“A lack of boundaries invites a lack of respect.”
boundary noun [boun-dree].
- something that indicates bounds or limits; a dividing line
- a limit of something abstract, such as a subject, activity, or experience
- a word therapists use that may sound foreign, intimidating, or bizarre to some
Do any of the above definitions sound familiar to you?
The theme of boundaries continues to surface during my counseling sessions, especially with couples. I’ve seen extremes: I’ve found that sometimes, the involved partners have either set too many boundaries, leaving little room for growth, learning, and alignment; or none at all, which opens the door for the possibility of miscommunication and misunderstandings. Learning to set clear boundaries – both for yourself and with your partner – will help you live a healthy, loving, and successful life.
Before continuing, it’s worth noting that when I use the word “boundaries,” I’m primarily referring to those in the emotional realm; these deal with differentiating our feelings, reactions, and behaviors from someone else’s, as well as accepting responsibility for our part (and our part only!). When we tend to our own emotional needs, we’re better equipped to interact with the world in a way that’s aligned with our values and beliefs, which guides us in making important decisions and shapes how we relate to others.
Setting good boundaries begins with identifying and respecting our individual needs. Knowing our internal compass is critical for establishing and maintaining boundaries; without it, it’s easy to be persuaded one way or another.
I’ll elaborate on this point by using an example: Imagine a couple who wants to begin dating. Partner A tells Partner B that it’s their busy season and they’ll be working more hours than usual. Partner A continues by explaining how everything has to fit around their work schedule, stating, “I might call and ask you out. Will that work for you?” Partner B responds with, “Well, when I go out with someone, I like seeing them often and having contact with them on a regular basis, so I’d prefer to meet up once a week. However, I enjoy spending time with you, so I’ll do what I can to alter my plans and see you.”
What transpired in this situation? Although Partner B stated their preference, they immediately negated it, rendering it unimportant; if it’s not a priority for them, why would it be for their partner? Here, Partner B neglected their own needs to meet the values of Partner A…which doesn’t work in a healthy relationship.
Like the example above, I’ve often witnessed the scene play out in session where one person takes responsibility for their partner’s needs or feelings and/or they blame themselves for their partner’s negative emotions. Remember that it’s impossible to set a boundary while simultaneously considering someone else’s feelings, needs, or wants. If another person becomes upset with you, it’s their problem, not yours!
Further, the manner in which you communicate your boundaries to others undoubtedly impacts how those boundaries will be received. Setting boundaries when you’re angry, resentful, or distressed is counterproductive and potentially damaging; on the other hand, being clear, open, calm, and communicative will probably work more in your favor. Be mindful of what’s going on for you internally, formulate your thoughts and words, and communicate them in an assertive (not aggressive) tone.
TAKE-AWAY: Some people might feel guilty, selfish, embarrassed, or uncomfortable after establishing and expressing their boundaries – this is okay, as long as it’s temporary. Try not to get caught up in your internal dialogue. Creating healthy boundaries is a process that takes time, practice, and a great deal of introspection. The next time you’re thinking of setting a boundary and you feel less than great about it, do it anyway! You’re taking care of yourself, which only makes you better for those around you.