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Resisting and transgressing personal boundaries

This is a section of a longer paper. To read the whole paper:

Slow-burn crazy-making behaviours. Photo by Vadim Sadovski on UnsplashOnline: a roadmap for the entire paper Download the entire PDF

Another feature of SBCMB is the tendency to resist or transgress the personal and relational boundaries of others. By “boundaries” we mean the things that make you, you, as an individual in relation to other, different, individuals. These include physical boundaries, but also boundaries involving your time, your personal decision-making, and your agency, such as your ability to say “no” and the right to have that decision respected by others as legitimate.[1] The concept of boundaries is, we believe, a biblical one, especially when it is understood as part of the broader concept of “holiness” (but this is not the place to prove that last point). However, a person who exhibits SBCMB often resists or transgresses such boundaries. They seem to have such a profound need for your approval, your time, your agency, and indeed sometimes your very self to complete themselves and their own sense of worth, that they can end up transgressing your personal boundaries—and so disrespecting your integrity as a person—in order to use you to extend and fulfil themselves.

A variant of this behaviour is when a person involved in leadership of a group (e.g. a family, church or social group) or project (e.g. an event) insists that you have a moral obligation to allow their group or the project to bypass or transgress your boundaries. This is especially hard to ignore when the group or project is something that by itself is a good and worthwhile thing to you (e.g. your own family or church), and the obligation is expressed in terms of larger ideals and transcendent principles (e.g. “family values”, or “the importance of the church”).

One indication that a person is consistently seeking to transgress your personal boundaries is the measure they use to evaluate their relationship with you. They may express or imply that they can only have a truly authentic relationship with you when you allow them (or their church/ministry) special access to bypass your boundaries. They may consistently praise you or demonstrate great delight when you allow them (or their church/ministry) to bypass (or transgress) your boundaries; conversely, they may state or imply that you are in fact morally obliged to allow them to bypass or transgress your boundaries, otherwise you are a bad person.

Illustrations: Resisting and transgressing personal boundaries

Example 1

One example is a person who acts as if they (or their church/ministry) have a claim on your time at any time of the day or night, when you have not explicitly given them permission to do so. They may call or text you at work or late at night and expect you to be available for them. If you resist, they express that you are a bad person or not committed to them or to the relationship.

Another indication that a person is consistently seeking to transgress your personal boundaries is that any kind of personal / relational contact you may have with them is never “enough”. In a normal relationship, a period of personal / relational contact with a person (e.g. by talking on the phone, or email, or messaging, or visiting, etc.) should lead to a sense of fulfilment by the end of the period of contact. “It was great to see/hear from you!” is a normal response at the end of such contact. However, a person exhibiting SBCMB will often have the opposite reaction by the end of a time of contact, e.g. “It’s sad/wrong that you’re leaving me.” A time of contact never satisfies, and cannot be ended without a sense of loss. A reply to a message is never enough; it leads to a sense of further obligation, requiring more and more replies. Contact is thus not positive or fulfilling in itself; rather, it leads to the requirement for more and more intimacy, at a deeper and deeper level. A failure to provide this never-ending and ever-increasing obligation can then be seen as a betrayal.

Example 2

Another example is a person who will not simply accept the answer “no”, thus disrespecting personal agency. I (Lionel) once received a request by an individual who wanted me to use my personal website to create a forum for ongoing lengthy debate between me and him on a particular issue. The person was replying to an email I had sent him, where I had engaged briefly with something he had written on the issue. In the email, I had expressed that I saw the issue itself as significant. The individual based his request on this, stating that if I thought the issue was significant, then clearly that meant I should be willing to use my resources to debate with him personally about it. He did not seem to be able to see that my commitment to the issue was a separate matter from my commitment to him and his projects (and indeed, his reputation as a debater on the issue). In response, I stated a boundary: I did not see his suggested course of action as a priority, because I had other important things to do with my time. He would not accept this. He argued that if I had time to do any other activities, then clearly I had time to engage directly with him and his personal project (because it was clearly more important than anything else). Notice that he was not respecting me as a person with a right to make decisions about my own time. I repeated my boundary, and left it at that.

However, soon afterward when I went on annual leave, the person contacted me again by email. He told me had done a web search for my name combined with his, and had found other issues that he believed I was obliged to debate with him (in actuality, he had merely discovered a couple of references to his name amongst some detailed bibliographic material I had placed online years before). I had set up an out-of-office autoreply indicating that I was away on leave and would be back on a certain date. However, the person did not wait for me to return. Shortly after receiving the autoreply, while I was still on leave, he emailed me again with the subject “Where are you?”, asking me why we could not have a debate, and asking me to tell him what my issue was. That is, even though I had set up an autoreply that said that I was unavailable while on leave, his behaviour showed he regarded that this clearly did not apply to him; he could (he thought) bypass the boundary, with a right to have special access. Furthermore, he could not simply accept that I had the right to determine how I used my own time and resources; instead he believed he had a right to demand an account from me for my failure to give these over to his own agenda.

In the face of this, I realised I needed to put up a further boundary. I told him that he obviously had not read, understood, or believed my previous explanations as to why I had made this decision, and said he should go back and read those explanations; I would not repeat myself. The barrage of emails from him continued, with a similar theme: he kept implying that I was morally wrong not to debate with him (because engaging with his project was more important than anything else I could be doing), and asked me repeatedly to give reasons for saying no.

After this, I decided I needed to put in place yet another boundary: not to reply to him at all. This was an extraordinary boundary, above and beyond what I would put up in a regular relationship. In a regular relationship, we expect people to respect our regular boundaries (e.g. saying “no”). Since this person did not respect that boundary, but kept seeking to transgress it, I needed to put up a more extreme boundary (i.e. not replying to any of his emails).

Individuals who exhibit SBCMB will often try ways to avoid or circumvent reasonable boundaries that you have set up, in order to bypass or transgress them in a different way. A person may employ excuses or reasons why new circumstances mean that what you have clearly told them about reasonable ways you want them to behave towards you are not relevant in the new situation. To use a metaphor here: you find you need to erect, or simply point out, a boundary fence in the relationship; it is not respected, so you (sometimes reluctantly) need to build a brick wall because the boundary fence is not robust enough in your relationship with the person exhibiting SBCMB. In a normal relationship you might reasonably expect that the other person will respect the fence of your reasonable personal boundaries; a person exhibiting SBCMB will not—so the fence is at once trampled; sadly, the boundary needs to be more like a brick wall. They will then try to get through the brick wall by trying the handle on every door they can find, and then trying any windows, or digging holes in the mortar, etc.

Example 3

A third example is a person who sent emotionally-charged messages to me (Bronwyn), with ever-increasing frequency. After a time, I set up a boundary, saying that I needed some space and will not always be able to reply. The person simply modified their behaviour, sending further messages with only slightly modified content and using different messaging services. The messages were of the form: “Just want to give you some information about…”; then a little while later, “Just checking you got my information about…” Then when I didn’t respond, a little while later further messages came of the form: “Can I talk to you at all?”, “Just sending a message wondering if you’re ready for me to start messaging you again…?” The subsequent messages involved an attempt to triangulate in someone close to me, with the implication that I was being callous for not replying to these apparently reasonable requests to engage (note the portrayal of themselves as a victim).


[1] See e.g. H. Cloud and J. Townsend, Boundaries (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992): “Boundaries are anything that helps to differentiate you from someone else, or shows where you begin and end” (35). Examples include: skin, words, truth, geographical distance, time, emotional distance, other people, consequences (35–40).

Read the next section: Using words persuasively but untruthfully

Copyright © 2021 Lionel and Bronwyn Windsor


Note well: Because of time and energy constraints, we’re not personally able to respond to any queries or comments about this paper. So please realise in advance that if you send us a message about this paper, you are unlikely to receive any response from us.

To read the whole paper: Slow-burn crazy-making behaviours

Slow-burn crazy-making behaviours. Photo by Vadim Sadovski on UnsplashOnline: a roadmap for the entire paper Download the entire PDF

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