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Teens can help foster healthy relationships by placing boundaries on their emotions, time, privacy and bodies.

Youth Update

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Boundaries: Respect in Relationships

by D. Scott Miller

NASCAR drivers win races by staying within the lines around the track and meeting rules regarding the car. Musicians in a band play according to a common key, rhythm and tempo. Both acknowledge boundaries set up to govern their behavior.

Boundaries may appear harsh or controlling. In actuality, they provide the framework for you to become your personal best.

Recently, you have heard of some who crossed the boundaries of correct behavior in relationships. Many of the reports of sexual misconduct have involved priests and the Catholic Church. Many people have been confused or embarrassed about being Catholic because of the scandals.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, says, "The Catholic Church in the United States is in a very grave crisis, perhaps the gravest we have faced." But, he goes on to affirm that it is not a crisis of faith; it is a crisis about the crimes of sexual abuse and Church leadership's response.

The Church is still very much the Church that you are hopefully experiencing—people who pray together, gather as a community and are devoted to serving the needy. It is a Church with a pope who loves and gathers with young people wherever he travels. It is the Church that has organizations such as Catholic Relief Services bringing aid to troubled nations. It is a centuries-old faith that traces its beginnings to Jesus and Peter and has survived scandal, Crusades and the Reformation. The Church will survive this crisis, too.

Sexual abuse is a problem found not only within the Church, but also in society as a whole. You have probably heard the statistics: The FBI reports that one in three women and one in five men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes.

This Youth Update takes a look at respecting boundaries in your relationships, whether the boundaries are dealing with time, emotions, information or physical activity.

Worth Protecting

Violating boundaries is a problem for exactly this reason—God made you as a human being. "In the beginning," you are reminded, "God created man in his image, in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:1, 27).

You are created in the image and likeness of a wonderful Creator who knows that you are good. Because of this, you have immeasurable value.

Whenever you encounter another person, you should see a hint about God to be found in him or her, this "image and likeness of the Creator." God sees the value and good in each person and challenges you to find that good as well.

Sexual violence has no place if this is what you believe and how you choose to act. It violates the dignity and worth of each person created in God's image. It betrays the trust that is so important in relationships. It is a serious sin.

Boundaries Matter

All relationships require work. We are still human and not perfect, so student/teacher, coach/player, boyfriend/girlfriend, youth minister/youth group member, parent/child relationships are never too easy, but instead demand effort and trust.

Boundaries provide the promise of having relationships where both people are committed to preserving trust and upholding the value and worth of each other.

Boundaries are best understood when they are clear. Anyone who has played soccer in a backyard knows that it is easier to violate an out-of-bounds that is defined between two landmarks rather than one where a thick chalk line has been clearly laid down.

Boundaries are a good thing. If you have observed them well, your efforts can be acknowledged as real achievements. No points are given when you are out of bounds or for a shot after the whistle; no standing ovation comes for a monologue that ignores the script.

Boundaries also help protect the players. In hockey, a strong elbow check is a foul; the penalty is a shot or time in the box.

In your relationships as teenagers, boundaries are significant. You can work on your skills within the boundaries so you might excel in present relationships and learn for future relationships.

Time Boundaries

You can show your intimacy in a relationship in many ways. A choice regarding time is one of them. An athlete is known as a "gym rat" or an overachiever if he or she spends every moment practicing. If someone looked at how you spent your time, how would they define you?

Life as a teenager is too diverse to spend it in just one corner of existence. Yet, you certainly have seen teens who have seemingly already committed their lives and time away to their relationships.

A good rule of thumb for judging your relationships is to ask: How life-affirming is that choice? Is your time spent in a relationship built on trust and not on insecurity, control or jealousy?

A clear signal of an unhealthy relationship would be that one of the partners feels isolated from the rest of the world. Maria might feel that Alejandro is controlling what she does, who she sees and talks to. These controls might lovingly be based on jealousy.

Furthermore, it is life-affirming to be able to provide an alternative perspective and experiences to the other person in a relationship. You should always value openness to some other experiences. In this way, you might share the gift and grace of those experiences with others.

Time boundaries should be set within any relationship to reflect on what is important in your life. Set limits for friends, family, work, school, activities and relaxation. Plan to have a full, diverse and active life.

Heart Boundaries

Besides limiting time, boundaries are also necessary with respect to emotions. Anger, happiness, frustration, contentment, pleasure, pain, grief and excitement are all emotions. Being in a relationship promises lots of emotional experiences, both positive and negative.

Emotions might confuse or overwhelm you at times. New emotions can sometimes be difficult to understand. Often, they provide a distraction to other things going on in your life.

Emotions, however, offer a choice. You can control your emotions and rule them rather than allowing them to rule you. Even emotions need boundaries. It is a matter of taking charge of your own life. This responsibility is an important task of your teenage years and it continues to be important, no matter how old you are.

This discipline offers challenges. You want to make sure that you have a language for your emotions, that you are able to identify and describe them. Know who among your family, friends and significant adults might be able to discuss your emotions with you.

You can channel your emotions with different methods, possibly meditation, exercise or prayer. Find out which ones work best for you. However, techniques such as denial or addiction only mask emotions temporarily but don't assist you in getting a handle on them.

Knowledge Boundaries

Welcome to the information age. You can discover many details about a person simply by surfing the Internet. Bloggers post personal diaries online daily. Perhaps you have had a picture of yourself placed on the Web for a school or church activity. It's cool to consider that faraway relatives might be able to download this information.

Yet, the Internet poses security concerns. Be cautious about sharing personal details, and protect your passwords.

What is true of virtual relationships is true with actual relationships. You hold the password to the details of your life. Take care in building relationships of trust over long periods of time. Trust strongly built can't be rushed.

Information sharing is important to relationships. You will want to share facets of your life with people you meet. Many of your feelings will need to be processed with others. If someone wrote the story of your life right now, the author would tell all of your geeky first-grade mistakes, when your pet died, when you moved to a new town as well as the surprise of new friendships.

It would be a great story—a best-seller! It would be so popular that someone would surely offer to write a revision after you graduate from high school. Would the book be the same length? Of course not! It would be expanded with more tales, more experiences, more feelings.

You are a work in progress. Allow yourself to be a fascinating read for others by having your story slowly reveal itself before them. You don't have to race to share the whole story because you are not done yet.

You also can set limits when other people begin to share too much of their story with you. You do not have to be your friends' emotional bellhop, carrying their baggage for them. It is important to be loving and helpful but sometimes "too much" can become harmful to you, your emotions and your attitude.

Body Boundaries

You know that you have value, worth and dignity as a person made by God. It makes sense, then, to consider the following possibility:

It is a moonlit night. A couple sits in a car on a hillside overlooking the city. Romantic music is coming from the CD player. Jude makes the classic "scratch the back of the head and then reach out and put my arm over her shoulders" move. Teresa shifts closer to him. She looks into his eyes. He looks into her eyes. And you know exactly what they are thinking at that moment....

How wonderful that this person is created in God's image and likeness! (That wasn't what you thought they were thinking, was it?)

Why not? How wonderful physical intimacy could and should be: an embrace, holding hands, a kiss and, yes, even sex! Each of these acts is one "image and likeness of God" coming into contact with another. It should be a sacred and holy moment.

I once was with a group of other adults, delightedly listening to an 82-year-old man recall his first kiss 65 years earlier. He remembered the way she wore her hair, her dress, the scent of her perfume and his surprise at the taste and texture of her lipstick. This moment was very special and precious.

Boundaries regarding physical intimacy are not about keeping all the "fun" away from young people. Physical intimacy is meant to help bond and unite people. If you ignore its power, you disregard the wonderful opportunity it provides. One of the biggest lies ever told is "Hey, that kiss (or any other intimate act) didn't mean anything!"

It isn't often said, but it's clear that the pope thinks intimacy is pretty spectacular. In his book Love and Responsibility, Pope John Paul II says, "Betrothed love, which carries within itself an inner need to make a gift of one's own person to another human being (a need realized...in a full sexual relationship as well as in other ways) has a natural grandeur of its own."

This intimate physical contact between two images and likenesses of God is so holy that a sacrament, Marriage, is attached to sexual intercourse. Because sex is holy, the Church and society are really upset about sexual violence. Sex involves dignity, respect and total self-giving, not selfishness and brutality.

You should plan and consider the most appropriate boundaries for you within relationships. What is acceptable for you, not only within your comfort level, but also within your faith level? Discussing these boundaries with a very trusted person can hold you accountable to the standards you set.

Boundaries as a Sacred Mission

Jesus once offered a metaphor about himself as the Good Shepherd (John 10:1-16). The boundaries are simple: Stay within the sound of his voice and follow the Leader. Other choices have bad outcomes. Stick with the Shepherd who came so that you might have life and have it more abundantly.

Of course, human beings aren't sheep. You can make your own choices. You can declare boundaries that are good for you, especially when they reflect that you have listened to the Shepherd's voice. If you do so, in setting limits, you are promised abundant life.

When You Meet Adults, What Should You Expect? RESPECT

How can you tell if adults are being respectful? You should be able to answer a confident Yes to the following questions:

• Am I treated with the dignity and value demanded for someone created in the image and likeness of God?
• Is this adult exhibiting genuine concern for me?
• Do I believe this adult has and will take precautions in an effort to protect me and my spirit?
• Does this adult take into consideration my schedule and obligations?
• Does this adult seem emotionally secure? Does he/she hang out with other adults and have good relationships with them?
• Is this adult responsible in making decisions about sharing personal information?
• Does this adult invade my personal space and make me feel uncomfortable at times?
• Does this adult set clear boundaries in his/her relationship with me?
• Does this adult allow me to set clear boundaries in my relationship with her/him?

If you are unsure if an adult has crossed appropriate boundaries in a relationship with you, describe the behavior to another trusted adult.



Is it really possible to have boundaries on emotions?


Right before a public performance or game, the cast or team works to get "psyched." An adult advisor walks by and encourages everyone to save some for the show or game. Or perhaps you've seen this: Tensions rise at home and a parent advises everyone to watch tempers. Emotions can be controlled and mastered. It becomes a matter of pacing. Emotions of an event of great happiness or much sadness need to be experienced, but they also are not the entire experience.


What are some simple steps that young couples can follow in order to maintain boundaries in their relationships?


Talk with each other, with friends and with parents about appropriate boundaries in relationships. Take a long-term perspective on your life and determine what levels of time, information, emotions and physical intimacy are appropriate for your present age and your future plans. Be prepared to continually reevaluate your relationship and your choices. Last but not least, pray about your choices as a couple.


What advice would you give to a teen who has already crossed some of the boundaries mentioned here?


In basketball, a player crosses a boundary and the whistle blows. There is a consequence, but the game goes on and the players work to avoid any more violations. When the referee announces a foul to the scoring table, the sportsmanlike action requires the offender to acknowledge the foul by raising a hand. When you cross a boundary in a relationship, you must acknowledge it, work to change the offending behavior and continue on. As you pray the Lord's Prayer, ask our Father to "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." If you have crossed a boundary in a relationship, seek forgiveness. You can begin again from this point.

D. Scott Miller is the associate director of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry (NFCYM). Before joining NFCYM, he served as an abstinence/chastity educator for the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Katie Clemmer (17) of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Fulton, Maryland, Lauren Fadely (15) of St. Mary Magdalene Parish in Lindale, Texas, and Mollie L. O'Keeffe (16) of St. Mary Parish in Norton, Massachusetts, reviewed this issue and asked questions of the author. If you want to review a future issue yourself, visit www.DisciplesNow.com and click on "YU in Review."

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