Boundaries in Abuse

I have not had an opportunity to post in awhile because I moved to New Mexico a few weeks ago. So I have been busy packing and driving across country and unpacking. I am here in New Mexico to study the western cannon at St. John’s College. Since being here I have met many wonderful people and have had some of the best conversations of my life.

One theme that has been emerging with surprising regularity has been the idea of relationships, boundaries, etc. So this morning I went to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Santa Fe and was delighted to hear the minister preaching on the idea of respect and relationships.

Unitarian Universalism is a “covenental” faith community rather than a “credal” one. This is a concept that I am still working to understand, but so far what I understand it to mean is that we come together on sunday mornings to worship and take part in community, but our togetherness is not forged through a shared belief in any doctrine. Instead, we agree to come together and obey a set of principles, or promises, for how we will try to be together in order that we might support each other’s individual spiritual growth and journeys.

The first principle is that we agree to recognize “The inherent worth and dignity of every person.” So the sermon this morning was about this principle and how we show respect for ourselves and one another. And the minister made a point that was a huge “ah ha” moment for me. She said that to show respect in our relationships with others we must be neither invasive nor evasive. We should recognize the spark of divinity in one another and listen with attentiveness and compassion to those around us. But besides a posture of openness, we must also have strong boundaries. We must know where we end and where others begin. She said that this was the necessary first step to true intimacy. This means that others will disagree with us and we must allow them their disagreement without needing to change it and without feeling personally diminished by this.

And this made me realize one of the key struggles that many children face. In abusive households, in households particularly that are sexually or emotionally abusive, a child has no way of developing a healthy sense of boundaries. When children are enmeshed with their mothers, when they are being sexually active with their fathers, there is no sense of where one should end and the other should begin. There is no way to break away in a healthy adolescent way and to start to define oneself. There is no way to disagree with the parent. So the child becomes subsumed to the boundary violations of the parent, and cannot begin to develop her own sense of self.

Once out of the home, this problem persists. It is probably a root cause of women staying in battering and emotionally abusive relationships. I am nearly certain it is the cause of co-dependent relationships and relational enmeshment. And I think that many of the sexual problems that women in particular, but also men face can be traced back to abusive childhood situations where someone in a role of power broke the covenant that we should each be making with our children to honor their inherent worth and dignity and to protect their development into their own strong unique selves.

And this makes me think of how very important adults who work with children can be when they have strong boundaries. The role of therapist and child, teacher and child, minister and child, parent and child, mentor and child. Camp Counselor, dance instructor . . . Adult-child relationships involve an inherent unevenness of power. The adult has it, the child does not. This can be really dangerous when the adult himself or herself does not have a healthy sense of boundaries because it can make it hard for the child to develop those. But when those key relationships are done well–when they are nurturing, stable, and rich but do not involve over-sharing of information that the child is not ready to know, or physical/sexual transgressiveness, I believe they can help children who come from abusive families to learn what is missing and necessary in their lives.


About pamwatts

Writer, Reader, and Children's advocate
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One Response to Boundaries in Abuse

  1. Pingback: More Thoughts on Boundaries and Some Books | Strong in the Broken Places

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