Hello! Welcome to the Quivering Daughters website. Please note that this site is no longer being updated with new material but I hope you find the archives helpful. God bless you.

Exploring Bounded Choice

Within an emotionally and psychologically abusive group, the concept of choice is a delicate matter.  Statements such as "You aren't held by chains; you can do what you want", which are then followed by dire repercussions if an unpopular or wrong choice is made, demonstrate the confusion inherent in such environments.

In his article "Bounded Choice: The Illusion of Flexibility in a Controlled World", Dan Krimm states,
Bounded Choice: The Big Finesse
Henry Ford was said to have stated that his new Model T, the first assembly-line automobile,
was available "in any color, as long as it's black." The economic incentive to constrain
choice in a mass-produced world is very strong. However, there is also a strong political
incentive to constrain choice, as it allows citizens' behavior to be controlled more easily,
reducing threats to power over society. In the present day, these two incentives increasingly
are working together even while many of those in power do everything they can to obscure
that fact.
The "Big Finesse" is to induce people into thinking they are exercising pure free will and
personal choice while at the same time constraining their options with regard to anything
important to the exercise of real power. It's easier to control people if they are not aware
that they are being controlled, because they will not even think to resist the control.
Bounded Choice is more commonly known as the (negative) Double Bind. Here is an example from Wikipedia:
The classic example given of a negative double bind is of a mother telling her child that she loves him, while at the same time turning her head away in disgust. (The words are socially acceptable; the body language is in conflict with it). The child doesn't know how to respond to the conflict between the words and the body language and, because she is dependent on his [sic] mother for his or her basic needs, is in a quandary. Small children have difficulty articulating contradictions verbally and can neither ignore them nor leave the relationship.
Implanted Seeds

Bounded Choice affects both spiritual and practical aspects of life. When subtle messages determine the thoughts or behavior of a tender young heart, serious questions can arise regarding the exact nature of God and how He relates to His children. The level of disorientation promoted by this form of communication is devastating. And since God is not the author of confusion, many automatically assume the responsibility for error, adding further detriment to the situation.

Those raised with the double bind as a method of control learn that recovery can be especially daunting. Leaving an authoritarian climate only to realize the challenges of making simple, daily decisions is not unlike a form of culture shock.

Illusion of Freedom

Setting aside the controversial nature of adult autonomy within extremely conservative families, let's regard freedom as a neutral issue for the moment. Many authoritarian parents and leaders insist that adult offspring or followers are free to make their own choices. A case may be presented and wishes understood, but when the verbal statement communicates: "It's up to you," anything less than that is dishonest. Here I referred to "baited choice", which is similar to the deceptive practice of retailers who lure customers only for them to discover that all is not as is portrayed. If an adult is given the option to make a decision only to suffer manipulative ramifications as a result, they truly do not have "free" choice.


To be clear, what I refer to is not the natural consequence of an unwise action. Mistakes will occur as we learn life. I wholeheartedly advocate seeking the input of godly, wise parents, friends, pastors, and Scripture, while most importantly, seeking the will of God and direction of the Holy Spirit. These things do not insulate against every mistake, but mistakes are essential to learning. God can use them effectively in our lives and does not condemn us for them. This certainly isn't an appeal to apathy or willful sin, but a reminder that He is sovereign and faithful and His love is not dependent upon our performance or how high we measure up.

I do allude to an environment which responds sinfully to undesirable actions. Here are a few examples of real-life situations that many of my Quivering Daughter-Sisters have faced . . .
  • manipulation: withholding love or affection, silent treatment, shunning—even up to complete excommunication; appealing to others—worried about what others might think
  • labeling: foolish, stupid, ungodly, rebellious, unsaved, not walking with the Lord (remember: only the Lord truly sees the heart!)
  • passive-aggression: shaming through prayers or "sharing"; patronizing, disrespectful, or condescending treatment
  • overt aggression: raging; hot seats; intense, exhaustive criticism sessions, either privately or with others present
True, natural consequences to a mistake or choice are not manipulative. But it is not a natural consequence to deliberately retribute another person for having a differing belief or making a choice which does not reflect one's personal conviction. An argument may be made that "Carol is free to make up her own mind, but she knew what would happen if she decided to wear pants", for example, "and therefore she chose to be left out of our family photo". This is not free choice, it is bounded choice: controlling or ensuring the outcome of a situation using emotionally, intellectually, or spiritually manipulative tactics. If this occurs throughout a lifetime of subtle training, then it truly is the Big Finesse as Krimm so aptly describes:
[inducing] people into thinking they are exercising pure free will and
personal choice while at the same time constraining their options with regard to anything
important to the exercise of real power. It's easier to control people if they are not aware
that they are being controlled, because they will not even think to resist the control.
Many in favor of the double bind argue that it is out of concern for another's well-being—spiritual or physical—and a form of "tough love" which prompts their behavior. "If I didn't say anything, that means I didn't care", "Would I let them walk off a cliff without speaking up?" "I am just helping them to think" and "They need to learn wisdom" are all types of statements generated by those who genuinely do feel responsibility / love / alarm / anxiety towards those important to them.

But when everything is stripped away, most often a root of fear lies at the base of these and similar defenses. It is here that one has the opportunity to seek the face of God to help strengthen one's faith, because fear seeks control—knowing the outcome, ensuring predictability; whereas faith hands control back to God and says, "I'm willing not to know, but to rest knowing You."


  1. Another example of bounded choice comes from those organizations that teach spiritual warfare-type training and make you drive your body through all kinds of obstacle courses like boot camp as a kind of beat-your-body-into-submission thing. Some people throw up on themselves its that strenuous. You have the option to stop it, but then the leaders imply that you aren't committed enough to God and if you can't even endure extreme physical exertion how can you endure real spiritual battles? Of course no one wants to be thought of as spiritually weak so they have "no choice" but to go on even when they are legitimately ill.

  2. This is an incredible post. Absolutely penetrating in it's accuracy. I pray we all recognize difference between what God alone asks of us and what others present to us in His name.

  3. Oh, dear, when I read the list of things, I, as the spouse of a patriarchy-believing husband, though a mild one (as if that is better somehow-it really is not) have to confess that I have become silent and withheld affection/intimacy, but out of revulsion for a man who could believe such things as he does, not out of manipulation. I just get a very cold, 'don't touch me with your creepy patriarchal hands' feeling after I hear what he believes. I also am guilty of intensely expressing myself when I am in complete shock and disbelief that one could believe the kinds of hierarchical and patriarchical things he believes. I hate that I get that way-strong feelings of revulsion-but I do, and I try to think of how I can 'frame' my view of him when he shares his thoughts so that I don't recoil, but I have not been successful yet. I completely welcome any ideas and observations. This is a very painful and sad thing for me (as it is for him as well). It generally takes me about a day or two to get over the feelings IF we completely avoid the subject of Christianity/religion/fundamentalism/patriarchy. I feel that as a Christian, I should somehow be able to have a much more godly response to his beliefs than I do.

  4. The third post, the one by Anonymous, is by Anonymous 2, not the first Anonymous.

  5. Anonymous 2, here again. You mentioned at the end that fear motivates these types of defenses. In my case, I think my reactions to fundy spouse's beliefs/comments derive from a fear that the enemy-fundy/patriarchal views is crouching at my door ready and waiting to suck me in and devour and obliterate me. I have no desire to rule over said spouse, but I do have the desire of a person who feels they are at risk of drowning to avoid drowning or being overtaken by a flood of such awful beliefs-as I consider them to be. I see as I read this that I need to rest in and trust Jesus for both His truth and His protection-His ability to keep me in the palm of His hand. That would enable me to pull down my defenses. I then need to reframe or view my spouse as simply in deep error (my opinion) and not as some despicable thing when he gives or practices his views. It sounds so simple-why is it so hard to do when the occasion hits? I desperately need to keep my eye on the truth! I believe that is the only way I will walk in Christ's freedom and love in this matter. I still welcome insights from those who have been there or are there!

  6. Anon 2:

    {{Hugs anon 2}} I want to address what you've written and may do so in a new blog post; either way--I am spending time in thought and prayer but didn't want this to go by without acknowledging your pain. :-( Love to you, sister.

  7. Anon 2
    I don't think that feeling cold has to do with bounded choice, in your situation. I think it probably has to do with a natural and normal reaction to not being treated with respect.

    I spent a long long time, too long, beating myself up for not feeling warm and loving and ever-responsive to an abusive husband. It was part of the dance that kept me in confusion and doubt and anxiousness. God won't heal us from natural normal healthy reactions. When someone is regularly disrespectful and dishonoring to us, we are wired by God to have reactions, and those reactions are supposed to tell us that something is wrong. The reactions are meant to be a kind of alarm, just as our nerves send us an alarm when we touch a hot dish.

    The problem is that in patriarchy, we're not allowed to feel cold, or angry, creeped out or feel a sense of revulsion towards something that hurts us. We're supposed to be sweet and cheerful all the time...

    But in so doing, we're fighting against the way God wired us----a very healthy way that God wired us.

    I know it's so very very hard, but I would recommend that you allow yourself to feel your feelings, ask yourself why they are there... They are probably telling you something very wise, pointing out something that you need to listen to.

    I cannot recommend highly enough the book, "Why Does He Do That" by Lundy Bancroft. It is one of the most enlightening books on this topic... There are more excellent books, of course... The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse and Families Where Grace is in Place, both by VanVonderan, are wonderful books to read to learn about spiritual abuse and the harm it can cause and how we can live and work through it. The Bancroft book, however, points out that sometimes, the answer is not found in staying....which is a hard pill to swallow if you are like me and have always dreamed of a happy intact home for your children... It took me a long long time, far too long, to slowly get myself to a point where I was able to look, honestly, at the situation I was in and realize that there was nothing I could do to change it, and that my precious children were starting to get a shell of the mother they once had...unless I was willing to take control over the one thing I actually did have control over: me. What I would do, where I would go, what I would allow to happen to me. All the things we're not allowed in patriarchy, basically, and all the things that the years in a patriarchal marriage had taught me *not* to be able to do...

    I don't know if you have access to counseling services, but I highly highly recommend getting some individual counseling from someone FAR removed from the patriarchal paradigm. One amazing counseler (MA in Marriage and Family Therapy) is Sandra Harrison, in PA (you can google her---google her name and Crossroads Christian Counseling). She will do sessions over the phone, and she has had ample experience with patriarchal marriages where the husband leans towards abusive behaviors. She *knows* and it is so comforting, and very very wise...

    I'm sorry to ramble on and on. My heart just goes out to you. Ignore whatever wasn't helpful, okay? (((((hugs))))) to you as you navigate this difficult path.

    QD, this was an *amazing* post...I got the chills reading it, just because, well, it was so my life for so very long. Lots of choices that never were choices at all...and I never understood... What wisdom and clarity you share here. I wish I could have read something like this a long time ago. Keep up the amazing work, friend. :)

  8. Anon 2 here...Hillary, thank you, and I so value what you share!

    Adventures...thank you for every word. Nothing in your ramble was wasted. I will call the counselor-I have been wondering who I could find that would truly be good and not somehow patriarchy-linked so your suggestion is a godsend. I am also ordering the books. I appreciate what you say about our feelings perhaps being messages/alerts from God and not 'emotionally unreliable' thoughts to be avoided, as is so often taught in these circles. One can begin to question one's own sanity, thought processes, ability to discern, etc. Some days I have to just say to myself, 'OK, stop thinking so hard, try to just think of normal, ordinary, superficial things like how nice it is outside or how fluffy and warm the cat is,' etc...so I won't go nuts with all this.

    I realize blogposts are not intended as counseling vehicles but I very much appreciate what you have shared, and what Hilary has shared in her articles!!!!! Many, many thanks!!!!

  9. Adventures...I googled Sandra Harrison and Crossroad Christian Counseling and got a listing in Tennessee only, not PA. Would it likely be the same individual and she has perhaps moved or am I needing other info?

    many thanks,
    Anon 2

  10. I'm so glad!!! (((((hugs))))

    and embarrassed because, yeah, Sandra is in TN, not PA.

    I wrote before I drank my coffee (lol)...

  11. thanks adventure!!!! And not to worry...PA, TN, who cares as long as it gets done, right? :) enjoy that coffee...I have mine now, too!


  12. Bounded choice. Oh yes. If every answer to a multiple choice question is the same, that is really not choice!

    Thanks for addressing this! Once I was able to understand this concept, it helped me to make up my mind about things a lot better. You are so right that even simple daily decisions can seem like a huge culture shock!

  13. Adventures...I have gotten in touch with the counselor you mentioned and she is wonderful!!! I can't thank you enough! (I hope you get this.)

    Anon 2

  14. Anon 2--- I am SO SO SO happy to hear this! Praise the Lord!!!

  15. I've been exploring this website, and some of the stories and articles here are truly amazing!

    This one in particular caught my eye because it relates to something that's always troubled me about Christianity in general. It's a great article, and makes a lot of poignant points.

    Isn't the entire scenario of eternal hell for unbelievers technically one big bounded choice? "Love me," God says, "or spend an eternity separated from me. You don't have to choose me, but you'll be miserable in eternity if you don't." Really, is that a true choice? Especially considering that God himself made the rules.

    So...I just wondered if anyone here had any thoughts about that. Not trying to cause trouble...just curious.

  16. Amaranth...I can understand what you're saying.

    I think the difference between the "bounded choice" discussed in Hillary's article and the choice God gives us is significant on a couple of levels.

    I think all of us acknowledge that any choice, in any environment or scenario, comes with consequences. We can trust God, being perfect as He is, to genuinely have our best interests not just at heart, but literally in His view. He doesn't withhold or manipulate information, dealing only in truth. Every time He presented His people with a choice in the scriptures, He gives them a detailed look at the consequences for all possible paths they might choose.

    When humans attempt to officiate choices...humanity gets in the way. We can GUESS at potential consequences, and we're extremely proficient at framing the involved information in such a way as to benefit our own agendas, rendering it, at heart, dishonest. This is true even of the most honest individuals. With God, we don't have to guess or walk on eggshells trying to decipher unspoken rules and intentions or reactions. We know what He wants, why He wants it, and exactly where we'll stand with Him on the matter.

    Ultimately, God's perfection and foreknowledge contrasted with human imperfection and limited vision mark the difference.

    Just my thoughts. Someone else may have a far more insightful take on it.

    Great article, Hillary. I've appreciated the "bounded choice" articles over at Under Much Grace, too.

  17. Hi Amaranth! Welcome, and you're not causing trouble at all. It's a great question. I think Lewis gave a great answer but I'd love to have anyone else weigh in also.

  18. This comment is more in response to Anon 2, than it is to the post itself:

    Adv in Mercy said, "God won't heal us from natural normal healthy reactions."

    Yes, yes, yes!In the church we're taught so often not to trust our feelings. While our feelings don't have the whole truth, they certainly do speak to us of some of the truth (and it's a very important some), and we harm ourselves when we don't listen to our feelings.

    When you burn yourself on a hot iron, you don't tell yourself that the feeling of pain is lying to you. But when we feel fear or confusion or even revulsion, we can lean towards not trusting those feelings, and trying to fight them or overcome them. The problem is, like with a burn, what often happens is that the thing causing the pain (which we should be listening to) just gets worse and keeps burning us.

    I also want to second the recommendation for Lundy Bancroft's book, Why Does He Do That. This book saved my sanity and helped me begin to reground myself in the reality of what was going on rather than just spinning around crazily in the crazymaking I was living with. It was easy to read and understand in bits and pieces, even at a time that my brain wasn't functioning at full power.

  19. totally off topic:

    adventures in mercy, I visited your previous blog- I posted about The Riddle of Strider- but I don't have access to your new protected blog. If you would honor me with the privilege, email me at to_shadowspring@yahoo.com and if not, I totally understand. I talk on my blog about highly personal matters and it is very unsettling sometimes that anyone can visit there.

    Sorry Hillary, but I have no other way of contacting adventuresinmercy. =(

    ps I will write more about bounded choice this afternoon. I loved the post and have something to add, just no time right now.

  20. Amaranth,

    We Christians do need to face and answer this question, as it is asked (usually mockingly) by atheists. But I view this is a logical issue, not a moral or ethical one:

    There is no possible choice besides God and "not God"; there is no place where God's presence is only partially effective. So our choice here is "bounded" by logic alone.

    God is the source of all good. So "not God" is devoid of all good. Hell is the place for people who do not want to spend eternity with God. Therefore hell is a place of eternal "not good".

    Does that help?

  21. Bounded choice is appropriate with very young children. "Do you want to wear the red shirt or the shirt with the soccer ball on it?" In that case, it is a means of encouraging independence, ironically.

    Ironic because bounded choice when dealing with older children, teens and young adults, is infantilizing. It is actually choosing FOR the grown, autonomous person while trying to make them feel a little less dominated by pretending to allow them some say in how they will carry out the course of action already decided upon by their authority.

    I am not saying, that as a parent, it is easy to let your teens/young adults develop autonomy. They might make bad decisions. They might get hurt.

    But come on, one parent to another, isn't the bigger fear that you the parent will be embarrassed by a bad choice?

    Even deeper, haven't you always known somewhere deep inside that they are YOUR children, subject to your faults, raised by you, and that a bad decision on their part means YOU WEREN'T ALWAYS RIGHT!? As sincere as you were, you could have been sincerely wrong.

    If we as parents are honest, most of our fears are more about us than about our children.

    My advice: take your lumps and get over yourself. You were probably wrong more than once (I was). If you are hanging around people who will reject you or your family over wrong (or just different) choices, get new friends.

    And in the meantime, be willing to suffer shame on your children's behalf. Jesus did that for you.

    That might mean mismatched socks on a six year old, or a bad relationship choice in a teen. Love them through it, and refuse to be ashamed of your precious growing adults-in-progress.

    They were never yours to keep anyway, only yours to care for and enjoy for a season. So, enjoy already! =)

  22. As a parent and fan of free will for my children, I'd like to chime in and say I'm embarrassed on a fairly regular basis by one thing or another that my teens do. I do still have fear of embarrassment but I can claim some familiarity with it and some numbness to it.

    I will continue to try things to present my love as an offer to my kids but they can and sometimes do freely reject it. If they choose to reject it permanently, they will most likely separate themselves from me. It's the last thing I want though and hope for better.

    Thanks for a great discussion.

  23. Amaranth, if I may chime in-- I understand it this way. God Himself by His nature is the source of all true goodness, joy, happiness, and love. (See my article on this site about Jesus' love.) So when God says "Love me or be miserable," it's a choice along the lines of "Drink water or be thirsty. Eat food or be hungry. Turn on the light or sit in the dark." It's a real and fair choice; it's "bounded" not by arbitrary manipulation of rules but by the nature of the thing being chosen or rejected. You're perfectly free to choose never to drink anything again if you want to, but I really hope you don't because you'd die miserably of thirst. Same with God.

    Also, according to the Gospel, anyone who goes to hell goes there quite literally over God's dead body. God doesn't "send" anyone to hell as a punishment; He does everything possible to stop them and only allows them to persist in their choice if He has no other choice! If anything, God has "bounded" His own choice by setting the rules to allow us to choose freely. (Matthew 18:14, 2 Timothy 3:9).

    I wonder if you've ever read C. S. Lewis's book The Great Divorce? (Which despite the title is not about divorce but about people's choices between heaven and hell.) It sheds a lot of light on this subject in a very amusing fictional setting.

    Great question!

  24. (By "2 Timothy 3:9" I mean "2 Peter 3:9" in case anyone was paying attention to that. The link is right.)

  25. Eric, thank you for chiming in. You put it very succinctly and it's been helpful to me. :-)

  26. I learned about double binds from a therapist while working through my ritual abuse background. Double binds are constantly used in the sense of being given choices...but all of the choices will cause pain (or death) to someone or something. It was not a choice between good and bad, but between the lesser of two evils.

    It is a horrible way to control someone. I had never heard of it outside of the ra context until I learned more about patriocentricity.

    What is interesting is that there are times when my husband and I actually looked at some of those teachings. In fact, I am the one who most looked at it. Now, as I look back, I can see how this form of manipulation is used a LOT. I would read things and be left with the feeling that, in order to do the right thing, I had to do it the way they were presenting. I could choose another way, but it was not the "right" way.

    My eyes have really been opened. When I read things now, I can spot that kind of thinking a whole lot more easily.


Comments are turned off.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.