Setting boundaries in relationships
Boundaries define the space between us. They respect our differences and allow us to collaborate. They protect us from harm and intrusion by others. Boundaries let us know where we stand in relationships and they signal the limits of our behaviour and the behaviour of others. Boundaries are not restrictions on our independence; they are freedoms that come with individual and mutual responsibility.
In intimate relationships we all need to feel safe. So we build bonds of attachment based on mutual respect and trust. And we establish boundaries to ensure while we share common values; we also appreciate each other’s individuality and freedom of choice.
We understand the person we love is a unique individual in their own right – someone with their own characteristics and qualities that make them who they are. We fall in love with their personality. We are sensitive to their emotions and respect their physical need for space and privacy. We come to realise they are autonomous beings – entitled to express themselves freely and empowered to make their own choices and decisions. Indeed it is their individuality and difference that brings something of exceptional worth and value to our lives.
At the same time, we expect them to share themselves with us, to consider our feelings and express their emotions openly. We want them work towards a common purpose and understand us; appreciating our needs, whilst empathising with our vulnerabilities and failings. We expect them to show loyalty; demonstrating care and compassion in times of need. We hope that our loved ones will reciprocate in the mutual give and take of life, while collaborating with us without too much conflict or strife.
At the same time, we need to maintain healthy boundaries which protect each person’s separate identity, and their interests as we co-operate in partnership. So how do we navigate the fine balance between individual needs and shared interests? What are the boundaries? And how do we go about setting safe boundaries in relationships?
Boundaries are both the limits and points of contact in relationships. They are limits in as much as they define a mutual agreement about what is acceptable, and what isn’t in relationships. It’s about finding a balance between what we feel comfortable with and not going beyond the limits of our tolerance. Maintaining this balance is difficult when there are competing interests and we risk losing mutual trust and respect. For example, most people agree not intrude on each other’s space; not to control one another or act out in violence.
But boundaries are also a place of mutual connection, where love, closeness and intimacy can flourish. That is, they are ‘contact boundaries’ which connect us while we are interacting, communicating and expressing emotions. Contact boundaries enable us to reach out to each other, so that we can enjoy physical affection, companionship and fulfil our sexual desires. These boundaries are what keep us safe when we give our consent. They can set red lines about how we behave, and yet they need to be flexible enough to accommodate change as we grow and develop.
Boundaries are not fixed. They are not rigid sets of rules, but ways of communicating what we need in relationships as we adapt, cooperate and reach compromise. They need to be continually refreshed and negotiated as we share our lives together, not avoided.
Just as most of us wouldn’t consciously wish to be controlled, manipulated or abused by; nor do we wish to control others. However, despite ourselves, we’re all self-interested beings with needs and desires that come into conflict with others. We’re capable of being selfish and competitive and often resort to behaviours that are impatient, aggressive, demanding, angry, or even abusive. Some of us may avoid contact with a loved one by withholding emotions or deflecting from commitment as a defence, or punishment. We may become withdrawn, shut down or emotionally unavailable, precisely when others need us to show love and empathy.
How to set boundaries
Forming a ‘working alliance’ – a working alliance is the ability of two people in a relationship to understand the boundaries and work collaboratively, by forming a mutual agreement that whatever conflicts arise, there is always an ongoing reasonable side to both people holding the relationship together. It’s there to keep them safe. And it’s this underlying sense of fairness and tolerance that defines their willingness to work together, as well as fulfil their individual needs. In practice it means, being able to cooperate, argue and resolve problems; to engage in a process of rupture and repair; to be open and understanding of each other’s point of view (even when we disagree); to call time-out when conflict becomes heated; and to avoid criticism or attack, by expressing your differences, while remaining receptive each other and open to compromise.
Forming agreements – agreements can only be forged if we are open and understanding to one another’s needs. We need to be able to listen attentively, while demonstrating empathy and compassion to each other. Once we have fully understood one another’s individual needs we can find common ground. Negotiating agreements based on mutual terms and conditions that feel fair, proportionate and reasonable, even if we don’t agree. These negotiations should be simple, open and direct; not loaded with emotion, so we can discuss things in a way that feels manageable and achievable. Try not to mix forming agreements with contentious issues that trigger disagreement. Keep them separate and leave them for discussion another time.
Shared norms and values – we don’t have to agree on everything. Disagreement doesn’t make our partners enemies. In fact having a range and diversity of views and opinions can help couples become more complementary to each other, rather than opposed. One person may learn a new way seeing or doing things from their loved ones. But even if there’s an unresolved disagreement over a specific issue, you can still respect and understand each other’s point of view, without sacrificing your own principles. Not everything has to be done together. Be flexible about how your views can inform one another and learn to hold onto the tension of disagreement without having to resolve it immediately. Learn to disagree. It is not the end of a relationship.
Managing conflict and red lines – conflict is a necessary and inevitable part of any relationship and where it is avoided it’s likely to be undermining and damaging in the long run. However, conflict does not need to be explosive or threatening – with appropriate boundaries it’s a way of standing up for yourself and confronting hidden resentments. It allows an opportunity for change to emerge, and it could bring underlying tensions to the surface through a process of rupture and repair. Conflict may not lead to immediate resolution. You need to walk away if conflict becomes harmful or threatening. You have a right to draw a red line at something you regard as emotionally threating or violent.
Learning to say ‘No!’ – it’s important that your partner understands the limits of their own freewill, and control. You should not feel the need to agree to their demands just to keep the peace – following a code of pleasing behaviours just to make your partner happy. It’s perfectly natural to express so-called negative emotions like sadness, frustration and anger without fear of attack or criticism. Sometimes we need to establish our boundaries and limits by saying ‘No!’ – putting in a clear boundary early on, lower down the scale before it becomes contentious. If you say ‘No!’ when it crosses a ‘red line’ your partner may not like it but it establishes the limits of their claims and demands on you.
Emotional Connection – each person learns to reach out and connect with one another at the ‘contact boundary’ – learning to express emotions, empathy and compassion. This allows each person to know where they stand in a relationship and what levels of commitment they share. It allows couples to feel safe, close and cared for as they seek intimacy. Feeling this depth of emotional contact allows us to be vulnerable, without feeling exposed or shamed.
Co-dependency – this is where couples live in each other’s pockets and believe they cannot live without one another. They lack boundaries and may feel a desperate need to be close, but simultaneously suffocated. Each person becomes dependent on the role they play such as ‘carer, provider, or rescuer’; as well as being dependent on the other person playing their role such as ‘helpless victim, or rescued child’. These roles are not necessarily enacted consciously and no-one is completely aware they’re playing them. It appears they’re caught up in a drama they cannot find a way out of. These relational dynamics are often played out unconsciously, with unspoken messages and emotional manipulation, which is rarely acknowledged or confronted. They often get swept under the carpet. Such relationships not only lack boundaries, they are enmeshed and entangled. And easily become a trap.