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Boundary Violations – Part 2

October 23, 2008

Ken was hurt; again. His wife Vivian and her two friends had gone to the Mall and then out for a couple of hours of “girl time”. This was the third time this month they had spent the entire evening  together. For the second time, they had chosen Ken and Vivian’s “date night” to do it on. He was hurt and wanted to hurt in return.

Vivian finally came home about 11 p.m. Ken was waiting for her as he stewed in his frustration. He knew she would be exhausted the next morning when she had to get up at 5:30 for the morning commute into the city. That meant she would be tired the next few evenings. Any time he had hoped to spend snuggling and being affectionate together during the week was ruined.

But Vivian saw things very differently. For years, Ken had reserved three evenings a week for golf with his two high school pals. They did everything together and usually excluded their wives when they went out to the golf course. Afterwards, they would spend an hour or so in the clubhouse telling jokes and talking over the events of their lives. By the time Ken got home, he didn’t feel like talking and usually gave her leftovers. But as the men grew older, they slowly grew apart and Ken found himself at home more often. He didn’t really want to be there, so he just sat around and made Vivian be his entertainment. At first she soaked in the attention. But she realized that he would never be satisfied with the attention she gave him (he constantly complained about everything she did wrong). She decided that it would be better if she got away from him some evenings. Leslie and Joan were just the tonic she needed. They also loved to shop and drink tea. All Ken wanted to talk about was sports.

Ken and Vivian were ready that evening for a clash of major proportions. Ken had it planned in his mind. He would simply tell Vivian how he felt and allow her room to change her mind for him. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Later, when he was licking his wounds, he wondered why things had gone so wrong. He thought over the conversation they had when she came in the door:

Ken: “A little late for a mother of three to be coming in don’t you think?”

Viv: “Not really. I don’t have a staff meeting in the morning, so it’s not that late really.”

Ken: “Did you forget about our date night?”

Viv: “What date night are you referring to Ken?”

Ken: “The date night we said three years ago at the marriage retreat we would never violate. You violate me every time you go out when we’re supposed to spend the time together.”

Viv: “Oh, I see. Like last week’s date night. When we had to watch the World Series and then as a climax, I was privileged to watch you play solitaire on your laptop.”

Ken inwardly winced as he recalled that comment. He thought she liked baseball. She used to go to all the games when they were dating. “I guess the bottom line is this Viv. I don’t want you going out with those two ladies again. I don’t like what you become when you’re at home. You argue with me all the time and we never spend quality time together.”

“Who are you, my father?” Vivian was really hurt and she slowly picked up her bags and coat and made her way into the bedroom. Ken followed.

“Did you hear what I said Viv. Enough is enough. You are done with those two. From now on, Wednesday nights are ours. Can’t you see how you are destroying our marriage!”

Vivian didn’t answer him, but flashed him a scowl as she quickly got ready for bed. She threw on her nightgown in the closet and rushed under the covers. She knew Ken well enough to know that nothing she said from this point on would be heard.

It wasn’t however, the end of the conversation for Ken. He now moved into his monologue.

“Didn’t that book we read together say we needed to resolve our conflicts. This is so typical of you. Just roll over and hope all the problems go away. Well, I am the head of this household and I deserve some respect. Can’t you see how you are ruining what was once a good relationship?”  Ken had been sure she would rise to the bait of that remark. But she just shuffled in the sheets and rearranged her body position. If ever there was a ruffle of contempt, she had just showed it.

“And another thing. Both of their husbands phoned here and said that you were the one who arranged this meeting tonight. This is all your doing. If you don’t like spending time with me, why don’t you come out and say so instead of hiding away in the stores for hours on end?” That still didn’t get a response out of her, so he brought this symphony of sulk to a crescendo.

“If this happens next Wednesday, you will be coming home to an empty house. Do you hear me?”

Both of them were still awake an hour later when Vivian began to cry softly. She really didn’t want things to go like this, but she didn’t want to be bullied. Why couldn’t Ken understand that? She finally told Ken that she was sorry about everything that happened. She suggested he call me in the morning for counseling.

In the next few weeks, as I went over the issues that were hurting their marriage, I got the most mileage out of asking one question. That question firmly established a point of change for Ken and Viv. But it seemed so simple at the time.

“Ken and Viv…what was the ultimate goal you had in your conflict?”

Ken answered immediately. “I need Viv to change what she’s doing. It is hurting our marriage and may do even worse than hurt it”. That’s when Vivian jumped in. “See Mike. This is what he does. He makes these veiled threats and leaves it up to my imagination to try and figure out what he’s talking about. He just orders me around and I am not going to take it any longer”.

I returned to my original question. “Ken, Viv…tell me in one sentence. What did you want to achieve in this conflict?”

After several starts and stops, I got Ken to boil it down to a sentence. Here is what he said: “I want Vivian to agree with me she needs to stay home.”

Here is what Vivian finally came up with: “I want Ken to see that he is bullying me. And I need him to stop doing it.”

I don’t really have an issue with their stated desires. The problem is they are both boundary violators. And this boundary is violated so often that I doubt one person in ten reading this will agree with me on the first reading. So go back again after reading this and re-evaluate what I am saying.

By way of background, let’s bring God into this. God created us in His image, which doesn’t mean God’s nose looks like mine. God has freedom of choice and he created each of us with freedom of choice. That freedom is so wonderful and so awful at the same time. It is wonderful because it means I am my own man and I can determine every day which road I will travel. If it is the worn road that thousands have found, that is my choice. If it is the road less travelled, I am allowed to go there as well. I love that. But freedom of choice is also awful. I make many dumb and misguided choices. C.S. Lewis calls freedom of choice, “that Hideous Strength” because it give man the creation the ability to look the Creator in the eye and say “NO”.

Yet God made us this way for a reason. He values our ability to choose to have a relationship with Him. About the only time God will violate our freedom of choice is when His priorities for others come before our desires.

When we try to force another person to agree with us, we are violating this choice boundary. For Ken to insist that Viv agree with his viewpoint is tantamount to making her lie. If she doesn’t agree, she doesn’t agree. He acted this way for many reasons, but a couple will suffice to show my point. Ken had a need in life to feel superior in his knowledge. If others showed they knew more than Ken, he felt inferior and powerless. He had struggled for years with this inner insecurity. Also, Ken had this habit of projecting into the future. He would see present patterns and then predict where they would go. He tended toward the negative, so if one thing went wrong he often saw this as an indicator of a bad season to follow. He made it hard for others to be positive around him when he acted this way. That is why he felt so strongly that Viv had to agree with him.

Vivian was always someone who liked to feel needed. She wanted to be part of a team. For years, Ken had left her out of his life decisions and finally she allowed bitterness to taint her life. She no longer saw her marriage, her life, her career or her Christian walk as going right. She blamed everyone else for it and rarely took steps to change things. When she did take steps, she rarely explained them to anyone and acted threatened if anyone challenged them.

Ken and Viv were in trouble and they both knew it. What helped them immensely was learning to hold to this boundary line.

I explained to Ken that he had to modify his original goal. Instead of forcing Viv to agree with him, he needed to take a step back in the process and help her. She needed context. She needed to see what was happening inside of him that made him feel so vulnerable and lonely. This took several weeks of determined explanations. I had Ken write some of them and explain others. Viv, as per my instructions, just asked questions. She didn’t challenge his beliefs – and he was not allowed to force her to agree with what he believed. After awhile, she began to really see what made Ken angry. That’s when we started on her.

I asked her to explain to Ken why she was going out with her girlfriends. At first, she was very reluctant to do this. She knew it would probably open many other cans of worms. And she was correct. Every time she tried to explain one motivation, it brought several other situations to light. In the end, I did much work with both Viv and Ken on the lies that were at the heart of their problems. But that is for another blog entry.

It took awhile (probably because they had never done this kind of exercise) but they finally understood why the other person was angry. They could express their partner’s viewpoint as clearly as their partner could.

That is when Ken looked at me and asked me the Golden Question: “So what have we accomplished, Mike?”

I threw the question back at them. “Viv, now that you know what Ken is really saying, how do you respond?” She hesistated and then gathered her thoughts together. “Mike, after this month of meeting together, there are many things that I want to change. The least of these is my nights out with the girls.” She then talked about conversations her and God were having. She spoke, through tears, about the joy that was returning to her life. She spoke in fond terms about how much she was beginning to like Ken again.

Ken left his chair and walked over to Viv and held her. Then he began to tell her how much he wanted to change some things. I listened for awhile and then asked if I could be excused. I didn’t need to know any more. They were on the right track again.

Here is the boundary stated clearly. We cannot force another person to agree with us. Our goal needs to be to explain ourselves clearly enough that they can re-evaluate what they believe in light of what we have said. Now, there are times we can demand a change in behavior even if the person disagrees with our viewpoint. For instance, we do not have to tolerate violence or deceitfulness. At the same time as we demand changes in behavior, our goal is still to be understood, not agreed with.

There are thousands of examples in Scripture of this. Actually, I defy you to find an example where God forced someone to agree with him. He laid out consequences if our actions are wrong. He demands proper behavior. But he always allows for disagreement. He is the one who said “I lay before you life and death. Choose this day which you will follow.”

But I love God’s dealings with the prophet Jonah. All God wanted was for Jonah to preach a sermon in Ninevah. Jonah didn’t want to go. God gave him a ride back in the direction of Ninevah. Jonah preached and the people were penitent and God forgave them. Jonah got angry. God beat up Jonah for not agreeing with forgiving the Ninevites. No, wait a second, God didn’t do that. At the end of the book of Jonah, God holds a dialogue with a pissed-off prophet. Instead of forcing his opinions on Jonah, he asks him a question, which in essence says this: “You loved your little vine. I love 120,000 innocent children. Don’t I have a right to love them?” We know Jonah eventually agreed with God. He wrote the book.

Take a look at how often we cross this boundary. Make up your mind to dedicate yourself to explaining what you believe, not forcing others to believe it.

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