Tending the boundaries

May 31, 2010 | Viewpoints | Number 11
Melissa Miller |

A number of years ago, my husband prepared to take a long trip, which meant we’d be apart for several months. I discussed this situation with a male colleague, who was also a friend. He quickly responded, “That will affect our working relationship as well.”

I was surprised, but understood his meaning better when he added, “Without your partner at home, you may be looking for emotional support from me, or I may feel some need to ‘take care’ of you.”

I subsequently recounted the conversation to my husband. He agreed that the situation called for some awareness and promptly suggested that we invite my colleague and his wife over for a meal and conversation. By doing so, we were all able to tend the boundaries of the relationships. My husband and I could openly discuss a situation that had some risk attached to it, and plan how we would avoid potential problems. My friend and his wife could offer support to me when my husband was away. Indirectly all of us affirmed our commitments to our spouses, as we paid attention to a shifting dynamic between the two of us who worked together, and considered how we would maintain healthy boundaries.

All unfolded as planned. My husband travelled. I received support from my friends, and relationships stayed within their bounds. What could have been a tricky matter became a time of openness and trust. I was thankful to my colleague and my husband for their responsiveness to address what had the potential to become problematic.

Sadly, I can think of any number of other situations where boundaries were not tended promptly or wisely. Then someone falls out of love with his or her spouse, or falls in love with someone else. Or the emotional or sexual attachments between husband and wife are permitted to languish, while more energy is directed to someone outside the marriage. As one woman described her marital separation, “We just grew apart.”

Perhaps tending the emotional and sexual boundaries of marriage is similar to tending rose plants. Care, attention and nurture need to be given. There are seasons of growth and fertility, and seasons of rest and dormancy. The right amounts of sun, water and nutrients enable the plant to thrive. There are thorns that can hurt! And there is much beauty to be enjoyed.

Without such care, it’s easy for spouses to find reasons to drift away from each other. The problem isn’t that a work colleague or neighbour may be attractive, interesting or pleasant to be with. We are social creatures. We are designed to enjoy other people. It is a natural human response to be attracted to people. Such attraction is a sign that we are alive and open to the liveliness in others. The seeds of attraction are just one of God’s good gifts.

Problems emerge when we forget to tend the boundaries of our commitments, or the commitments that others have made. Sometimes it’s not a matter of forgetting, but of consciously permitting our attention to be drawn elsewhere. When we do so, we are allowing our “rose plants” to grow wild without the benefit of a nurturing gardener’s hand.

A good starting point is honesty: Honesty with ourselves about what we’re feeling and thinking, and where our risky areas are; honesty with our partner; honesty with a Christian brother or sister about where we’re tempted. Such honesty will help us tend the boundaries of our lives, bringing beauty instead of harm.

Melissa Miller (familyties@mts.net) lives in Winnipeg, Man., where she ponders family relationships as a pastor, counsellor and author.

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