Healthy boundaries in relationships are vital
What are boundaries in relationships?
Boundaries are guidelines which define the limits of our personal space and manage how we interact in relationships. They provide us with a framework of mutually acceptable behaviours and ways of engaging with each other – setting out the conditions for how we negotiate our roles, responsibilities and duties at work, as well as families and intimate relationships.
But boundaries also define who we are as people – how we construct our identity, what we want in relationships, our expectations of people and what we value in others. Maintaining healthy boundaries in relationships help us to protect our dignity and individual self-worth. They protect our rights and freedoms. Once we have agreed to them, boundaries help us respect the values and needs of the people we want to share our lives with. They provide us with a map of how to be and act in relationships.
In society, boundaries are defined by the rules and regulations of our institutions and the laws of our country. But setting boundaries in relationships is not all about control, or sticking rigidly to the rules. They are not just defined by our personal limitations.
More importantly boundaries are there to help us connect with each other, to engage in conversation, to express our emotions and have our needs met by loved ones. They not only define the limits of who we are, but also the ‘contact boundaries’ where we meet. Whether we make physical contact, sexually, emotionally or in everyday social interaction there is always a contact boundary between us.
It is continually shifting and evolving in the ebb-and-flow of our relationships. There is never any point at which a boundary becomes fixed, even if we want it to.
That is why we have to pay continuous attention to how we manage and negotiate our boundaries. When a boundary works it is because it has been mutually agreed and fulfilled. But it is only a healthy boundary because it can grow or evolve according to the circumstances we find ourselves in.
How do boundaries shape us?
Setting boundaries in intimate relationships is not simply a way of controlling or fixing the limits on our behaviour so that we all comply with the same rules and values. This may be what people often expect in co-dependent relationships, i.e. “You must do as I ask, because it proves you really love me”. “You must think and feel like I do.” More importantly, setting boundaries allows us to maintain our independence and sense of identity by accommodating our differences i.e. “Can you accept me as I am?” “Are I allowed a difference of opinion?” “Am I allowed to like what you dislike?”
When we agree to individual boundaries that respect our differences we are much more likely to trust each other with our deepest feelings and emotions, rather than keep them hidden. If we believe that we cannot be forgiven or accepted for our mistakes then we will be much more likely to remain stuck in a cycle and repeat our mistakes.
But people who appreciate each other differences, even when they feel uncomfortable, need to accommodate some degree of compromise. Empathy allows us to understand and sense what is like to be in other people’s shoes and invites us to reconcile our differences and opens up the space for mutual understanding. This is because we can sense that even when we make mistakes or feel vulnerable we will not be judged, shamed or rejected by those we love. It is important to feel safe in relationships and to believe that even when we get it wrong we will be accepted. And there is nearly always a way forward as long as we take responsibility for our actions.
As children we may have been brought up with faulty beliefs that we have transferred in to adult relationships. We might believe that we are not allowed to be self-interested, that it is wrong to want to have our needs met or that it is selfish to say no to people we love. We may even have learned that it is acceptable to be abusive to get what we want, or to manipulate others emotionally into thinking and feeling the same way as us. We may believe that we are destined to rescue the people we love by taking responsibility for their faulty behaviours and attachments i.e. agreeing to other people’s faulty values just to be accepted, even if we feel they’re wrong; or supporting loved ones by feeding their addictions. Or constantly caring for others at our own expense in the misguided notion they will one day repay our act of kindness.
We may fear that if we set boundaries we are being selfish or harming the other person, or proving that we do not love them enough. We may also fear being shamed or abused for saying ‘No’ to our loved ones when they demand more love than we can give. Loved ones who do not respect our boundaries may accuse us of not caring enough; or test us in order to prove how much we love them. If the only way we feel valued is by constantly giving to others or caring for their needs, we can easily allow ourselves to be exploited. Often we do this because we cannot seem to separate our feelings from the person we love. We feel their pain and suffering, so we want to heal it for them, but in the end this deters them from taking responsibility themselves, and it sets up a cycle of learned helplessness.
As soon as we start setting boundaries it may even feel like an uphill struggle because our loved ones start to resist the changes or undermine our confidence. This is when we are most vulnerable because it is difficult to validate and maintain the boundaries we are putting in place. We fear the negative outcomes of conflict, arguments or even being abandoned. But the truth is we feel more alone in relationships, when we are being manipulated, exploited and abused. We can’t live with them, we can’t let go. Eventually, the boundaries which are mutually agreed and respected help both people to appreciate their individuality and independence. Boundaries uphold our right to freedom autonomy and the ability to stand up for ourselves, if we need to. Not at other people’s expense, but certainly not at our own.
So how do we set mutually satisfying boundaries?
Set an internal boundary first – this means becoming more deeply aware of your own feelings, sensations and thoughts, so that you can choose for yourself and make decisions that better reflect your beliefs and values. As your self-awareness you learn to become independent and improve your self-confidence, by exploring what you want out of life, finding ways to express your emotions and discovering your own likes and dislikes. As you become more mindful of yourself you will begin to pay more attention to your bodily sensations and practise self-compassion – by developing better self-care routines and improving your well-being through diet and exercise. You may also start to challenge yourself to try out new things, take small risks, become more adventurous and take up creative pursuits – all of which promote self-esteem and a positive self-image. Human dignity and self-respect are all ways of protecting your personal boundaries and living a more fulfilling life.
State what your boundaries are – be open, clear and direct when you communicate your boundaries and expectations. This generates an atmosphere of mutual respect and awareness by letting others know where you stand and what you expect of them. Even though you may find it difficult you need to state your boundaries, long before they become a bone of contention or you end up in conflict with your partner. If you send out the message from the beginning that you are compliant, passive and a victim, then often people will take advantage of that in order to get their own needs met. This means being more assertive – by adopting the attitude “me first, with you in mind”. Self-preservation is not selfish, it is simply level-headed and makes good sense. You can be compassionate in a mutually fulfilling relationship without sacrificing yourself. Try to focus stating any expectation as a positive mutual benefit – and ask for what you want, not complain about what you don’t want.
Listen to and accept other people’s boundaries – it is of course vital that if you want people to respect your boundaries, you demonstrate an awareness and respect for the boundaries of others, even if they sometimes appear to conflict with your own, but not at your own expense. There are values and beliefs we may all disagree on, but as long as the differences between them don’t come at the expense of others or harm them emotionally or physically, then we can learn to evolve and change our boundaries for the benefit of the relationship rather than only benefiting yourself.
Absolute red lines vs. negotiable boundaries – you may need to assert a handful of absolute red lines as boundaries in your relationships – such as an agreement against physical harm and abuse. It is your right to assert these as long as they are reasonable and respectful of others. Most other boundaries are in constant state of flux and change as your relationship grows, so you constantly need to renew and negotiate your boundaries – such as what happens when you have children, feel that you have grown apart, or life events have changed your perspective on how to live your life. This is normal, but it is also important to remind each other of the little everyday boundaries that become blurred as we all have a tendency to take things for granted and become complacent.
Make a mutual agreement – it is important that all boundaries are mutually agreed so that both people feel they have their individual needs met and respected as well as their common interests. You must state the terms and conditions but not in any rigid fashion and be willing to review them where they become an obstacle to independence and personal growth. A mutual agreement is also a good reference point in the midst of an argument or conflict as either party can remind each other of the terms of the agreement, without using blame or accusations to make the other person back down.
Continuity and consequences – maintaining the continuity of boundaries is essential to engender trust and respect. If you have boundaries that are repeatedly crossed or disrespected by either person in the relationship then it is likely this will undermine the common values that you share and eventually poison the relationship. There must be realistic consequences when someone ignores the boundaries or breaks an agreement repeatedly. Consequences are not there to punish or discipline anyone but to remind both people to take responsibility for their actions. Examples of consequences are withdrawing care and support, when you feel emotionally or physically abused; saying ‘No’ to unreasonable demands; or even ultimately separating for a period of time.
Adopt an attitude of forgiveness (nudge, not shove) – no one changes overnight, so it is important to recognise that sometimes boundaries can be crossed unintentionally, or because it is hard to break a pattern of habitual and conditioned behaviour. Initially, if you are make necessary changes to your relationship that involve a new set of expectations you need to be aware both of you will make mistakes. This is part of a learning process. You need to accept change is often incremental. The more you encourage change with gentle reminders that nudge the person towards change rather demand it; the more likely you are to work at it. And try to demonstrate a degree of forgiveness when you or your partner return to old habits, so they can take responsibility without feeling resentful.
Two steps forward, one step back – this phrase speaks for itself. But be prepared to recognise and accept that where there are differences in values and expectations, any boundaries that are agreed upon take time to learn and embed in relationships. Routine helps, but any progress you make, may feel like two steps forward and one step back; or occasionally one step forward and two steps back. Keep trying to move things forward and focus on positive progress, rather than the negatives.
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About Gregori Savva
I am Greg Savva. An experienced counsellor at Counselling Twickenham, EnduringMind. I believe in a compassionate, supportive approach to counselling as the best way forward for my clients. I focus on helping you make sense of erratic thoughts and emotions. Offering you a chance to gain self-awareness and change for the better www.enduringmind.co.uk