back up and the other continued to step closer.
Beyond these there are emotional boundaries—those more difficult to identify until one is crossed. Unfortunately, there are many such boundaries that are crossed and the person whose boundaries have been violated may not see it clearly as such—perhaps they’re too young or unable to recognize appropriate behaviors and relationships, perhaps they’re emotionally needy and experience a broken form of being loved by the other person crossing a boundary.
Boundaries are a part of life. They are ubiquitous. They are also fluid, changing with the times and the relationships we establish. At one point in a relationship a written contract about a boundary may be necessary, but with time and trust, a handshake or one’s word is adequate. In the last decade of the 20th century the term “politically correct” became a way to identify a cultural boundary that had been overlooked in the past.
Marriage is a dance of boundary making and keeping—especially the early years. Two people in a marriage must navigate the boundary standards each inherited from their respective family and mold new boundaries for themselves. The cultural context influences family boundaries as well as the roles of male and female as these transform into new ways of being. While there are certainly some things we each can learn regarding boundaries and boundary-making, a lot of it is a process of mistake and correction. The most essential characteristic that I know of when it comes to setting boundaries in close relationships is a solid and clear sense of self--knowing who I am is a necessity in being clear about the boundaries I make and seek. Such a clear sense of self also allows me to respect the boundaries others set without feeling hurt or pushed away.
As for this clear sense of self, I have found that for me it arises from an awareness that I am loved by God. As one loved by God, not for what I can do or for any reason I can control, I can accept my limitations and my mistakes and my relational ambitions. I can find solace when I am hurting and strength when I feel weak. I find refuge in God's love for me when I am unable to identify or defend my boundaries in a way that brings healing in relationships rather than greater harm.
Boundaries are essential to our lives. We cannot live without them. We can sometimes learn to live without the symbols of boundaries as we learn the unseen landscape of emotional fences, but the fence or doorway unseen is still there.
All this came to mind as I hastily painted my boys’ doors in order to replace them before they returned home this afternoon. They would all survive without the doors, though with them on their hinges and able to close, I do a lot better.
© Stephen Carl
© Stephen Carl