What is the right approach to dealing with an abusive family member? How should we respond to someone at work who regularly explodes in anger? Is it unloving to refuse a friend who continually takes advantage of our time and generosity? These questions relate to limits.
WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE TO SET LIMITS?
In the alcoholic home, if a wife chooses not to limit her drinking, this is her responsibility. The family cannot decide for her what her limits in life are going to be. She is free to be a drunk if she wants to. However, the family can set limits on how they will be affected by it. If she continues to drink, her husband can set limits and say, “I will limit my exposure to your drinking. If you continue to drink, the children and I will move out until you get sober.” He cannot stop her from drinking, but he can stop being affected by it. He can limit his own exposure to the destruction pattern that she is avoiding taking responsibility for.
The same principle can be applied to abuse. We cannot stop someone from being in denial and not taking responsibility for being abusive, but we can stop exposing ourselves or our kids to the abuse. In such a situation, a woman can take action if her husband is abusive. She can call the police, who will help limit her exposure to the abuser. She can call the church elders, who can come over if her husband gets abusive. She can leave and go to a friend’s house or a shelter for battered women. And when a person begins to draw a line against evil behavior instead of hoping that the hurtful person will limit themselves, things can begin to change. But the person has to take charge of what she will allow herself to be exposed to.
ASKING FOR HELP
If we can’t set limits ourselves, we need to enlist the aid of others. This is still taking responsibility. If we call the police and ask them to help limit our exposure to an abuser, we are taking responsibility. If we call a friend every time we feel out of control in some area and ask him or her to pray with or counsel us, we are taking responsibility for our own lack of limits.
We all must be long-suffering and forgiving in relationships (see Colossians 3:12 – 14), but at some point, long-suffering enables evil behavior to continue, and limits must be set. Sometimes we can do it alone, and sometimes we will need help.
Here are some examples of acceptable limits to set:
• “I will no longer be with you when you are drunk. If you choose to drink, I will leave until you are sober.”
• “I will no longer allow you to abuse the children. We will move out until you get help.”
• “I will no longer be talked to that way. I will go into the other room until you stop yelling at me and can have a civil conversation.”
• “I will no longer bail you out of financial difficulty. If you choose to overspend again, you will pay the consequences.”
• “I will not lend you my ladder again. Every time you use it, it is returned broken. Please buy your own.”
The examples above illustrate ways of establishing limits on what we will and will not allow. This does not mean that we will not forgive or love, nor does it mean that we will not continue to work on the area of conflict. It does mean that we will require responsible behavior on the other’s part, for only then can the conflict be worked through and resolved. By limiting our exposure, we will be taking the first step in a process that may result in the other person taking responsibility for themselves.
We aren’t to require perfection in others. We should overlook multitudes of things, as the Scripture affirms (see 1 Peter 4:8). But limits must be set in regards to dangerous, repetitive patterns of evil. Not liking some trait or habit of a friend or spouse is one thing. But some things are destructive, and to allow them to go on does not help the person. Evil behavior must be limited.
We are commanded to set limits on what we will tolerate. In Matthew 18:15 – 18, Jesus tells us to limit evil. We “bind” evil (Matthew 18:18) by not allowing it to dominate our homes and relationships. We confront it and do not enable it. If we are dealing with responsible people, we will win them over (see Matthew 18:15). But sometimes we need to set stronger boundaries to bind evil, especially when dealing with abuse. Allowed to continue, abuse has long-term effects on the family. Many hurting adults have expressed the wish that one of their parents had set some limits on the abusive parent in the home. Their lives would then have been much different. Instead, they watched the abusive behavior dominate their home for years and years. Unbridled evil doesn’t subside on its own; it grows. Set limits.
By Sharon Martin (©2017-2021)