Denver Journal

Denver Journal

    Rebecca Merrill Groothuis' review of "Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No, To Take Control of Your Life," by Henry Cloud and John Townsend.

    Cloud, Henry and John Townsend Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No, To Take Control of Your Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992); and Boundaries in Marriage (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999).

    The material Cloud and Townsend set forth concerning personal boundaries is basic to everyone’s emotional and relational health. How do so many of us miss it? Since reading these books, I must concur with Bill Hybels’s comment in his endorsement of Boundaries, that "my life would have been different and better had I read this twenty years ago."

    Boundaries: What they are and what they do

    A boundary, as Cloud and Townsend put it, is a property line; this is used as a metaphor for the "line" that delineates what is oneself from what is not oneself. The concept of a boundary can also be used to define what a relationship is from what it is not. Just as every self should have a clearly established and communicated boundary line, so should every relationship. The emphasis in Cloud and Townsend’s treatment, however, is on personal boundaries as they affect relationships with others. (Unfortunately, they fail to make a clear distinction between boundaries that define a relationship and boundaries that define oneself.) Proper boundaries promote several key essentials of healthy relationships:

    Responsibility: Once it is established what is "me" and what is "not me," I know to assume ownership of, and responsibility for, what is "me," and, conversely, to eschew taking ownership of, or responsibility for, what is "not me" but is someone else’s "property," or self.

    Freedom: Boundaries set the stage for personal freedom, both of oneself and of one’s partner in relationship. With clearly delineated boundaries, I will not be continually frustrated attempting to "fix" matters on someone else’s property, but will attend to what I do have control over, namely, myself. Having disowned the other person’s property, I disavow personal responsibility for the other person’s behavior and its consequences; thus, I set limits on the extent to which I allow another’s behavior to control my actions, and I recover for myself a sense of free agency. Boundaries also give me the freedom to acknowledge the freedom of the other person to manage her property as she sees fit.

    Love: The exercise of self-control over one’s own property and the refusal either to exercise or to allow other-control also set the stage for a mature, mutually beneficial, loving relationship. Boundaries are especially crucial in marriage--which is, after all, primarily a relationship of love. Without boundaries, love falters, and marriage fails.

    Cloud and Townsend describe how boundaries facilitate freedom and responsibility in marriage: "Other-control is the antithesis of having boundaries in marriage. Boundaries relinquish other-control for self-control (Galatians 5:23). Boundaries preserve the freedom of one’s spouse without at the same time enabling the irresponsibility of that spouse" (Boundaries in Marriage, 76).

    Protection: When the other person in a relationship dishonors your personal boundaries--and/or those of the relationship--then your boundaries can serve to protect you from injury. This is accomplished by taking control of your own territory and securing its perimeter against harmful intrusions, rather than by taking control of the one who would hurt you. When you control and limit your responses to the other’s behavior in such a way that he ends up reaping bad consequences for bad behavior, then you are protected from having to experience, and assume responsibility for, all the bad consequences yourself. The net result of such action usually is to limit what the other can get away with in his relationship with you. But you do not prevent the other from engaging in bad behavior; he remains free to do so if he chooses. The price for such behavior is simply shifted from you to the one who is responsible for it.

    Accepting Reality: When we establish and communicate boundaries in relationships, we say "no" to elements of abuse, control, manipulation, and denial in those relationships. Sometimes this will entail saying "no" to the relationship itself, if the other party is unwilling to accept the challenge to change and mature. Yet it is better to acknowledge and grieve the loss of the relationship, and then be free to go on to better and healthier things, than to remain enmeshed in an illusory and self-destructive quest to "win" the love of someone who simply does not have it to give.

    Boundaries in counseling

    Cloud and Townsend do not specifically stipulate therapeutic methods for helping clients develop strong boundaries. It is clear from the counseling stories they tell, however, that their style of counseling is direct and confrontational. Their therapeutic goals focus more on action than insight, and their counsel primarily concerns ways that clients can change their thinking and behavior; thus, it seems, their therapeutic approach would be most readily categorized with the cognitive behavior counseling models.

    They will usually spend some time initially listening and empathizing, and then will ask a question or two that will directly pinpoint the boundary weakness that they discern to be the problem. The one element of therapy that always seems to be employed is the direct diagnosis and prescription (which usually entails some "homework"). They are not above a slightly sarcastic diagnosis and prescription, if they feel the client is up for it. Cloud tells of a client who was fussing about whether or not to propose marriage to his girlfriend, who did not always "make him happy." Discerning that, according to this fellow, the sole purpose of the relationship was to make him feel happy, Cloud impatiently advised that the man buy himself a goldfish. Even a dog would demand too much from him; a woman would most certainly be out of the question. From that point, Cloud reports, they began to make some progress in the session (Boundaries in Marriage, 109). Cloud and Townsend evidently get results with their direct and confrontational approach, but it would seem to have its limitations.

    Of course, a counselor working on boundary issues with her client need not employ a direct, confrontational style in order to get the message across. The principles explicated by Cloud and Townsend can be communicated by nondirective means when the client is perceptive enough to grasp these concepts for himself within the context of the healing process.

    The books are written as easily comprehensible "self-help," but boundaries can prove difficult to negotiate, especially where they have been heretofore absent in a person’s life. Any individual with a relationship problem that presents a significant impediment to her emotional health should probably seek the guidance of a counselor to work through and apply to her own situation the concepts presented in these books. Cloud and Townsend frequently note the need for people to seek out guidance and support.

    Clients and issues best served by the therapy

    The "Ten Laws of Boundaries," and their applications in personal relationships, should be helpful to a broad spectrum of people. They are specific and practical, yet free of the liabilities inherent to the formulaic prescriptions and stereotyped generalizations that tend to characterize most Christian self-help books on marriage and relationships. In other words, this therapy seems to offer a path to genuine spiritual and emotional growth, not just a superficial quick fix.

    Boundaries therapy should prove particularly useful in marriage counseling. I would want Boundaries in Marriage to be required reading for any married couple in counseling. As Cloud and Townsend note, "If there were ever a relationship where boundaries could get confused, it is marriage, where by design husband and wife ‘become one flesh’ (Eph. 5:31)....More marriages fail because of poor boundaries than for any other reason" (Boundaries, 150). Marriage is a veritable breeding ground for boundary confusion.

    Clients most likely to benefit from developing strong boundaries would seem to be married women whose sense of self has been severely attenuated by the common evangelical presupposition that the wife’s place is one of ancillary support and service to the man--which, essentially, relieves her of the responsibility to take ownership of her life as a separate individual. Given the wide popularity and acceptance of the Boundaries books in the evangelical community, it is heartening to note that Cloud and Townsend apparently recognize the spiritual and psychological foolishness of the "submission" doctrine that is so often and so dogmatically propagated by a number of influential Christian leaders (including psychologists). Every bit of Cloud and Townsend’s advice for spouses is applicable to either spouse; they do not have gender-specific counsel. This only makes sense, after all. The topic at issue is human relationship; given that both husband and wife are human beings, it is reasonable to assume that, as the saying goes, "what is good for the goose is good for the gander." Of course, the idea of a wife setting boundaries entails an unwillingness on her part to acquiesce to her husband’s demands, desires, and agenda as though they were, ipso facto, God’s will for her and the family.

    Predictably, Cloud and Townsend report that their counsel often elicits some consternation in their hearers: "But that doesn’t sound submissive!" Without directly repudiating the typical evangelical understanding of wifely submission, they offer a clearly understandable, sensible, practical alternative to it. They also pull no punches when they declare, "We have never seen a ‘submission problem’ that did not have a controlling husband at its root. When the wife begins to set clear boundaries, the lack of Christlikeness in a controlling husband becomes evident because the wife is no longer enabling his immature behavior. She is confronting the truth and setting biblical limits on hurtful behavior. Often, when the wife sets boundaries, the husband begins to grow up" (Boundaries, 161-62).

    Boundaries therapy makes a promise similar to that offered in the submission literature: you can make your marriage better, maybe even save it, just by changing your own behavior. Only one spouse--at least initially--needs to work at living within her boundaries; the other spouse need only be reasonably sane and reasonably committed to the marriage. Also like the submission advice, boundaries therapy operates on the basis of just a few basic principles that are then applied to individual marriages. However, the principles of straightforward truth-telling, and self-control displacing other-control, are incompatible with the standard evangelical fare advising women that they can get what they want in their marriage through "submission." Another difference is that setting boundaries leads to pain and conflict (a necessary element in the healing process), and probably a disgruntled spouse who must get used to not always having his own way; whereas a woman who follows the submission line of advice will experience an immediate reduction of conflict in the marriage. Proper boundaries will ultimately yield the fruit of freedom, love, wholeness, responsibility, and authenticity in a marriage. By contrast, a "submissive" wife may learn to get what she wants manipulatively, as a child is rewarded by an indulgent or oblivious parent; but she will not know real oneness with her husband if she has failed to define herself as a whole person separate from her husband.

    Limitations of the therapy

    Cloud and Townsend’s boundaries therapy is directed toward more or less healthy persons who have developed some unhelpful patterns of self-perception and interpersonal interaction. This therapy would be insufficient for treating pathological character disorders or mental illness--although the concept of personal boundaries could certainly be a part of therapy for such individuals. It is hard to imagine an emotional problem that doesn’t involve some failure to own and take responsibility for oneself. Not only would Cloud and Townsend’s advice be insufficient for those with full-blown character disorders, it might also do more harm than good. For example, it might be somewhat less than helpful to ask to hear your spouse’s views on how you should change your behavior, if your spouse happens to live in the unreality of a narcissistic or borderline personality (see Boundaries in Marriage, 69-74).

    Furthermore, Cloud and Townsend sometimes attempt to apply the boundaries concept to personality problems that do not seem to be caused by defective boundaries (as they define boundaries). This is most evident in their efforts to apply the boundaries motif to the breaking of bad habits. Although setting boundaries involves exercising self-control, any disorder involving a lack of self-control does not necessarily entail inadequate boundaries.

    What does it mean to "set boundaries on yourself" when boundaries are defined as setting a property line around yourself? In addressing overeaters, they speak of "an internal self-boundary problem" and assert that food serves as a "false boundary" (Boundaries, 209). This seems to be a rather sloppy, overly expansive use of the boundaries concept. A primary function of setting boundaries is to cause the person with whom you are in relationship to suffer the consequences of his own irresponsibility. His behavior is put on the other side of your personal "property line" so you are not obligated to suffer the consequences; if it is on his side of the fence, it is his problem, not yours. (It’s not always this simple, but this is basically how Cloud and Townsend present it.) But this works only as long as you keep the boundary in place. If you relent and knock down the fence, then the other’s irresponsible behavior becomes your problem.

    However, if you treat the "bad" part of yourself as a "problem person" with whom you have a relationship, and you set up a fence--a "self-boundary"--between you and your inner addict, then who is going to suffer when your inner addict goes on a binge? You are, of course. You cannot separate yourself from the consequences of your own behavior. Boundaries do not control other people’s behavior; they keep other people’s behavior from controlling you. Thus, the principle is not applicable to negotiating the relationship between you and yourself--as Cloud and Townsend suggest (see Boundaries, chapter 12). You will be affected, even injured, by your own irresponsible behavior--unless, of course, there is a codependent in your life who is bearing for you the consequences of your irresponsibility. If this is the case, the solution lies in the codependent person setting clear boundaries that keep the consequences of your behavior on your side of her property line.

    Theological integration

    Cloud and Townsend are not theologians, and they do not conceptualize their psychological counsel in systematic theological terms. (For that matter, their presentation lacks precision and coherence on several non-theological points, as well.) Their theological integration consists primarily of citing prooftexts for their various therapeutic principles. However, they do a fairly good job at this. Some of their prooftexts are only superficially related to the concept the text is used to support, and really have nothing to do with boundaries. Other biblical texts, however, are quite aptly enlisted in defense of personal boundaries.

    Note, for example, Galatians 6:2 and 5. "Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. For all must carry their own loads." Cloud and Townsend use this text to show that we are responsible for ourselves (v. 5), and are responsible to one another (v. 2). They explain that "burdens" refer to weights too heavy for one to bear alone, and all who are able are responsible to relieve the burdens of others so afflicted. "Loads" refer to every individual’s responsibilities in life, and these should not be assumed by, or abdicated to, another (Boundaries, 30-31; Boundaries in Marriage, 42).

    Jesus’ parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 powerfully illustrates the Lord’s desire for each of us to acknowledge ownership of, and take responsibility for, the talents or assets of which God has made us stewards (see Boundaries, 44-45).

    Another oft-cited text with obvious relevance to personal boundaries is Proverbs 25:28. "Like a city breached, without walls, is one who lacks self-control." Cloud and Townsend invoke another text from Proverbs when noting that "one of the greatest gifts we can give to each other is the gift of honesty and confrontation. As Proverbs tells us, ‘Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses’" (Proverbs 27:6). We grow when someone who loves us ‘wounds’ us by telling us painful truths we need to hear. Requiring responsibility from each other by telling each other the truth and not giving in to each other’s immaturity is indeed a gift" (Boundaries in Marriage, 95).

    They also offer some helpful discussion of God and boundaries. For example: "As we become like him, he is redeeming our boundaries and our limits. He has defined who we are and what our limits are so that he can bless us: ‘Lord, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance’ (Ps. 16:5-6)" (Boundaries, 240).

    The most common criticism of boundaries therapy--especially, it seems, from Christians--is that it encourages selfishness. In response, Cloud and Townsend note that selfishness is wrong because it is unloving; however, "appropriate boundaries actually increase our ability to care about others." Furthermore, selfishness must not be confused with stewardship. Boundaries enable us to be faithful stewards of God’s good gifts. "When we say no to people and activities that are hurtful to us, we are protecting God’s investment" (Boundaries, 103-105). They also make repeated efforts to distinguish between a selfish abuse of boundaries and a loving use of boundaries.

    When it comes to discussing theology proper--i.e., the nature and acts of God--Cloud and Townsend are sometimes a bit vague, confused, and imprecise. Their analogies between human/human relationships and God/human relationships are sometimes helpful, but perhaps just as often lacking in important qualification. For example, on the matter of God changing his mind, they claim that "the Bible is clear. It is as though God says, ‘If it really means that much to you, it’s okay with me.’ One of the most astounding teachings of the Bible is that we can influence God. It wouldn’t be a real relationship if we couldn’t" (Boundaries, 233). This statement is rife with theological question marks and ambiguities. Given the vigor with which such questions of providence are being debated among theologians and philosophers today, it is hardly accurate or fair to say that "the Bible is clear" on this.


    The boundaries therapy of Cloud and Townsend have much to offer both Christian counselors and their clients, particularly clients whose basic need is to develop more effective relationship skills. An emphasis on developing strong personal boundaries should be especially helpful in marriage counseling.

    The principles presented in these books are a needed corrective to imbalances that afflict the self-concepts and relationships of many individuals--imbalances that seem to be encouraged by contemporary American evangelical culture. Although not without some limitations and deficiencies, the books’ drawbacks pale in comparison to the overall helpfulness of their clear presentation of crucial, biblically-based principles of emotional and relational health.

    Rebecca Merrill Groothuis