Healing the Hurt When Someone Crosses a Boundary
Crossing the Line: Causes of Conflict
When my oldest son moved into his dormitory at the start of his freshmen year the first thing he and his new roommate did was set boundaries. This is my desk, my bed, my closet and my general personal space. Problems arise when one roommate transgresses, or oversteps his bounds. The word transgression comes from a late Middle English word that means stepping across. This idea of boundaries and transgressions occur in all relationships. A relational transgression is the breaking of explicit or implicit rules established in a relationship. Rules are the “musts and shoulds" that guide our choices and shape our view of others. These rules can be broken down into four general categories.
How personal information is used or misused can be a powerful form of transgression. What I tell you in confidence must stay between us. Can I trust you to be my confidant, or do I need to be guarded in what I share? Do I believe that you are withholding information from me?
Simply put, will you make good on your promises? If you tell me something is going to get done, will it? How easy is it for you to break a promise? Is your word your bond? If transgressions are regularly happening in these areas the climate with quickly become unhealthy and conflict will escalate.
Privileging the Relationship
We assume that in our most important relationships each person will give priority to the relationship. Do you use your disposable time with me or another person? Am I investing more emotional energy in this relationship than you are? Has our relationship become one-sided?
When we argue, do we do it fairly? Do either of us engage in emotional, physical, or verbal abuse? Are we respectful of each other’s opinions even when we disagree?
A crucial time in any relationship is when a person perceives another has crossed a boundary and a transgression has occurred. Individuals that desire to purse reconciliation after a relational transgression will need to carefully craft discussions meant to foster understanding, healing and forgiveness. When engaged in disagreements over topics that are important to us it’s easy to be consumed with the issue. Every conversation starts and stops with attempts of persuading the other. We call such conversations, emphatic communication. This type of communication is often dramatic, passionate, intense and memorable and has been the target of much research.
Another type—phatic communication—refers to “small talk that builds relationships.” It is the seemingly routine and unremarkable conversations we have throughout the day, the small talk that makes significant communication possible. While I was in college I became good friends with a fellow communication major who was an outspoken atheist. We spent hours debating the existence of God, the reliability of the Bible, Jesus’ divinity, how a good God could allow evil, and what really happens when we die. These conversations would last into the early morning hours and often would become heated. How could such a friendship last with such emphatic disagreements? It lasted, because that’s not all we talked about. Our debates were offset with epic Ping-Pong games, midnight runs to the local sub shop, talk of girls, dissing each other’s favorite sport teams (I was born in Michigan, and he in Ohio—enough said), and just goofing off. As we would pass each other in the dorm, we’d ask if there had been a change in our belief about God. “Nope!” was the response. “Just checking,” we’d say, continuing to walk. Those seemingly insignificant exchanges served as a much-needed break from our debates about God. If every conversation we have with each other is about the issue that divides us, then the intensity will surely hurt the communication climate. If all you and your spouse, friend, or co-worker do is debate and argue, then perhaps the wisest thing to do is insert regular moments of phatic talk. Phatic communication allows communicators to step back from the issue, take an emotional break, and keep the lines of communication open.
Tim Muehlhoff is a professor of communication at Biola University and author of several books, including I Beg to Differ and Marriage Forecasting. His most recent publication, Defending Your Marriage, speaks to spiritual warfare in marriage and how to equip yourself to defend your relationship. For the past 18 years, he and his wife, Noreen, have been frequent speakers at FamilyLife marriage conferences. Muehlhoff regularly writes and speaks for the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships. Follow Dr. Muehlhoff on Twitter.