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Let’s Talk About Relationships – Setting Healthy Boundaries

From the series Q&A with Chip Ingram

This program’s jam-packed with answers to your questions on a range of topics: Family conflict, ongoing disfunction, what’s a Christian’s biblical response? Is there a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation? How do you know when to set boundaries? In-laws; how to handle dangerous, toxic relationships; and how to stop past relationship insecurities from ruining a new relationship.

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Message Transcript

CHIP: Well, Jerry, it’s good to be together again, and what are the questions we are going to tackle today?

JERRY: Today, Chip, we’ve got a lot of questions circling around family conflict and we know, because we’re both part of families and we have families of our own that conflict sort of goes hand-in-hand with being a family member.

JERRY: Okay so, here’s our first question from a listener:

Chip, can you explain the process to me of restoring a relationship with my family member? I feel like I have truly forgiven the person, but I just don’t feel like having that family member in my life anymore. Does that mean that I haven’t truly forgiven him?

CHIP: Let’s unpack this a little bit.

First of all, conflict in family relationships are normal. Okay? Let’s get out on the table that husband, wife, brother, sister, in-laws – we are going to have conflict with family members. And so that we don’t over spiritualize it, sometimes they are very intense, you’re very angry, you have been very hurt. Sometimes even really betrayed. And you know you’re to forgive them and so you do.  Forgiving another person is proactively saying to God, I am releasing this person from payback and vengeance for what they have done to me in exactly the same way, because of Jesus, You have released that from me.

So we need to really get: forgiveness isn’t an emotion; it’s a choice. And so, now you choose to forgive them. But I think this is where some people get a little bit cloudy is now I have made that choice, but that doesn’t mean that I can keep bitterness in my heart. That doesn’t mean, like, I have legally, well, I have said the words, but I don’t want my brother in my life anymore. I don’t want my dad in my life anymore.

Unless, this is where it gets complicated, maybe you have forgiven the person and there’s some issues about how they have treated you abusively, maybe even sexually or in ways that damaged your own relationship with your mate, say it’s an in-law, where you do have to set some boundaries.

So, A) let’s talk about: forgiving is a choice. And then, after you forgive them, you know, the person says, “I don’t want to have them in my life anymore. Does that mean I haven’t forgiven them?” Let me go down two paths, okay Jerry?

Path number one is: you have genuinely forgiven them and their continued behavior that is unrepentant, that continues creating deep, deep problems with the way they treat you, the way they treat your children. They bring havoc. So, reconciliation is impossible. The fact that you don’t want to be around someone that – let me personalize.

My father-in-law, when he was living, would come into our house and treat my wife terribly. I mean, say things to her, make comments to her – she would be depressed two or three weeks every time after they left. He was a very, very uncaring person who compounded rejection in her life. And I was a young dad and I didn’t know what to do and I tried, I wanted to be supportive of her and so, finally, I, then I had to forgive him over and over but I resented him.

And I’ll never forget, he came to our house and visited and made a couple comments, and my wife later, she was in tears yet again. And so, I said to my father-in-law, “Why don’t we go to the grocery store?” And we went to the grocery store and then when we got back, we sat in the car and I, his name was Fred, I said, “Fred, I need to have a serious conversation with you. And I want you to know that the way you are treating my wife and your daughter is completely unacceptable and if you say a critical, negative word to her,” now, by the way, I had to really muster up the courage, you know, for a few days, to get this thing going. “If you say anything to her that is critical and you keep getting on her, I am going to take you and your wife to the airport and fly you back to West Virginia, because you’re not going to do that anymore at my house.”

So, on the one hand, I would forgive him, but we had this cycle where I never set a boundary. So, on the one hand I think you can forgive and set a boundary.

Let me give you another one. I have talked with a lot of people and I have had this experience as well, is you forgive them, they haven’t done something that is ongoing, abusive, sin that would just give you justification to keep them out of your life. You just don’t want them in your life. You know? Gosh, they are a family member and you just don’t like them right now.

And, well, let me ask you, Jerry, before I go on, has that ever happened to you? Or how do you deal? I think this a dicier one where you forgive them, but emotionally, it’s just like, now, if it’s your wife or your husband, you’ve got to keep a short leash on this thing.

JERRY: [laughs]

But what do you do or how have you handled this when it’s a family member and I think often it can be in-laws or it can be those of us that have grown children and then you have daughter-in-laws and son-in-laws and, you know, that family grows so you’re not around each other all the time. But they do something – there’s conflict – and it really hurts. And, you know, wow, I don’t want to be around them.

JERRY: I think it’s interesting that you mentioned about your in-laws, that you had to set a boundary. And I liked the differentiation that you shared between forgiving that leads to forgiveness is one part; reconciling leads to reconciliation is a whole different…

CHIP: Yes. Yes.

JERRY: …topic. I think sometimes we assume that if I forgive, then I must reconcile. Or, if I have forgiven, then reconciliation is a transactional must-do that follows right after forgiveness. And what I’m hearing from you is that’s not always the case.

CHIP: Exactly. And what I would say is: it’s not only we tend to have that idea; other people do. So, someone who has treated you terribly and especially if they’re a Christian, and especially if they’re a family member, you get, “Well, I thought you forgave me,” meaning everything is okay. But you’re still coming to our house and doing to our children what we talked about: we said we don’t want you doing ‘x’ behavior and you keep doing it. Well, as long as you keep doing that, then we are going to set a boundary.” And then you get this fellow Christian who says, “Well, you haven’t really forgiven me because we’re not reconciled.”

JERRY: Right. That’s, that’s, I think the strength of your coaching there is in the boundary-setting. As it relates to the other one, like you have forgiven, but you still don’t want them around, I think that as humans, uh, recovery takes time.

CHIP: M Hmmm…

JERRY: Recovering from a wound, I cut my finger, sure, I might need stitches if it’s really severe. I might need to glue it shut or I might need to wear a Band-Aid for a week. The reality is that our emotions have similar variables in the time to recover.

We just have to set some boundaries. I can sort of muster up the courage to get through a finite

CHIP: Yeah

JERRY: amount of time with that person.

So maybe it’s I know that, man, that person has really hurt me. Uh, I am going to set a limit of I can do a dinner and a breakfast, which means one night in my home or one night in their home.

CHIP: Yeah…

JERRY: And it means that I’m, I’m going to schedule something else for the lunch before the dinner and I’m going to schedule something else for the lunch following that breakfast, because I am going to need some air space

CHIP: Hmmmm….

JERRY: to recover, recoup, talk it out with somebody that I trust and then be ready to be a loving friend, loving family member, you know, following that.

CHIP: And, I think that’s very wise, and I think, too, is when we are going to ask for forgiveness, sometimes time is really important, because if you don’t really get before God and own that you’re really going to release them, conversations in families that go like this, “Well, I want you to know, I forgave you for the way that you talked to me, what you said to me, the way you did this thing with one of my kids, and by the way, that you haven’t paid me back. And I just want you to know, I forgave you for all of that.” And the fact of the matter is is what they hear is you are justifying all the different things. That’s not forgiveness.

And I think…but communication is the key. I was in a situation recently with a family member and there was some conflict and it wasn’t the end of the world or anything like that, but we needed to get it taken care of. And I communicated and, by the way, could we just say to everyone: forgiveness by email and forgiveness by text is just stupid and doesn’t work and get misinterpreted. There are certain things that have to be face to face. But I think what you can do is make sure you communicate.

And so, in this situation, just an email to say, “Hey, I know we need to get together, and I want to get this resolved. Could we wait maybe three or four days or a week? I need some time to get my own heart right before God before we meet.” And so, otherwise, that silence, it’s like people make up stuff. Ha. People. I make up stuff in my head and it grows.

First Thessalonians 5, verse 14. It says, “Admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all men.” And I have really thought about that. It takes courage. There are times where there’s a family member, it just takes guts to just admonish them. I mean, I was shaking in my boots with my father-in-law, but that changed the trajectory of our marriage and our relationship.

And I think there are other times where: encourage the fainthearted to just put yourself in their shoes and realize, you know, wow, maybe they are under a lot of pressure at their job, or they have a lot of small kids right now, or they have just come out of a health issue. And, you know, like how about help the weak? Encourage the fainthearted. Because I think our defense is, the thing that makes family conflict escalate is when we want to defend ourselves and when we want to make sure everything is fair. Be patient with all men. And that’s a very interesting word. It has the idea of a long fuse. It’s going to take time that they are not going to change overnight just like we don’t change overnight. And so I think a level of compassion.

And we always come back to this, Jerry, at Living on the Edge. I can’t do any of that unless I am coming before God saying, I really want to be honest with You. I need to own my part of it.

And one of my rules, and this will sound funny, but when I have a conflict with anyone, but especially a family member, I kind of figure out whose fault it is. Because we do this. And I give a percentage. I actually do this in my mind. And usually I start off with: it’s always ninety/ten. Ninety them; ten percent me. And then, but a lot of times I’m a little bit more honest. It’s, like, sixty/forty. And because it’s their problem. But there’s forty percent mine. And I have gone through this little process when I pray is: would I be willing to own more than I think is mine?

And it’s really interesting, God, I think I’m forty percent wrong, so I’m a big part of this. And then I did a little word study and one of the thoughts of a word study of Scripture, talking about forgiveness and things was being willing to go beyond what is due. It’s the idea of being gentle or willing to yield, and to be able to, even in the conversation, accept more blame than you honestly think, because here’s what I came to: if my heart really is deceitful, if I’m convinced it’s forty percent my problem, in reality, it’s probably at least fifty-one, you know? And it’s amazing how it takes the tension out of the relationship when you volunteer and take on a bit more than you really think is yours. And I think what that really is is humility and it’s really hard to do, but I think that’s where God’s grace comes in.

JERRY: Chip, I love the picture of owning more than I am responsible for. I think that’s what Jesus wants us to do. But I want to ask you about the, the very toxic relationships,

CHIP:  Yeah…

JERRY: the ones where I have done everything I can, I have owned more than I should, and still the person does not respond the way they should. And I basically have come to the end of my relational rope because either I am in danger or my family members emotional stability is in danger. And it’s like I just keep beating my head against a wall. What do they say? The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results?

CHIP:  Jerry, I think there is a kind of person and honestly, who are among the most committed, the most faithful, the most sincere who so want everything to work out, who so want to be godly, who it’s very difficult for them when it’s toxic. And, I mean, they keep believing that if they just do something a little bit different, dad or mom won’t come and drink this time. Or so-and-so won’t do what they have always done which is attack everybody in the room. Or, you know, I probably don’t have to make up a lot of illustrations as people listening have their own stories.

But I do think there is a time where you realize Romans chapter 12 near the end, around verse 16, 17 – it says, “Respect what is right,” literally the word is consider or take thought for, “what is right in the sight of all men. Be at peace as far as it depends on you.” And the fact of the matter is is that there are some people that are toxic, they are narcissistic, they are angry, they are not safe. And they keep doing the same thing over and over and over and over.

And I think there’s some really sincere believers who somehow think, Well, what have I done wrong? And if I can only fix it… And they just, I like your picture, they beat their head against the wall and they keep doing damage to themselves. I do think there is a time where, as far as it depends on me, I have done all that I can do, and then you step back and you set a kind and loving boundary and then you communicate clearly: when you’re able to, you know – then state the behavior – change, then we can resume our relationship. And we love you, we care for you, but this is an impossible relationship under the current behavior and circumstance.

And that’s a really hard thing to do, but the other thing that I will tell you, having sort of done this pastoring thing for over three decades is often people never change until there’s real crisis. And part of the crisis is they get cut off from the relationship. And they actually have to deal with: this isn’t working for me anymore. Again, every relationship is a system and often there’s a toxic person and a person who becomes the victim and “I’ve got to fix it,” and they just keep playing, sort of like tennis: back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Someone has to put the racket down and say, “We are not going to continue like this.” And I think the key is doing that with a heart that says, “I love you.”

Love is giving another person what they need the most, when they deserve it the least, at great personal cost. And then I would add, sometimes giving them what they need is not what they want at all and it’s very difficult and takes tremendous courage. I think the key is that is your motive. That’s what I, that’s my motive. It’s not about, “You know what? I’m just going to cut you off. You’re out of my life. I won’t deal with this.” That’s not a godly response. But there are times where the barrier goes up and until that person changes, uhm, that relationship won’t work.

JERRY: Well, and you shared that great example when you gave your father-in-law, Fred, that boundary. I mean, I know the end of that story there.

CHIP: Yep…

JERRY: I know that he came all the way around and that he was able to show Theresa a father’s love in a way that she never expected. And so, it could very well be, you said it takes until you’re at rock bottom where that, that ultimatum has been set, that boundary has been set so clearly that unless this changes, we can’t be a part of your life anymore. So, thanks for sharing that story. I think that’s so helpful to know that when we take the courage, when we, and that’s in Christ you’re doing that.

CHIP: Amen… Yep…

JERRY: That’s not on your own. When we are in Christ, when we are with Him, saying, “I know this is what my family needs me to do,” when we step out in that kind of faith and that kind of courage, God meets us. Whether it’s the way that we want it and the timing that we want it in, probably not. But He is faithful.

CHIP: And I would remind people, don’t listen to what people say; listen to their behavior. I mean, he walked out the door. “You’ll never see me again. We’ll never come back to this house as long as I live. I’ll never see my grandkids again.” And then some choice words for me. And you know what? And it was like, “It’s over.” Right?

And as much as Theresa was hurt, she certainly didn’t want that. So, I was between the rock and a hard place. And she wasn’t mad at me, but she grieved. I mean, this is her dad. And it was really interesting, we didn’t hear from them, absolute silence, for, like, four months. And then this is a little bit of a generational thing.

Then we get a phone call. “Hi! How’s it going?” As though nothing happened. Really. I mean, nothing happened. And there’s a lot of people that operate that way. And it’s like, “Well, uh, how are we doing? Everything is okay?” “Oh, why? Yeah! It’s good.” And literally he never said, especially in my presence, another critical word to my wife as long as he came and visited. And so, you know, God does work and it’s encouraging.

JERRY: So, Chip, on a completely different topic, here’s our next relationship question, and it’s a great one. How do we keep our past relationship insecurities from ruining our new relationships?

CHIP: Yeah, that is a good question. I think one of the first things is identifying: so, what are our past insecurities? Is it fear? Is it anxiety? Is it thoughts that I don’t measure up? Is it that, under certain circumstances, I tend to do a lot more image management? Is it that I really want people to like me and I begin to act like someone that I think they’ll like rather than being myself? You know, I think we all just have this great fear of rejection, but I think it’s very important to just stop and say, “What are my insecurities?” And, and Write them down in a journal or something.

And then as you look at this new relationship, before you let it get too deep, I would kind of look back and say, “Is there any pattern that my insecurities are producing in relationships in general?” And I get the idea, this is sort of a romantic relationship, from a little bit of the context around this question.

And so, ask yourself, in past boyfriends, past girlfriends, or I’m sure there’s people listening – in a past marriage. Our insecurities cause us to do things that are really detrimental to our relationship. It causes us to attack, it causes us to shut down, it causes us to hide, it causes us to do all kind of things so this is a tough one. But look back and say: how have your insecurities showed up? Is there any pattern in past relationships? And then once you identify them, I think it’s just really important to face them.

And at some point in time, I would say with a person of the same sex, and for some people, if it has been a really bad journey, with a good Christian counselor or a pastor, I would process them and talk about: this seems to be the pattern in my life and you know what I realize is that I am super sensitive to rejection and this is what I tend to do. Or, I’m obsessed with my outward appearance and therefore, how I dress or my makeup or whether I go to the gym and I’m always projecting – we all have some of those things, but I think identify them, face them, and then in a new relationship, I would look for an opportunity in a very gentle way, to begin to unveil where some of your insecurities are, because that kind of takes, that takes the sting out of them and the power out of having to keep living a lie or casting an image that you know isn’t the real you.

JERRY: So, Chip, I think your, your reality of knowing your own insecurities and then not keeping them a secret, because so many things we do act inadvertently.

CHIP: Absolutely. 1:44:03

JERRY: Act out of our insecurities and we don’t even know, sort of like a knee-jerk reaction of how we, how we react with someone. What I really found refreshing in your series is that you made it really clear that everyone is desperately insecure. It’s not just me, it’s not just you, it’s everyone. We are all born with it, we live with it, we walk through it, or carry it with us. Uh, how does knowing that about your mate, or the person that you’re dating or the person you’re engaged to – how does that help or what does that, how does that play into the conversation?

CHIP: Well, as we taught, you know, insecurities usually show up in either powerful responses or weak responses. And powerful responses are when you’re around someone and you start to feel intimidated, that’s likely part your issues, but it’s probably part that other person’s issues. Some people hide behind, I mean, they look super sharp, tell you who they have met, super over-the-top confident, name-drop a little bit – they do some things that make them look really big, successful, have-it-all-together.

The moment I start feeling a bit intimidated by someone doing all that, a little light goes on and I kind of smile, not outwardly, because that would be unkind, but I kind of smile inside and think, Wow, this person is really insecure too. What they’re telling me is they are hiding. And then instead of being critical or comparing or being intimidated, you know, I just kind of have this little private conversation that says, “You know something? I am going to refuse to let that intimidate me and hide me from that person.”

And, often, it starts with a question that asks them something about themselves or actually be a little bit vulnerable so they don’t feel compelled to be so big. “You know, wow, that’s really interesting, but I have always found that in situations like that, I always get a little intimidated, or those are challenging for me. I don’t know if you ever have experienced that.”

And how they respond tells you, many times, do you want to have a relationship with this person? If what you get is, “Oh, no! I never have any problems. I’ve got it all together. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” What you realize is: this is not going to be someone that you want to spend a lot of time with. And I think the opposite is true, Jerry, is sometimes weak responses, when people withdraw, they get not just shy but super, super quiet and when something comes up where you can just feel them disappear in front of you – then I think that’s a time where you realize they feel deeply insecure. And here’s what’s so funny is when people are very, very quiet, I mean, super quiet, we often feel rejected.

I mean, it’s absolutely amazing that you can sit next to someone and this was early on in our marriage. My wife, first, is an introvert. And, second, she had been through a lot. And we were on a drive and I come from a very talkative family and the way you communicate is through lots of words and, “What’s going on?” And we were on this, like, hour and fifteen-minute drive and I knew she was quiet. But we got in the car, and this is what men do – or, I’m not going to say all men, but some of us.

And so, it had been, like, fifteen minutes and she didn’t say a word. And so, I thought to myself, because I started a couple conversations that didn’t go anywhere, I’m going to see how long we go, just how long are we going to go before she says something. And I’m looking at my watch. Forty-five minutes I am in the car, she has not said a word, I mean, I am boiling inside. I am ticked off. She rejects me, what is wrong with her? I can’t believe this. Doesn’t she care? This is our only time alone. And we are getting near where we are going to come, and I am ready to unload.

And she has this sort of smile on her face and then she turns to me and goes, “Oh, you know, Chip, isn’t it wonderful just to drive, be in the presence of someone, not have to talk, feel so close to them, and look at the beauty of nature?”

And I just thought, Oh, I am so glad I didn’t say anything. But what I want some of us to understand, who are verbal, just because someone is quiet, it doesn’t mean they are rejecting us. And sometimes, at least in my world, I have had to say, even to this day, after, gosh, forty years of marriage, is that crazy? “Honey, I don’t think today that there is a problem or that there is anything wrong in our relationship, but you have been very, very quiet, like, all day. And I am having emotions that feel rejection that I don’t think are true. So, is that true or not?” You know?

Literally, I just ask her. And ninety percent of the time, it’ll be, “Oh, no! No, I’m sorry. You know what? I was into my own world, I was having a good day.” And then she’ll often say, “Oh, gosh, absolutely. I feel really close to you.” But just getting our insecurities out, it really does help us communicate and have better relationships.

JERRY: I think it’s so powerful – what you just shared, I think so many times we keep things in the dark and uh, so, a couple things that really resonate. First, you have to know what your own insecurities are.

CHIP: Yeah.

JERRY: You have to figure out the patterns, you have to document it, you have to share it with somebody to get it out of the dark.

CHIP: Right.

JERRY: Even if it’s your own personal dark, or you don’t even know about it.

CHIP: Yep.

JERRY: And then it’s so powerful that you not only know your own insecurities, you have to know yourself.

CHIP: Yes.

JERRY: You’re talking about some really intense self-reflection to know, you’re more extroverted, you’re more social about things. Your wife happens to be more introverted. She is much more private about things. And then you also know how that makes you feel and how you react to it.

So those are some really, very powerful tools that you’re giving us to know ourselves, to know our insecurities, to bring those things out of the darkness, into the light, and then to see God work and we are talking through these things together. Super helpful.

CHIP: And I would just say to people, and that’s a journey. I mean, if any part of that sounded like, “Oh, what wisdom.” I can’t tell you how many arguments, how much pain, how much difficulty, how many stupid things I have said to learn, “Oh, you know what? After all these years, we are still insecure because we are fallen human beings.” You know?

It goes all the way back to God saying to Adam and Eve, “Where are you?” And Adam says, “Well, I’m naked and so I hid from You.” And, you know, we all hide, we all have shame. And the beauty is the truth of Christ liberates us. We are clothed in His righteousness, we are accepted, we are loved. When our security is rooted in our relationship with God through the Lord Jesus, we now have the freedom, as one of my favorite authors says, “You know in life if you’re secure in Christ, there’s nothing to prove and nothing to lose.”

And, you know, when you can live with sort of that sense of peace with yourself, it’s amazing, you’re actually far more attractive to other people and relationships get way better.