Usually, when evaluating a book, it’s enough to weigh up pros and cons and decide whether or not to read it. But in this case, I’d like to go a little further because of two things: Firstly, the topic the book seeks to address is so central to the truth of Scripture, and secondly, the book does such tremendous damage to that central truth.
I don’t believe the authors are malicious, in fact, I think they mean to help, but we all know where the road paved with good intentions leads.
The book is called Boundaries in Marriage by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend. It is part of a follow-up series from their book Boundaries which is intended to help Christians establish and maintain what the authors call, healthy boundaries in their relationships. Boundaries in Marriage is one of the many spin-off publications from the original Boundaries book.
In Mark 10:8-9, Jesus quoted His Father regarding the original template for human marriage, “and the two will become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (NIV)
Having a matrix for a structure of boundaries within this “one flesh” unity seems just utterly contradictory to me. I cannot conceive of how that can be structured.
In the book, the reader comes across quite a few good ideas, but at their best, they are all built on this flawed foundation which is the basis and the name of the book; Boundaries in Marriage.
It reminds me very much of Jesus warning in Mark 3:24, “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.” (NIV) This is a book which attempts, I believe, to show marriages how to divide against themselves. The concepts seem terribly flawed to me, not to mention unbiblical.
In Acts 15, the friends and fellow ministers, Paul and Barnabas, met a perfectly human disagreement. Pretty soon they found a perfectly acceptable biblical resolution; Paul went one way and Barnabas another.
That’s exactly what boundaries are for. But if a similarly difficult disagreement had happened between Priscilla and Aquila, which I’m sure did since they were a married man and woman, the same boundary applied by Paul and Barnabas would not have been a biblical one for the one flesh that was Priscilla and Aquila.
A Christian marriage is in a different league compared to other human or Christian relationships; and this self-help, easily digestible, unaccountable approach simply is going to do more harm than good.
So I’m writing this, in a sense, as an extension of the series, Boundaries in Book Choices. I advise the reader to set some boundaries in place before simply accepting what a book says as truth.
To be crystal clear, Boundaries in Marriage is not a book I would recommend to anyone wanting to build a healthy, biblical marriage.
At best, this book has some good advice built on a bad biblical foundation. At worst, I think this book is the instigation that has driven many marriages headlong into an unnecessary separation or divorce.
I am going to list my top 17 observations and concerns with the book, but I would also recommend reading Pastor Rick’s review of the book here: http://pastor-ricks-musings.blogspot.com/2011/01/boundaries-book-review.html
He gives a few other perspectives which I think are excellent. He shows how Cloud and Townsend rely on philosophy and psychology rather than Scripture.
He ends his blog with this thought: "...on page 39 the authors promote the necessity of their psychological teaching by stating, 'Many people have been taught by their church or their family that boundaries are unbiblical, mean or selfish.' Pastor Rick continues: "How I wish this statement were true. Boundaries are unbiblical, mean and selfish because they lead people away from the all-sufficient truth of God’s Word. In former days, the church used to call this heresy. We had better return to those days before it is too late.”
The book has a warning label!
Before I give my list, I must point out that in almost every chapter there are warnings of how the book has already been misused. The last chapter and the conclusion are both devoted to warning readers of how easy the book is to misuse, and it is filled with examples.
Just consider that for a moment; a whole chapter in the book is devoted to how badly the book has been misused!
in almost every chapter there are warnings of how the book has already been misused
- On p234 I read, “I (Dr. Townsend) had a curious experience while speaking on boundaries at a seminar. During a question-and-answer segment, a woman stood up and said, “I’m so glad I learned about boundaries. I was able to break free from an abusive relationship.” You could see the approving nods of others in the audience as they affirmed the prisoner who was now out of jail. Later that day, a man came up to me and said, “I know I have been a controlling husband. But for a long time, I've been working hard on my issues, going to counseling, joining an accountability group, and meeting with my pastor. That woman who mentioned breaking free from an abusive relationship is my wife. Because of these boundary ideas, she has left our home and our kids, and she refuses to meet with our pastor to deal with these problems.” I wonder how easily the audience would have bestowed their approval on this woman had they seen the distress on her husband’s face. Over the years, I have become concerned about similar misunderstandings about boundaries within the marriage relationship… Boundaries were not designed to end relationships, but to preserve and deepen them.”
I wonder if the authors have considered that there may be something significantly wrong with the design of the book?
- On p236 they begin the warning chapter with the following: “The purpose of this chapter is to clarify some of these misconceptions about boundaries in marriage.” I wonder why they are clarifying just “some” of the misconceptions about boundaries in marriage. What about all the others? Surely, since they are aware there are others, they should be included.
It’s not like we’re dealing with some tertiary issue; whether it was a fish or a whale that swallowed Jonah, or whether the flood was global or regional. Marriage is a central Christian doctrine.
Perhaps a more appropriate disclaimer would be a large warning label on the cover like one finds on a cigarette box? Something like: “This book is known by its authors to have brought devastating consequences to many marriages.”
- On p248 they begin the chapter with “At nearly every Boundaries seminar that we do, we hear a version of the following story…” Then they go on to describe how their theories have been misused to break a marriage that was in need instead of healing it. That is a pretty sad track record in my opinion.
Jesus' warning in Matthew 7 seems to ring true for me here. If we are to know falsehood by its fruit, this book does not seem to be producing the kind of good fruit ratios I would expect from the truth.
Here are my top 17 observations and concerns based on my reading of the book:
They are not all negative.
- I find no mention in the book at all of one of the essential biblical instructions for a Christian marriage; that of regular physical, sexual intimacy between marriage partners: 1 Cor 7:4 says: “The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.” (NIV).
Or as the NLT puts it: “The wife gives authority over her body to her husband, and the husband gives authority over his body to his wife.”
This, of course, is a very risky instruction, but nonetheless, there it is in the Bible… utterly boundary-less. I think the case could be made that this biblical instruction is the exact opposite of boundaries in marriage. There’s no getting around it, it reads exactly like that in the Greek. The husband has full control of the wife’s body, and vice versa.
Yet most of the consequences the authors suggest for a spouse overstepping a boundary is a withdrawal of various levels of marital intimacy. I find that a very difficult stance to maintain biblically.
On p226 I read, “Stay away from humiliating or punitive consequences…” and on p227, “Deal with your sexual problems: pornography, prostitution, etc. Consequence: End sexual intimacy…” I cannot reconcile this advice, and other consequences they suggest, with Scripture.
The authors offer the following principle for boundaries in marriage which I completely agree with, and I think it’s tremendously good: “Change your behavior, not your spouse.” On p11, for example, they say, “Don’t look at this book as a way to make someone else grow up.”
But isn’t that exactly what is being suggested on p227? And how is ending sexual relations not to be seen as “punitive or humiliating”?
Boundaries are designed to change another person’s behavior, to keep another person out. So at its start, the book seems to contain a built-in contradiction. Is it a book about taking logs out of my own eye or taking splinters out of my spouse’s? It’s certainly not at all clear to me.
- On p9 I read, “Yet, love is not enough. The marriage relationship needs other ingredients to grow and thrive. Those ingredients are freedom and responsibility… When they are not free, they live in fear, and love dies: “Perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18)”
This is simply not biblically accurate. We are instructed through the Bible to fear God, and also to love Him, the Bible seems to think these two things can exist simultaneously.
The Scripture they quote in 1 John 4 states that it is love that drives out fear, not that fear drives out love.
I wonder where the biblical support comes from for the statement that the other two ingredients needed in a marriage relationship are “freedom and responsibility”?
I don’t recall any such scripture. From a biblical point of view, it seems pretty clear that we are called to give up a lot of personal freedom in order to maintain successful marriages, but that seems to be the fertile ground of the biblical concept of love, and quite possible to give up those freedoms willingly and even joyfully.
On p241 as the book is drawing to a close, they say: “Love is the most important element in any relationship. It is the essential framework for how to treat your mate.” How then can the framework be dependent on the circumstances inside the marriage? Surely love is indeed enough, it is the fuel and foundation of a marriage.
- On p17the authors state: “They never reach the true “knowing” of each other and the ongoing ability to abide in love and grow as individuals and as a couple–the long-term fulfillment that was God’s design. For this intimacy to develop and grow, there must be boundaries.” - Where do we find that law in Scripture? It’s not stated as a suggestion or even as a theory. Husbands, we know are commanded in Scripture to love their wives (Ephe 5), and wives are commanded to respect their husbands (1 Pet 3). But where are we commanded to set boundaries so that intimacy can develop and grow?
I have the same objection on p 24: “For love to work, each spouse has to realize his or her freedom. And boundaries help define the freedom we have and the freedom we do not have.”
So are these boundaries essential, is it essential that each spouse “realize his or her freedom”? Is it possible, or perhaps preferable, to realize freedom without them?
Jesus seemed to allow a lot of personal abuse and boundary crossing and yet still managed a huge amount of both love and freedom. In John 10:18, Jesus explained how his freedoms are willingly forfeited, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.” (NIV)
We are instructed in Philippians 2:5-9 to follow suit: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant,…” (NIV)
So Jesus did the exact opposite to the instructions in this book, He developed intimacy by adopting a boundaryless attitude, by forgoing his freedom, considering it a thing not to be grasped. And we are instructed to do the same. This seems the antithesis to setting boundaries.
- On p 25 I read “Where there is no responsibility there is bondage.” This is simply not true. 1 Corinthians 9:19 “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” (ESV) The biblical mandate is that great responsibility leads to a type of willing bond-servanthood. It is purposefully and love generated.
Also on p25, they say “Love can only exist where freedom and responsibility are operating.” I’m not convinced this is true. Love existed in this world where freedom and responsibility were not operating. Love is primary, initiative, and infectious. It is independent of circumstances and conditions.
- On p 28 I see something I can come close to agreeing with “…boundaries are not something you ‘set on’ another person. Boundaries are about yourself.” I understand where that is going, but that is responsibility, not boundaries. Boundaries are, by definition something you “set” on another person.
But I think they are onto something significant with taking responsibility: “You can’t speak to me that way.” That is an attempt at control, it is setting a limit or a boundary. But saying, “when you speak to me that way I find myself getting very angry.” That is not setting a boundary, that is taking responsibility.
On p 35 they clarify their position “many times a marriage will break up as the passive spouse decides she wants to have ‘a life of her own’. And she leaves.” Sometimes she may even call this move ‘getting some boundaries’. Nothing could be further from the truth. Boundaries are only built and established in the context of relationship. To run from a relationship as the first step of boundaries is not to have boundaries at all. It is a defense against developing boundaries with another person.”
I understand this; it’s well stated that to leave a relationship is to have no boundaries, it’s not quite true though. Paul and Barnabas still had a relationship after parting. Indeed they resolved their differences later on; that would not have been possible without a relationship. The same is true for divorced couples. A divorce ends a marriage, but it does not end the relationship, especially not for believers who are united in the Body of Christ. To run from a relationship is a boundary like a restraining order is also a boundary. It’s not a defense against developing boundaries; it’s a defense against responsibility (amongst other things) in an existing relationship.
- On p 31 I read “We caution you, however, that you must take this stance only with a pure heart. Impure hearts use boundaries to act out feelings such as revenge or anger.”
Here we have a major problem with this, and any, self-help book. To whom is one accountable to consider the purity of one’s heart? Can a book really play that role? Everyone will affirm that they are using boundaries with a pure heart if they are only accountable to themselves.
- Chapter 2 is about applying the “10 Laws of boundaries in a marriage”.
I’ve listed the “laws” below, but before we get to them I must ask why these are called “laws”? What reason am I given to accept them as such? These are, at best, guidelines. Calling them “laws” sets them up as way more important than biblical instructions.
On p 57 I read “Remember you can’t break laws forever without consequences. We all have to either live in accord with them and succeed, or continually defy them and pay the consequences. These laws will help your marriage adapt to God’s principles of relationship.”
My thoughts: That would, of course, be true if these are actually laws! But just because the authors say they are laws does not make them laws. I find it extremely distressing in a book proposing to be biblically based, to find opinions presented as laws, while God's Word is presented merely as “principles.”
This seems to me to be the implied stance the authors take that God's principles are in need of Cloud and Townsend's "laws." Breaking these "laws" carry consequences no marriage can survive indefinitely. I'm hoping that the reader can see the obvious problem with this stance.
It’s about now that I begin to realize that just about every boundary consequences suggested in the book is something along the lines of “If you continue with this action I may need to distance myself from you?” This is a book, as the name implies, of distancing, of breaking apart; it is not a book of unity and bringing together.
Here are Cloud and Townsend's “laws”:
- Sowing and Reaping, where “consequences grow spouses up” a statement which opens relationships up to terrible abuse, and seems so contradictory to the premise: “Change your behavior, not your spouse.”
- Responsibility, where we are to be “responsible to not for.” How then does a husband “love his wife as Christ loved the church?” Ephe 5:25? v27 says He “presented her to himself.” Are we not to present our spouses to Christ in the same way? Are spouses not at least partly responsible FOR their marriage partners being in better shape than when they were given to them?
On p42 “Couples have a duty to set limits on each spouse’s destructive acts or attitudes.”
My thoughts: This is such a subjective “law.” How then do we forgive “seventy-seven times” as Jesus instructed in Matt 18:22?
- Power, where “spouses often try to use boundaries to assert power over a mate.”
My thoughts: No kidding!
- Motivation, where “Fear always works against love.”
My thoughts: I find this statement to be really problematic. Fear doesn’t work against love. Nothing works against love. Galatians 5:22-23 make it very clear that nothing works against love, or joy, patience, kindness, and the other fruit of The Spirit. But love certainly works against fear; victoriously, I might add, every time.
It’s as if they are suggesting that dark works against light, it’s simply not true, but light works against dark, because that is what light is; dark is just the absence of light. There is no fear in love; it is not actively working against love.
- Exposure, where they state that “when boundaries are ‘exposed,’ two souls can be connected in the marriage. But when boundaries are unexposed, spouses are less emotionally present in their marriage, and love struggles.”
My thoughts: I find that very presumptuous! It seems to me they are trying to tell the reader that the only way to a successful marriage is through their book?
What about where each spouse is so attentive to the other’s needs, so respectful, that they have never even discussed boundaries?
Why not simply be honest about feelings and not have to impose or expose any boundaries? That seems to me to be a much more biblical approach to marriage.
- On p61 I read, “Boundaries in Marriage is not the same as Boundaries on Your Spouse. This book is not about changing, fixing, or making your spouse do anything… Thus, more often than not, the first boundaries we set in marriages are with ourselves.” If that is the case then surely those are the ONLY boundaries we set, not just the first boundaries.
It’s about here where I begin to see how easily this book gives license for poor biblical marriage relationship breakups.
- On p62 I find something I can completely get behind, “blaming one’s spouse oversimplifies the issue and often doesn’t solve the problem.” This is so true and so in line with scripture.
This is a thought which they expound on in an extremely productive and biblical way: “Although you may share no blame in creating these problems, you probably need to take some initiative in solving them”. Their assertion is that both Matt 5:23-24 (if you’ve done something wrong) and Matt 18:15 (if your brother has wronged you) are instructions for you to take the initiative.
This is such an excellent point, that is it really worthy of mention. It stands in such contrast to so much else in the book, even to the whole premise of the book. “Fault is irrelevant.” God, of course, works the same way with us!
And they continue dismantling the book’s premise:
On p63 it states: “The ‘innocent’ spouse needs to see what part, active or passive, he plays in the problem.” p64 continues: “When we neglect setting boundaries with ourselves and focus instead on setting boundaries with those we think sorely need limits we have limited our own spiritual growth… We must become more deeply concerned about our own issues than our spouse’s… Boundaries with yourself are a much bigger issue than boundaries in your marriage.”
I think I could really get behind a book called Setting Boundaries with Yourself.
p66 I read “… the suffering spouse may focus more on his spouse’s problems than his own. The more apparent the flaws, the more friends will talk about the flaws of the spouse rather than the problem of the sufferer… the ‘good’ spouse can easily take the morally superior position toward his spouse. Since his contributions to the problem may not be as obvious, he may think, ‘I am not capable as being as destructive as my mate.’ This is a dangerous position to take.”
“When one mate protests her spouse’s disorganization yet will not look at her own controlling tendencies, she stands little chance of seeing him change. She is being a hypocrite in that she is demanding of him what she isn’t doing herself.”
p74 “many spouses struggle with judging, criticizing, and condemning others. They have difficulty accepting differences in others and see differences as black and white. And they often misread a person’s actions out of a need to be loved and accepted; they hate both the sin and the sinner… When you live with a judge, you are always on trial.”
What an excellent series of points. Judges, of course, are those who set and maintain boundaries, they also execute punishment on those that violate them.
- The dismantling of the book is, however, short-lived. p75 “Love cannot grow in a climate of fear: 1 John 4:18”.
This is again not at all what the verse says. Love drives out fear; it’s not that fear is too strong for love. Love can, and indeed does, grow in climates of fear all over the world.
On p103 they seem to contradict this yin-yang view they hold of fear and love: “I have seen controlling spouses stop being controlling when the fear of reality–the probable consequences–invade their hearts.”. So love, it seems, can grow in a climate of fear, after all.
- On p108 “This person’s greatest value was his own happiness and his own immediate comfort. And I can’t think of a worse value in life, especially a life that includes marriage… People who always want to be happy and pursue it above all else are some of the most miserable people in the world.”
Another very good point, which again seems to me to dismantle the self-pursuing focus of boundary setting in marriage.
- In chapter 8-11 I come across another string of excellent, biblical truths:
- On p123 I read “The act of lying is much more damaging than the things that are being lied about.”
- p128 “Promise that you will never punish your spouse for being honest. This doesn’t mean that there will be no consequences, but punishment, shame, and condemnation should not be part of those consequences.”
- p130 “We generally think of [faithfulness] only in the physical realm. Yet, in many marriages spouses are physically faithful but not emotionally faithful… Especially in religious circles, people think that if they are not sleeping with someone other than their spouse, they are being faithful.”
- p137 “Hardness of heart, much more than failure, is the true relationship killer.”
- p138 “…if you have judged your spouse’s weakness or inability, put down this book and go apologize, if not for her sake, then for your own James 2:13. Identify with your spouse’s weakness or inability as if it were your own… Be vulnerable again. This is what God does with us.”
- Sadly this string of good biblical truths also comes to an end. In Chapter 12, on p152 “Find people who are ‘for’ your marriage and want to help you grow together. Avoid those who play the game of ‘poor you being married to that bad person.” and on p223 “Ask honest and safe friends.”
Here is probably my biggest concern with this book. What about God’s ordained help for our marriages? The appointed Deacons and Elders in His church (church, the thing Jesus is building, His bride, His treasure). What about turning to those who will have to give an account to Him for how they have lead and discipled His people? Heb 13:17. They are not subjectively “for your marriage.” They are accountable to God Himself; they are the officers He has assigned.
The first suggestion of seeking pastoral help comes up on p34 “use counselors, friends or pastors.” We have to wait till p167 of a total 255 pages to find the second time they suggest a “pastoral counselor,” but it's together with “or therapist.”
The authors seem to have an extremely low view of biblical discipleship inside local church.
Surely Matthew 18, where Jesus’ instructs us on how we are to resolve relational conflict in the church, is clear that He intends His church shepherds to play a vital role on the maintenance of marriages and other Christian relationships. They are shepherds who guide and feed His sheep.
- On p215 they are discussing dealing with a “boundary-resistant” spouse: “You must not approach this problem as if you are a team. At this point, you have an adversary. Like a child having a tantrum, your spouse may hate you for entering the world of boundaries. So understand that you are on your own, within the marriage, in approaching the issue.”
I don’t know quite how to express how much I disagree with this instruction. How can I possibly regard my spouse as an adversary, the concept is utterly unbiblical. Even for unbelieving spouses, Christians are not to regard them as adversaries (I Cor 13-16). Even if they were actively working against the Gospel, I would have to conclude that "my battle is not against flesh and blood" Ephe 6:12. There is no scripture in support of a position that regards your spouse as an adversary.
- Again on p221 “Boundaries are about protecting love. They are not about changing people, beating them up, punishing them, or showing them their evil ways. Setting boundaries will enhance or repair the loving feelings you have for each other,”
I find this to be a contradiction with what I read on p222 “you have to earn the right to require your spouse to change.” It seems to me that the initial motivation of the boundary is to get my spouse to change.
- On p225, “Boundaries and consequences are not about fixing someone or making them chose better. They are about allowing appropriate cause and effect so that your spouse will experience the pain of irresponsibility and then change.”
This is really easy to abuse, really easy to use as license for manipulation.
- I almost shed a tear reading on p231 “Develop your boundaries and consequences so that, ultimately, you aren’t the one leaving. Rather, construct them so that your righteousness and God’s painful realities will force your spouse over time either to relent and change or to decide against you and God. In that way, your spouse must be responsible for the consequences of leaving you, not you for leaving him.”
That is such a sad, defeatist suggestion, it is so open to unaccountable manipulation, and it is so anti true biblical discipleship.
They try to redeem this a bit on p251 “If you are doing the right things, and the other person is truly evil, he most likely will leave you. But you can rest in the assurance that you have done everything possible to redeem the relationship.”
Every person is “truly evil,” even those who are doing the right thing. To suggest one person is trying to do good while the other is truly evil is simply destructive.
To end I’d just like to reiterate my major concern with this book; it's not about love surviving where there is no freedom or where there is fear; it's also not about absolving oneself of blame by manipulation, or selfishness. Those are objections, but my major concern is with how the authors completely bypass biblical Elder and Deacon intervention in marriage conflict.
Paul berates the Corinthians for taking each other to court to resolve conflict within the church "I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers?" 1 Cor 6:5 (NIV). How much more so when the conflict is between Christian spouses in a marriage!
In chapter 12 they warn about "triangling" a third party into the conflict. Surely the role of the pastor and the deacon is precisely to help resolve conflict, to hold parties to account for promises made. Surely Matthew 18 is all about Jesus' idea of how elders and deacons can disciple Christians out of a deadlocked conflict. Surely Acts 6 is about the role of Deacons to maintain peace and prevent relational abuse inside the church.
Why are the authors not suggesting the other biblical means of resolving conflict besides overlooking and negotiating? What about mediation, and arbitration and church discipline? I find it tremendously disappointing in a book claiming to offer biblical advice to totally ignore the very mechanism that God has ordained; the living stones that Jesus said He would be building, the shepherds overseeing His flock.
The Church is mentioned three times in the gospels, all three times by Jesus in Matthew 16 and Matthew 18. In these three passages we have all we need for upholding, protecting, and advancing biblical marriage; for maintaining and keeping it pure with no need for setting boundaries.
Sadly I have very little good to say about Cloud and Townsend’s book Boundaries in Marriage.