What do we mean by relationship boundaries? Do they apply to all relationships? What if one person’s idea of boundaries means something completely different to the other person? What happens when the boundary lines get crossed?
Boundary issues can arise in any relationship, regardless of whether it is between family members, friends, colleagues, client and counsellor or just someone you are meeting for the first time.
Many of us will have no doubt read about cases of ‘physical’ boundaries being crossed in the media recently and the impact that can have on both parties.
Relationship boundaries are crucial, as they inform us of what is acceptable and what is not, in any interaction with another person(s). It allows us to know where we ‘stand’ with someone and we can then have a clearer idea when making relationship decisions.
Firstly, we need to understand ourselves, to know what our boundaries are. This can be incredibly difficult if we have experienced unhealthy or upsetting relationships. Perhaps our boundaries as children were crossed and we have not been able to develop a healthy sense of what is right for us. We might also worry that if we set boundaries, we may risk the loss of a relationship or a job promotion.
Even if we have a clear sense of our own boundaries, we may not have the ‘language’ to verbalise these to others or the confidence to physically display them. I read with interest in the media, how some people were able to express very clearly that something was wrong with someone’s behaviour towards them. However, others have only been able to vocalise this when they have felt safe in a ‘group’ environment, knowing that others have spoken out.
The first step is taking some time to listen to and understand yourself; develop a strong sense of your own personal boundaries. These may not match others' ideas or they may even go against your upbringing. They are your boundaries and what you are willing to accept and not accept in any relationship or situation.
The second step is to learn how to vocalise or show these boundaries when you feel they are being crossed. In the same way, we need to respect the boundaries of other people, as we will inevitably cross their boundaries at some stage in a relationship. By showing and vocalising, we are not only reaffirming our boundaries to ourselves, increasing self-confidence and self-esteem, we are also letting others know what they can expect in a relationship with us.
Difficulties arise when there are miscommunications which can be due to a lack of empathy and listening skills. There can be issues around lack of self-awareness and insensitivity (for example, inappropriate physical touching or comments). It may be that someone has a dominant personality, which may include violence or simply a general lack of respect for the other person(s). If someone is not respecting or valuing your boundaries, the relationship or situation may need to change, with perhaps an ending. It may be that further support is needed, perhaps talking to family members, friends, relevant organisations or to a work colleague/department.
Within the counselling relationship, you will experience (hopefully) clear and well-communicated boundaries in place. Your counsellor will let you know what you can expect from them and what they expect from you. Usually, there is a written counselling agreement that can be referred back to, if and when boundaries are crossed.
The counselling environment can be used as a great tool when looking at this issue. Notice what happens within you (thoughts, feelings, behaviours) when boundaries get crossed within the counselling relationship (‘in here’) as this can lead to an insight into how you handle boundaries in your personal life (‘out there’).
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About Jayne Phillips
Jayne is a fully qualified, BACP registered therapeutic counsellor, working in private practice.