Controlling Someone Or Having Good Boundaries. What’s The Difference?

Morning friend,

I appreciate the interaction on this weeks’ blog. One question was regarding Jesus’ interaction with the Rich Young Ruler. There is a lot to be said about this interaction which I don’t have time to unpack here, but my point in using this illustration in the particular blog question was that Jesus didn’t offer this man unconditional relationship.  He offered him unconditional love. There is a difference. To have a personal relationship with God/Jesus, required this young man’s self-awareness. He “talked” a good talk about wanting to be in relationship with God, but when it actually came to action steps, giving his money to the poor, he refused.  Jesus didn’t try to convince him to make a different decision. Nor did he accept the relationship on this young man’s empty promises. He let him go and loved him. In the same way, to have a healthy relationship with someone requires some basics like honesty, respect, freedom, and responsibility and when one person shows no interest in being honest or taking responsibility for one’s wrongs, a healthy relationship is not possible, even if you still love that person. To over-function and try to get that person to change or make that person change is not godly. Jesus didn’t do it, nor should we. 

I’m going to be doing several FB Lives in the next two weeks on my FB Enriching Relationships That Matter Most around our Moving Beyond Challenge starting June 21.  For more information on this 5-day challenge, click here.

This week’s question:  What’s the difference between setting clear boundaries with someone and being manipulative and/or controlling?  It looks similar to me and my husband. When I set boundaries with him he says I’m being controlling and when I tell him how I feel, such as “this hurts me” he says I’m being manipulative.

Answer: Your question is timely and important. There could be some truth to your confusion. For example, if you try to set a boundary on your husband’s behavior – such as, “You can’t talk to me that way,” or “You can’t watch R rated movies” or “You have to go to church with me if you want to have sex”, you are trying to control him. If he refuses to comply and you follow it up with “This hurts me” (when you won’t do what I want you to do), it can be seen as manipulative. He sees that you are trying to make him feel guilty for exercising his right to choose not to do what you want or deciding how he behaves and the kind of man he wants to be. 

Put yourself in his shoes. If your husband tried to control how often you drove the car or talked with your sister on the telephone, or whether you could work, wouldn’t you see it as controlling?  And if you protested and he said “That hurts me (that you won’t let me control you), would you not see that as manipulative? 

When we try to control another person and use the phrase, “I'm setting a boundary on you,” we’re not using the right words. What we are trying to do is control his or her negative behavior so we don’t get hurt or feel anxious.  Boundaries are something we set for ourselves, not for the other person.  Let me give an example:

If I told you that you could not smoke cigarettes in my presence, I’m trying to control you. However, If I say if you choose to smoke around me, I will have to leave, that’s my boundary. In the second example, I am not controlling you I’m taking care of me.  I don’t want to breathe in smoke, it’s not good for my health and if you choose not to honor my needs and smoke, I will have to leave because I can’t be around you when you smoke.  

Sometimes it can get confusing.  For example, if I say, “You can’t smoke in my home.”  I may be saying that because I want to protect myself and my health, or the air in my home, which is being a good steward and taking responsibility for me. Or, I might say it because I don’t like you smoking and am trying to get you to stop and I’m attempting to take responsibility for you (your smoking habit). Then it is controlling. Sometimes boundary setting does feel fuzzy and it isn’t crystal clear to both parties why you are doing what you are doing. 

Boundaries are necessary for two primary reasons. The first is to define more clearly where your responsibility ends and someone else’s responsibility begins. For example, let’s think of property lines (whether they are formal with a fence or informal). My property line helps me know what grass is my responsibility to mow, what flowers are my responsibility to water, what weeds are my responsibility to pull, what snow is my responsibility to shovel or plow.

That doesn’t mean I might not offer to help my neighbor do these things in his own yard if he is ill, or away from home but they are not my responsibility. The boundary or property line defines or clarifies my yard from his yard and what I am to take care of and what he is to take care of. 

In the same way, my physical body, my emotional well-being, my financial life, my thought life, my behavior patterns, and my spiritual life are my God-given responsibilities to steward. Once I become an adult, no one else is responsible for stewarding my life but me. [Tweet “When I marry someone, that person promises to be responsible to me but not for me.”]Do you hear the difference?  It is critical.

In the marital vows, my spouse promises to honor and to care about my feelings, my needs, and my overall well-being but he cannot be 100% responsible for it.  If I choose to smoke, drink, overeat, take drugs, drive recklessly, my spouse can tell me how my actions impact him and our marriage, but he can’t take responsibility for my actions or my choices. Only I can be responsible for me. Being responsible for ourselves is one of the hallmarks of a healthy adult.

The second reason we need boundaries is that they help us communicate with people how we want to be treated or what we will accept or won’t accept. Most of the time in healthy relationships we do not need rigid boundaries. For example, if I tell my kids when my bedroom door is closed please don’t walk in, I hope they will respect my soft boundary. I’m teaching my children to respect my need for privacy by my closed door and my words. When they refuse or ignore my soft boundary, then I will have to put a more rigid boundary in place (a lock on my door) or give them a consequence for refusing to respect my boundary.

Here’s another example. I had a client whose mother and father-in-law walked into her house whenever they felt like it. They lived in the same neighborhood and my client rarely kept her doors locked during the day because the kids would be in and out. Her in-laws’ behavior rattled her because she was not used to such familiarity. She tried to let it go but found herself getting more and more resentful.  Her husband did not see this as a big deal. He was raised with loose boundaries and his parents’ behavior did not bother him, but it did her. What was she going to do?

First, instead of brooding and filling up with anger and resentment, she needed to communicate to her in-laws how she wanted to be treated.  She said to them, “I know you mean well but it frightens me to walk into my kitchen and see you standing there. From now on, please call ahead before you stop over.”  (She wasn’t crystal clear with her boundary yet. She should have also said and knock on my door when you get here).  

They repeatedly ignored her request, so she had to make a more rigid boundary. She started to lock her doors and if she wasn’t ready for a visit with them, she did not answer her doorbell when they dropped by unannounced.  Eventually, they got the message that she did not want drop-in visits and she would not enable their behavior.  

She might be accused of being controlling but she was not. Her in-laws were free to do what they pleased, but she was also free to be a good steward of her time and her energy and if she was not prepared to speak with them or have company, she did not have to answer the door. 

If they said, “It hurts me that you won’t answer the door” she could be compassionate and say, “I'm sorry that you feel hurt, but sometimes I’m busy and not prepared for company. If you don’t call ahead to check, I can’t always accommodate you. I’ve asked you to please call me before stopping by to make sure it was a good time for a visit.”

She did not take responsibility for their feelings but she recognized she was responsible to care about their feelings. That didn’t mean she caved in and allowed them to continue their inconsiderate behavior towards her, but by practicing CORE strength she stayed strong and compassionate.

One more thing:  Sometimes when a wife starts to get stronger and speaks up for herself or sets some boundaries, her husband feels (or claims) he is the victim of her “controlling behaviors”.  One of the reasons this happens is that he can no longer control her as he did before and he’s not getting his way. Instead of looking at what his feelings are telling him (he feels threatened and anxious by her newfound independence), his strategy is to blame her or accuse her of being ungodly or controlling, hoping she will feel guilty and stop changing or having her own boundaries. He wants her to return to their familiar marital dance. Don’t do it.

[Tweet “Allowing someone to mistreat you never leads to a healthy relationship with that person.”] That does not mean you retaliate or return evil for evil. But it does mean you learn to have boundaries and speak up for yourself so that you are not so easily controlled or manipulated by others. 

Friends:  How have you misunderstood boundaries?  What helped you stop feeling guilty about having your own?


  1. Daphne on June 9, 2021 at 11:49 pm

    I would like to listen to Leslies wonderful talks, but I don’t want to be on Facebook. Is there another site I can go to? When I tried I kept getting redirected to Facebook.

    • Kim Caloca on June 11, 2021 at 1:24 pm

      Hi Daphne!

      We usually send out FB live replays via email. You can subscribe to us via email using the form found in this link

    • Julie on June 13, 2021 at 2:35 am

      Hello Daphne, I have seen them on Instagram as well and they can be found on YouTube. Some of the short ones even are absolutely gems of encouragement, Truth and clarity!

    • Leslie Vernick on June 14, 2021 at 7:15 pm

      I have a lot of video’s on UTube.

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