A boundary is a line that marks a separation between two adjacent areas. Although we usually think of boundaries in geographical terms—for example, where one person’s property ends and another’s begins—here we are referring to emotional space between people, not physical locations.
Unlike physical boundaries like walls or concrete barriers, personal boundaries are not rigid or immovable or even visible. Boundaries are the means through which we regulate the personal space between ourselves and others. They enable us to strike an optimal balance between physical and emotional closeness and distance. There is no set distance to which we can set our boundaries since the balance that fits our need depends upon many factors, including the circumstances in which we find ourselves at any given time, the person with whom we are relating, the level of trust we share with that person, and the present level of our need for emotional connection.
The ability to set effective boundaries is an essential skill for all healthy relationships, and the failure to do so is a major contributor to many relationship breakdowns. Boundaries that are excessively rigid run the risk of keeping others at too much of a distance, diminishing intimacy, and creating an impression of detachment. Boundaries that are insufficiently clear are likely to create over-involvement in the lives of others, over-accommodation to others, resulting in resentment or self-neglect, and a compulsive need to please out of a desire for approval.
Admittedly, setting effective boundaries is no easy task, particularly if patterns of disrespectful reactions have been tolerated for years. Taking a stand for respect by communicating what is and is not acceptable puts us at risk of meeting some strong blowback from our partner. Sometimes things have to get pretty awful before we’re finally ready to take the risk of making a stand. Skillful boundary setting conveys a clear message to others in regard to our level of physical and emotional comfort, which enables others to adjust their expectations accordingly. It also gives them permission and encouragement to do the same in response to us. For many of us, however, doing so can be difficult because it requires us to break some old habits that we may have been reinforcing for years or even decades.
Habits such as saying “yes” when we actually want to say “no”, can feel risky since it brings up the fear of being rejected or disappointing others. But like many other risks, the benefits of breaking free from outmoded patterns greatly outweighs the consequences we fear may occur. Once we move from passivity and resignation to a stance of responsible boundary setting, we may be surprised and greatly rewarded.
Linda: I know this to be true from my own experience. Years ago, during the early stages of our marriage, before I knew much about boundary setting, Charlie and I had gotten into some very unhealthy patterns in which, out of my desire to avoid conflict, I became overly accommodating to Charlie to the degree that I had become toxic with resentment towards him. He became inflated with arrogance from getting his way whenever there was a difference between us. Charlie pushed back at the beginning, but he came to see that I meant business. He also saw that the new me was a lot more fun to be around that the old, covert, resentful me. He eventually came around, and stayed around, and we stayed together, something that both of us had previously seriously doubted was going to happen.
Here are some examples of the patterns that we were caught in and how I dealt with them:
- When Charlie didn’t hold up his end of our responsibilities, rather than covering for him and doing it myself, and steaming in silent rage, I stopped rescuing him from his responsibilities and let things go.
- Rather that criticizing him for being distant and emotionally disconnected from me, I told him that I missed him and got vulnerable rather than angry.
- When I felt that he was taking advantage of my generosity without reciprocating, I told him that I was disappointed rather than calling him selfish.
- When I felt that he was relegating me to an inferior role in the family, it opened up a conversation about equality and mutual respect that radically changed the power structure of our relationship.
During this time of transition from a hierarchical power structure to a partnership model, there were times when we briefly slipped into our old patterns, but we were able to switch back with increasing swiftness. My fear diminished as did our reactivity to each other, and we came to reach a level of mutual trust and respect that we had never previously experienced. And learning to establish and honor effective boundaries was a major factor in that process!