I was in a conversation with a family member of a woman in her late 30’s who is seeking recovery for the first time. This person observed that the woman has gone through a series of bad relationships. It has been a pattern for her since her teen years. It is sad to observe how common that pattern is. And, when one finally decides enough is enough, it can take several efforts at recovery to get it right. That process itself can take another 2-5 years or longer.
Seven or so years ago a woman sought recovery help. Her brother was a psychologist in a large urban center out of state. An attractive woman, she had had many romantic prospects and never felt the need to settle down, compromise or accept any boundaries in life from any source. And even in approaching recovery for the first time, she resisted any guidance and insisted she was fine and could do it herself. Her “free spirited” lifestyle kept her moving about. However, the number of available and financially stable prospects for long term romantic relationships seemed fewer and less promising as she’d gotten older. The competition from younger women had increased. Her parents were no longer around and able to be her fall back safety net. If one has not settled down and created a stable life for herself, (and her children, too) by the time she’s in her 40s, it gets harder and harder to do. This woman’s brother asked me if I saw that pattern very often that he’d observed with his sister. I had to confess that I did. He commented that it seemed that for some women, only when youth and beauty fade, which has been relied on so heavily for self-worth and success in life, does one awaken to reality. And it can be a harsh and painful awakening.
Often times with limited education and sporadic, unstable work history, readily available jobs can be physically exhausting and allow one to barely eek out an existence, forcing some women into homelessness or co-habitation with individuals who are neither safe nor stable in order to have a roof over their head. Or, as I have observed over several years and from a variety of women, feigning exacerbated symptoms of mental illness and suicidal ideations in order to appeal to mental health authorities to find them stable housing and to qualify for social security disability just to have some sort of financial base for survival. Over recent years the fastest growing demographic of disability applicants has been women in the their 40s for mental health complaints.
Some people arrive on the doorstep of midlife recognizing the need to change their pattern, but finding it not just hard, but very near impossible. Grieving has to be done…for what one may feel she missed in life, for dreams not achieved, for realizing that she may have missed some opportunities, for finding that one may have been chasing things that are not lasting and missing things that are. Finding a way through a transition from carefree, adventure-loving, and independent youth that has morphed into needing safe, supportive community and stable relationships as one approaches midlife can be difficult. Health issues may have begun to arise. Years of resisting setting boundaries with oneself or accepting the boundaries of others has left wear and tear on an unguarded heart, a confused mind, and a stressed body.
If there is a brokenness of spirit (and not just a victim’s woundedness of soul or a hardened determination to continue living out of an entirely self-interest based ethic) and she demonstrates readiness for transformation, such lives can be renewed and life can be better than one could have imagined. That is, however, a rather big “IF”. It may take several months of working with a woman to discover if she is serious about change or just using the kindness and generosity of others for a temporary respite from the life she intends to continue. But more than anything done by her or for her, it is the work of Christ in her that will determine the course of her life. If she has not responded to Christ’s invitation to be drawn into relationship with him, if she is not willing to let him speak into her circumstances, if she will not listen to the ways in which Christ speaks to her through Scripture, by his Spirit, through the people he has brought into her life, and through the circumstances and an individuals’ ability to make sense of it all, she will find herself moving right back into the chaos, but it will only get worse and worse until she finally accepts the boundaries that God has set, even as she has continued to refuse to set any herself or accept those set by others.
Cloud and Townsend in “Boundaries” detailed the progression of lost relationships in life when one refuses to accept the boundaries of others or learn to set her own. Here is the progression of decline and isolation as one refuses to accept the “no” of first one and then the next in this list:
One’s own health
Law enforcement, court system
The Boundaries book ends it there, but I have added “God” as the last one. When all is said and done and one has refused to accept every boundary set in every relationship of this list, the final authority against which one will not prevail in resisting boundaries is God. One can rale against, deceive, deny, complain, and resist. One may push God to the side for all of her life, ignoring God’s rules for living. But at some point, God will have the final say about one’s life. He knew before we were born whether we would accept life on life’s terms, and God’s, or whether we would insist on trying to make it bend to accommodate our own.
Sadly, there comes a time, it seems, when one who has insisted on her own way is given over to it. Scripture, in fact, tells us exactly that. Eugene Peterson’s The Message makes it very clear in Romans 1:18-32:
“But God’s angry displeasure erupts as acts of human mistrust and wrongdoing and lying accumulate, as people try to put a shroud over truth. But the basic reality of God is plain enough. Open your eyes and there it is! By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can’t see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of his divine being. So nobody has a good excuse. What happened was this: People knew God perfectly well, but when they didn’t treat him like God, refusing to worship him, they trivialized themselves into silliness and confusion so that there was neither sense nor direction left in their lives. They pretended to know it all, but were illiterate regarding life. They traded the glory of God who holds the whole world in his hands for cheap figurines you can buy at any roadside stand.
24-25 So God said, in effect, “If that’s what you want, that’s what you get.” It wasn’t long before they were living in a pigpen, smeared with filth, filthy inside and out. And all this because they traded the true God for a fake god, and worshiped the god they made instead of the God who made them—the God we bless, the God who blesses us. Oh, yes!
26-27 Worse followed. Refusing to know God, they soon didn’t know how to be human either—women didn’t know how to be women, men didn’t know how to be men. Sexually confused, they abused and defiled one another, women with women, men with men—all lust, no love. And then they paid for it, oh, how they paid for it—emptied of God and love, godless and loveless wretches.
28-32 Since they didn’t bother to acknowledge God, God quit bothering them and let them run loose. And then all hell broke loose: rampant evil, grabbing and grasping, vicious backstabbing. They made life hell on earth with their envy, wanton killing, bickering, and cheating. Look at them: mean-spirited, venomous, fork-tongued God-bashers. Bullies, swaggerers, insufferable windbags! They keep inventing new ways of wrecking lives. They ditch their parents when they get in the way. Stupid, slimy, cruel, cold-blooded. And it’s not as if they don’t know better. They know perfectly well they’re spitting in God’s face. And they don’t care—worse, they hand out prizes to those who do the worst things best!”
We can march ourselves right into a hellish existence on earth and even into the reality of a permanent hell by our own refusal to acknowledge the reality that our actions have consequences. Others who live by and respect the boundaries of reality in relationships and circumstances of life, including God, will not allow our actions to continue to ruin our own lives and the lives of others indefinitely. Eventually, it all comes tumbling down.