Review: Boundaries

Authors: Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend

Publisher: Zondervan

Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend tackles a topic that most people wish to avoid but probably recognize they have an issue with. As the name implies, some people are not great at putting up healthy boundaries between themselves and others. I happen to be one of those people, and perhaps that is why I avoided reading this book since I learned about it a little over two years ago. My husband read part of it to me then, and I think I enjoyed it more the first time. While I found the overall book to be rather helpful, I found some issues the reader should be aware of. Even so, this is a book that can definitely help those who struggle to say a strong no, a truthful yes, and create healthy relationships with those around them.

At the start of the book, the authors try to help the reader, the person with boundary issues, understand why they are the way that they are. For example: why they fold under minor criticism, why they always feel overworked, why they seem to always be helping others, but no one ever helps them, or whatever else is causing them to feel helpless. What is the root of these issues, and how can we recognize them in ourselves? The authors help guide the reader to clarify these questions and direct them to where their foundation lies.

The authors also provide many illustrations, presumably from their own counseling practices, that help the reader relate to the topic they are discussing. Perhaps not everyone will find them helpful, but I found the stories and examples relatable and clarifying. They did tend to be a little one-sided, especially in marriage scenarios, where it was typically a woman who had the boundary issue with another person. Even so, the scenarios could play out just the opposite, so they are still useful.

The authors clarify that both the reader and those around us have responsibilities regarding boundaries, but all we can do is handle our own and respect others’ boundaries. This gives us responsibility and control over our lives. We aren’t helpless victims, and we can and should take ownership of our actions and the influence of those around us. The authors deal with only a handful of relationships in which most people have boundary issues: parents, kids, spouses, work, and even ourselves. They also get into boundaries with God, and here is where I will begin some of my strongest criticism.

While I agree with the book’s overall message and find it helpful, there were some points on which the authors went a little too far. I think this is a shortcoming of many modern Christian authors. In the section on boundaries and God, I think they went a little too far. For one, they really blurred the line between our relationship with God as our Lord, Savior, Creator, and Judge and what our relationships are like with other humans. These are two very different types of relationships, and we should be careful not to think of them the same way. The authors also seem to neglect the persistence of the Holy Spirit and the need for grace from God in regards to our relationship with God.

Additionally, the authors came across as very works righteous, which is always amusing when reading something written from an evangelical perspective. But once again, this book put a particular emphasis on us, people, needing to work out our own problems (literally working out salvation). The authors neglected our need for repentance and only being able to overcome anything with the help of God. They humanized God a little more than I was comfortable with while making it seem like we could, and had to, fix ourselves before God would take us up again. That is wrong, and dangerous, especially for those struggling with relationships with people, let alone God.

In addition, while the authors did well to quote Scripture, they were a little too free with their references. I’ve heard from several people that they used this book for a Bible study. That concerns me. There were more cherry-picked verses than I could count, and the way many were pulled out of context astounded me. I often agreed with what the author was saying, too. Yet if I looked up a referenced verse, I would scratch my head, wondering how on earth the authors thought that verse applied in that context. This is not even to mention the number of translations used, though they were typically NASB. I think the authors went a little out of their way to make every single point that they made sound spiritual, so they made sure they always had a Bible verse handy. This was unnecessary. In actuality, most of their points and advice could have been supported with a couple of key verses, and the rest can be understood by natural law. The Christian should be aware of this issue going into the book.

Another point I take issue with is that the book comes across as though every boundary is hard and fast. While the authors mention towards the end that this will take time and that you should approach these things kindly, they don’t do a lot to show you how to get to that point. They do not emphasize the need for regular conversation and communication between people. They essentially jump from “you need boundaries” to “these boundaries are now in place, and now things are great.” Or they aren’t, and that person is just not in your life right now. But they don’t discuss the time, work, and loving conversations between two people that will need to happen. The progression is missing, and their main suggestion is that you meet with a support group and practice establishing boundaries. I also felt that they considered the marriage relationship not much different from other relationships in your life. I see the potential for some couples, or a particular spouse, to get the wrong idea and simply cut off from the other spouse in reaction to them having no boundaries prior. So reader, be aware: this isn’t a one and done thing. This process takes time, care, and empathy in order to create healthy boundaries and maintain loving relationships.

While the authors spent little time explaining the process and route to establish boundaries, I found much of the book repetitive. It is not that I found the book long, because it isn’t that long of a book, but it could have been cut down to about half and still gotten the point across. And don’t get me wrong. I found many parts of the book impactful and quite helpful. But a good portion, you could either take it or leave it, and a lot of it really could have been left out and maybe replaced with some more helpful suggestions instead of altered versions of the same hashed out scenarios between parents, children, friends, coworkers, and the rest.

Overall, though, I found Boundaries to be helpful, and I don’t regret reading it. It reminded me that I still need to work on building up some boundaries so that I don’t wear myself out. This is difficult, but burnout is worse. I found the portion on parenting to be the most helpful, followed up by building better relationships with my parents. I do wish the book addressed people who struggle to respect other people’s boundaries, but I see that this book was more about people who have been hurt rather than for those who do the hurting. The book did well in its message: Boundaries keep us and others safe. They help us learn how to respect ourselves and others, to love, and to take responsibility and ownership for our lives. We are not victims unless we allow ourselves to be so (for the most part). I think most people would find some aspect of this book not only interesting but also helpful. While I think the reader should be on guard for cherry-picked Scripture, the book made points that are quite useful in helping the reader take control of their life. And for this reason, I think the book is worth the read.

Blessings to you and yours,

~Madelyn Rose Craig

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