More About Boundaries and Consequences


Today’s Question: Since you’ve been talking about boundaries, I have a question related to waiting/holding my boundaries in an emotional destructive relationship.

After about a year and a half of counseling, studying, praying, learning and with the accountability of several strong prayer partners . . . . I began confronting some things about my relationship with my Mom – trying to talk (calmly, stating only my feelings) to her – meeting resistance, defensiveness, withdrawal, etc. etc.

The last call (voicemail) I received from her stated that she was going to “let me and my extended family go on with our healthy, happier life, while she continues with those who will love her unconditionally” and then ended with “by the way, you might want to look up Ex. 20:12 . . . .”

I know this is manipulative, pulling behavior. She has also resisted counseling, saying that her husband (my father passed 23 yrs. ago) is all the counselor she needs and I was “disrespectful suggesting it like we thought she should be committed!?!”

My question is: What do I do when I have to be with her now, like at family functions, group gatherings, sporting events, or run into them places around town, etc. And what is my role in waiting in love' ‘with encouragement'. What does that mean and what does it look like?

Answer: Although this question is about boundaries (with a mother) –with all the activity and responses to feeling guilty or manipulated when we set boundaries, we need to understand a little bit more about this important concept.

First, firm boundaries aren’t usually necessary with healthy people in loving relationships. A simple request is enough to stop continued inappropriate or unwelcome behavior. For example, if you drop by my house without calling first and I welcome you in but tell you that next time I’d prefer you call me before you drop by, most people would honor my request and call me before just stopping over. They wouldn’t make a big deal out of it or wouldn’t act as if my request was crazy or try to make me feel as if I was unfriendly or ungodly just because I asked them to call first.

Or, if I asked my spouse not to open mail addressed to me, I would hope he would accommodate my request – without turning it into an argument.

However, these simple requests (or any other) can become a huge deal with unhealthy, manipulative people. Instead of adjusting their behavior to accommodate my requests or preferences or needs, they try to make it look like their behavior is acceptable but it’s me who is being unreasonable, unloving, or ungodly.

This is where things start to get confusing and crazy making for those of us who take someone else’s feedback to heart. We start to question ourselves. Am I being unreasonable or selfish in asking for this? Am I trying to control this person by asking her to call me before stopping by my house or asking my spouse to respect my desire to open my own mail?

This is where we need to be really clear about what God says about relationships and how to maintain and repair them so that they will continue to thrive

In response to this reader’s question, her mother misused the scripture implying that honoring your mother and father (Exodus 20:12) means that you must always do whatever your parent wants you to. She also implied that unconditional love meant unconditional relationship. In other words, if you loved her, you’d never distance yourself from her because of her behaviors. There should be no consequences or damage to the relationship if she disrespected your boundaries, ignored your requests or refused to honor your “no”.

Spouses may have the same unrealistic notion of Biblical headship and submission when they use scripture to say that “If you were submissive or a godly woman, then you would do whatever I want because I’m the head of this house.”

A two year old uses this same reasoning when he or she yells, “If you loved me you’d buy me that toy or let me eat candy instead of carrots.” A healthy parent knows that love isn’t the same thing as always saying yes or giving in to what the other person wants. In the same way, if we want to grow into healthy people, we must realize that honoring, loving, or submitting to someone doesn’t mean we always do what he or she wants.

Those of you who are still trapped in guilt whenever you say no, ask yourself this question: Does God say you must always do what another person wants in order for you to honor her, love her or submit to him? Does the Bible teach that you have no right to say no without violating Biblical principles

When a person requires that kind of allegiance, they are asking us to call them god. That is idolatry. When you refuse to “bow” down to them as god there usually are some fireworks. They will protest. They will threaten, they will punish or withdraw, and they will guilt trip you. That’s where you must stay firm and state your boundary as well as the future consequence if they refuse to respect your “no”.

That brings us to your question. When all talking has failed and you have to detach or distance yourself from the relationship as a consequence of their refusal to respect your boundaries, what does it look like to “wait in love”?

Depending on the boundary you needed to set and the consequence for refusing to respect it, it will mean different things. For some individuals it means no contact at all. So prayer is your means to love that person while you wait for her to come to repentance. For others they might have minimal contact, more ministry than relationship. For example, it might mean you drive your mother to her doctor’s appointments, but you don’t allow her to watch your children unsupervised if she refuses to honor your request of no access to internet or not to feed them a steady diet of junk food while they’re in her care.

It might mean you have polite, superficial contact at family gatherings – weddings, funerals, holidays, but no personal contact. Without knowing the exact issues between you and the reasons for your boundaries, I can’t be more specific

But while you wait for her to wake up and come to repentance, to realize through the consequences that you’ve implemented that you aren’t going to go back to business as usual, you are praying for her, asking God to show her his truth. In order to have a mutually trusting and healthy relationship, she will need to respect your boundaries.

In my newsletter next week I will show you how to not get snagged by the manipulators guilt trips and other tactics used to get us to say yes when we know we need to say no


  1. Ellen on April 23, 2013 at 1:33 pm

    Dear Leslie,
    This topic is so timely for me. Recently I went through an intensive weekend at The Ultimate Journey which is a ministry to free people from being stuck in their spiritual walk or from having unhealed childhood wounds. Partway through the training I finally was able to identify how I got myself in such a mess with my husband. I come from a family of disfunction and unhealthy relationships. My sister was molested by my Mom’s brother. Mom never would acknowledge the truth of what happened and even blamed my sister for the event. This led to intense anger, jealousy, rage, and manipulation on me. My sister became a bully when her heart “died”. I was her victim and still am. She has managed to manipulate my family into believing her lies and half truths. As a consequence of growing up with this kind of domination and my parents did and still don’t do anything to stop her, I married a man with a similar behaviors. Fortunately with a lot of help he and I are not so quick to fall into the patterns. Unfortunately I don’t see my sister enough to make any headway with her. This comment was a big help:

    It might mean you have polite, superficial contact at family gatherings – weddings, funerals, holidays, but no personal contact.
    However, these simple requests (or any other) can become a huge deal with unhealthy, manipulative people. Instead of adjusting their behavior to accommodate my requests or preferences or needs, they try to make it look like their behavior is acceptable but it’s me who is being unreasonable, unloving, or ungodly.

    My sister is telling the family I call myself a Christian? This stings because I don’t want to do anything to dishonor my Savior. I believe that keeping a healthy distance away from her is best. It hurts though that she is trying to make inroads with my own adult children against me. When will it end Leslie? It is so tiring. I think I need to read up on bully behavior and learn what the smart kids who don’t get picked on do. Apparently I missed that somehow. :).

    • Leslie Vernick on April 24, 2013 at 8:37 pm

      Bullies bully because they get away with it. It is not only the victim that needs to speak up, but also the bystander who watches someone get bullied and keeps silent and does nothing to help. A lot of people think being a Christian means you have no boundaries, you tolerate anything and have no consequences because you are always supposed to forgive. They mix up and twist spiritual truths to half truths but if you don’t know the wisdom of God, you can easily get muddled – wanting to do the right thing, but feeling guilty because you are distancing yourself from someone who refuses to respect your “no”.

      Be sure to read this next week’s newsletter when I’ll write about Overcoming the Manipulator’s tactics.

  2. Dora Mat on April 24, 2013 at 2:50 am

    I could be wrong, but I think sometimes people put up walls distancing themselves from people, but they never talk to the person about the problem.

    With boundaries, wouldn’t part of the goal be to let the other person know about the boundary so they won’t cross it?

    Seems like putting walls up is a self protection that is rejecting or almost a judgement of like I’m staying away from you… you got problems type of deal…

    Where boundaries are more to say I care about you but I need you to do this for me in order for this to work and it gives the other person a choice.

    • Leslie Vernick on April 24, 2013 at 8:34 pm

      Dora – boundaries are not walls, they are statements about who I am and what I need. Some people have more boundaries than others – they may be more introverted, or private people but part of developing healthy relationships with people is to let them know who you are. If you are the kind of person who doesn’t want to be called on the phone after 9pm for example, it would probably sound too strong to say “I have a boundary. No one is to call me after 9pm.” However you would state it more gently like, “It’s best for me to call during the day or early evening. I don’t like getting calls after 9pm.” Most people would understand that to mean, “Please don’t call me after 9pm.” However, if that person doesn’t hear you or respect your soft request, he or she will call you because they had a reason which was more important to them than respecting your request. Sometimes that might be valid – someone is in an accident, or in the hospital and you’d like to know too. HOwever, often it’s just because I want to talk to you NOW and so therefore your request is meaningless to me in my NEED so I call you at 9:30. Perhaps you are gracious and allow it this time. Next time I call you at 9:45 and another time at 9:50. Now what do you do? If you don’t speak up and repeat your request and remind this person that you do not want calls after 9pm then are allowing yourself to be a repeated “victim” – you are not building a wall, you are stating a request that the other person is choosing to ignore. Then waht? That’s where consequences come into place. You do not answer your phone after 9pm – If there is a true crisis, the person looses the privilege of getting a hold of you because you now don’t trust them them to only call you in a crisis.

      This is a small example but it happens hundreds of time in relationships where we try to be honest about what we need or who we are and the other person totally disregards it and then what? That’s when walls start to get built because when we try to talk about it we are ignored, minimized, disrespected or violated.

      HOwever, I agree that you should Never implement consequences for something that you have NEVER spoken up about or stated clearly.

      • Dora Mat on April 24, 2013 at 8:39 pm

        Awesome I see what you mean, Thanks Leslie! 🙂

  3. Cheryl on April 24, 2013 at 3:30 pm

    Thank you! I needed these insights. As I’ve gotten better at drawing boundaries with some family members, it seems like the relationship has gotten more difficult. The inverse of what I had imagined. This is a good reminder to avoid spending a lot of time ruminating over the reactions to healthy boundaries. I have a family member who called to asked to come by at a certain time. I told them that we had planned to have 8 of our daughter’s friends over during that time, and that it just wouldn’t work for them to come over during that time. The family member came by anyway, and when I confronted them with the reality of our prior conversation, their reaction was, “I was just dropping something off. I didn’t interrupt anything. I thought you knew me better than that!” I can’t quite come up with a response because I had been clear with the communication not to come by the house. It’s that “crazy-making” that you describe so well. This is not new behavior – just a different flavor. I am attempting to make peace with the idea that we may never have the relationship I’d like to have, and that I may never get apologies. Waiting in love in hard and I’m trying to work through exactly what that looks like.

    • Leslie Vernick on April 24, 2013 at 8:26 pm

      Cheryl, you’re so right. When you attempt to call someone on their behaviors after you clearly asked them not to do something they make it look like you have two horns and have asked something preposterous or unreasonable. You might have said, “I thought I did know you better than that – I though you’d understand that it was not a good time to come over – even just to drop something off.” Plus – we are so defensive and prideful that when someone calls us on our behaviors – it’s easier to blame them then to apologize and to own our own impatience or anxiety or pride.

  4. sandra on April 24, 2013 at 3:38 pm

    If what someone else wants you to do ” feels wrong” it probably is.

  5. Linda Stoll on April 24, 2013 at 7:38 pm

    LOVED this, Leslie! I’ve featured your post on this week’s ‘Gleanings’

    • Leslie Vernick on April 24, 2013 at 8:14 pm

      Thanks Linda

    • Ellen on April 25, 2013 at 5:24 am

      Ive always looked at boundaries as something to do for myself. I see them as invisible lines of protection that Help keep myself inside where I can stay safe. The manipulators in my family would just laugh at me and spread even more rumors if I stated my boundaries verbally. When a person is defensive and mean spirited they will take your stated boundary and have a heyday with it. At least that has been my experience…

  6. Ellen on April 25, 2013 at 5:23 am

    Ive always looked at boundaries as something to do for myself. I see them as invisible lines of protection that Help keep myself inside where I can stay safe. The manipulators in my family would just laugh at me and spread even more rumors if I stated my boundaries verbally. When a person is defensive and mean spirited they will take your stated boundary and have a heyday with it. At least that has been my experience…

  7. Sherry Cortese on April 26, 2013 at 3:06 pm

    Wow! Is this ever perfect timing for me. I ignored a phone call from my mother in law just as I was half way through reading this article. I’ve been married for nearly 38 years, which translates to 42 years of knowing my husband’s mother.

    She is controlling, manipulative and insulting.Her emotional abuse over the years has taken it’s toll.It never fails to be difficult for me to be in her presence. My husband has tended to defend her right to insult me in my own home. It shows his fear of her, I suspect. Thankfully, Praise God, we have not lived in the same state as my in laws for some time. I truly count it as a gift from God to not have to deal with her every weekend as I did for decades.

    I have had various health issues for many, many years. My current problem has to to with seizure activity. I passed out, while seated, at a restaurant. I ended up in the ER and had a hospital stay. It has not been a fun filled 3 weeks for me and my children and husband have been very concerned. It is a rather serious issue.

    Over the years, MIL has been very insulting concerning my ill health. Although I have NEVER confided in her, asked her for help or advise, she will ask how I am doing and then proceed to tell me what I need to do. For an acute asthma attack I needed to take a pottery class. For crippling fatigue, I needed to ‘just get out of the house more’. Needless to say, she considers me to be lazy, bored and stupid. Those bad qualities translate to health issues, apparently, in her mind.

    My husband was extremely traumatized by my passing out on him and called her for support. I, however, would not call her unless I felt a strong desire for a verbal battering. This has not stopped her from calling to ‘see how I’m doing’. The past 3 weeks have been very difficult for me. A constant headache, weird sensations, dizziness, confusion and unrelenting fatigue have made simple conversations with my daughters difficult. The last thing I want right now is to have to defend myself to my MIL. I don’t want her uneducated advice on what I should do, since she knows nothing about what I am experiencing or what my doctors have said. I just feel like I have the right to not be stressed any more than I already am. I feel like maybe just this once, her need to be in control should take a backseat to my need for peace. I know I will be in trouble with my husband when he comes home. But, it just seems that when she is consistency insulting and disrespectful she should not expect me to cater to her need to have her way. I just don’t want to hear her right now.

    What do you say Leslie?
    It feels good to vent.


    • Leslie Vernick on April 26, 2013 at 8:19 pm

      Sherry, I think your body is telling you to take care of you for right now. I don’t think you need to worry about your MIL. She sounds just fine. You need to do what you need to do to make sure you aren’t more stressed out. If that means limiting contact with certain people, then do so.

      Daniel Goleman, the author of Social INtelligence, a psychologist and former professor at Harvard University says this, “Nourishing relationships have a beneficial impact on our health, while toxic ones can act like slow poison in our bodies.” (pg 5) Right now you have enough going on in your body without adding more toxins.

  8. Christina on April 26, 2013 at 4:55 pm

    I am currently deciding whether to separate from my emotionally abusive husband. After months of asking for help, his family has staged an intervention of sorts. I am trying to be positive about it, but it seems it is a little late, as I am so, so weary. I am now expected to forgive and not harbor resentment towards him (he has halfway apologized to me….). However, I am checked out at the moment and do not know if I want the relationship to continue, as it has been so, so destructive (we have had three marriage counselors tell me to get out…). How can I hold him accountable? How can I make sure he is following through with what he says? (he has lied a lot in the past….places he goes, coming home late, texting other girls…). You mentioned in your article not opening the spouses’ mail…what about checking his phone to see who he is texting? I am not sure where to go from here…..while recognition of his bad behavior is huge, what is the next step for him…and how can I become open to receiving? What boundaries can I set that aren’t deemed controlling?

    • Leslie Vernick on April 26, 2013 at 8:15 pm

      Christiana, I will answer your question in our next blog. Stay tuned.

  9. Christina on April 26, 2013 at 11:28 pm

    I look forward to this! Also, the girl he was speaking with late at night was having personal problems…he said he was “mentoring” her…the calls were late at night. He is her supervisor. Needless to say I do not feel comfortable with her working under him at all. His family seems to think “there will always be women in the workplace” so I should not demand that they not work together….leave the past behind, forgive, etc. However, I feel differently as the boundary line was crossed. How can I present my request that they no longer work together effectively and in a manner in which I don’t come across as jealous or crazy?

    • Leslie Vernick on May 29, 2013 at 8:57 pm

      Boundaries cannot be placed on another person. In other words, you can’t demand that he not work with her. All you can do is say, “If you chose to continue to have close, personal friendships with women at work, I can’t continue to act as if this is not a problem for me and for our marriage.” And then you will have to decide what consequence will be if he refuses to respect your boundary. Will it be separation? Will it be “wait and see what happens” But I think one of the problems women face is when they try to set boundaries on their husband, for example, “you can’t talk to me that way.” They can’t enforce that boundary. The boundary is “I will not allow you to speak with me that way.” But then when he does, the consequence is – you must get up and walk away from the conversation.

  10. Gricelle on May 29, 2013 at 6:09 pm

    What limits could I clearly state to an inmature non believer cheating husband with marijuana addiction if he’s said to be determined to work out on our marriage? I asked him to leave three times (for 2-3 months) during our 9 years of marriage(obviously the time out did not work) and I was ready to file for divorce last year (when he got caught phone flirting) but did not do it because we went to therapy and he got “conscious” of the imminence of divorce and of our problems. Unfortunately to me, we quit the sessions because of money issues and never really passed from the first steps to the healing process. I see him different, I know he’s trying but there are certain habits (the smoking, the phone caution, the co-dependence to his mother) that worry me plus the fact of knowing that we never truly dealt with our unresolved problems. I’ve wanted to trust God to save this fragile marriage and I know that our 6 year old daughter would not want his daddy to leave again but I feel uneasy and more concerned about her, since she’s been involved in an unstable family and is daily exposed to our wrong patterns. What should I do? please help

    • Leslie Vernick on May 29, 2013 at 8:53 pm

      I love this community and I’m sure you’ll find great support. But there are no quick fixes and divorce is much more expensive than good therapy. I’d encourage you both to get back to work on your issues. If money is indeed a factor, then perhaps a 12 step program for each of you, Celebrate Recovery with a local church as well as pastoral oversight and accountability can all be helps. What you are looking for is a change of heart as well as a change of habit which takes time, accountability and structured help forward to learn new ways of relating.

  11. Carol on October 21, 2013 at 11:36 am

    This is the best source of help and information that I have seen in all the years of my searching. Your website and blog should be required reading for all clergy who in many cases only add to the problem.

    • Leslie Vernick on October 22, 2013 at 11:27 am

      Thanks Carol. We have a great community of loving, wise and helpful people.

  12. Gricelle on November 15, 2013 at 11:47 am

    It’s been a year and a half since I first posted a note, unfortunately most of the habits in our relationship remained and therefore there wasn’t a big (real) change. I still struggle with so many things on this marriage that divorce looks like a great relief to me,the only thing stopping me is (again) our daughter. She’s talked to me about not wanting her father to leave but could staying on this damaged relationship really help her? cause I’m honestly starting to feel otherwise… I’m actually starting to think that as a woman I’m a bad example to her, I know that we’ve set wrong patterns for her to relate and that kills me cause above all interests is mine for her to be healthy and safe. I would definitely do anything to save her from suffering but I feel like we’ve lost everything as a couple (love, respect,passion,goals) I see myself again as a worn out, hopeless, tired and angry person and I don’t like it at all. I know that we are and were so wounded and immature that being together has taken out the worst of both, we got lost and just don’t know how to get back on track or even know if we should do so…

    • Leslie Vernick on November 16, 2013 at 4:18 pm

      Whether you both can get back on track and repair your marriage I can’t answer, but YOU can get back on track yourself with or without him. You can ask God for his wisdom and his ways to deal with your marriage and your husband and then learn to walk them out. You said “the habits in our relationship remained” and I think that’s what Paul talks about in Ephesians when he says, “Put off the old man …those old habits…and put on the new man created to be like Christ.” We need to learn new habits that takes time and intentional focus as well as encouragement and accountability from others. You can start – with you. It is God’s will that you mature and live a holy life. Start with you and you will be amazed at what He will do with you. Then you will be much more equipped to make a godly and wise choice regarding the status of your marriage.

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