Boundaries and abusive or narcissistic relationships
Although many of us may have heard figures in self help and pop psychology talking about having 'good boundaries' and the importance of these in relationships, it can sometimes be confusing as to why boundaries are so important.
An easy explanation is that an understanding of personal boundaries allow us to tell where the dividing line between my 'self' and another person lies. The language that we habitually use to talk about challenges in relationships metaphorically alludes to the importance of boundaries: we might allow another person to 'walk all over us', get irritated when people 'cross the line', or we 'draw a line' with someone who constantly offends against us. We all have 'lines in the sand', although some of us have been conditioned by our past relationships to let others habitually cross them!
People who have been in relationships where personal boundaries have not been respected (such as an abusive or narcissistic partner, or parent for instance) often find it especially difficult to realise where the desires and needs of other people end, and their own desires and needs begin.
It can be very difficult to understand what our own boundaries are when threats have been used to make sure that we put our own needs second to the demands of the Other in our relationship: the withdrawal of love, the use of violence and real or threatened abuse. The feelings that these experiences bring up in us, often becoming internalised over time, can ensure that we find it incredibly difficult to assert ourselves - especially when they are in contradiction to what the other person in the relationship demands from us.
Often the unconscious message that we develop when in this kind of relationship is that asserting our needs is in some sense 'bad'. Often words like selfish, spoilt and ungrateful are used to describe the person who refuses to placidly do the bidding of the other, while correspondingly letting someone else walk all over you is seen as being 'good' – generous, well behaved, daddy or mummy's favourite.
In recovering from these kind of relationships, it is important to try and find a way of re-discovering our own boundaries, and learning to assert ourselves again. Psychotherapy, through the experience of a caring, insightful and boundaried relationship, can be an invaluable tool in helping to disentangle what it is that is 'ours' and what is the demand of the other in the relationship. It can also provide a space where we can practice asserting ourselves again without fear of violence and learn to bring our 'selves' into the world again.