Boundaries in Relationships

Boundaries protect the things we value like a fence around our house protects our home. When it comes to ourselves, in our relationships, boundaries protect our individuality, needs and sense of self from being absorbed, taken advantage of or ignored by the other in the relationship.

A boundary is a limit. An invisible line drawn around yourself that says don’t go any further. In a healthy relationship boundaries are usually flexible enough to account for the changing needs of the individuals within the relationship. And of course different limits apply depending upon the relationship.

A boundary error occurs when the invisible line is crossed. A boundary violation occurs when the error is pointed out but the other person continues to cross the line. Boundary violations in relationships are serious and left unaddressed can lead to the end of a relationship.

Think about this example: You have cooked dinner and expecting your partner home any minute and they call to say they are catching up with a friend for a drink and won’t be home as agreed. Would you think differently about this if the friend was one from out of town that your partner only gets to see a couple of times a year as compared to a friend they see every day. Or if it was your birthday as compared to an ordinary day. That is boundary flexibility and generally the flexibility increases with the level of trust in a relationship. The more we trust the other person in the relationship to have our best interests at heart the more flexible we will be.

The problem is that even in the most loving and trusting relationships boundary errors occur – we are only human and sometimes fail to take into consideration the whole picture when we are asking something of our friends, family or lovers. Or sometimes we are not even aware. Or we tell ourselves the story “that if they really loved me or knew me they would know”. So in the example above: “if they really loved me they would know how much effort I had gone to with dinner and how much I was looking forward to spending time with them after my hard day at work”. Or “if they really loved me they would not even ask me at all and just come home as agreed”.

It would be so much easier if others could read our minds or be able to actually see our boundaries so that they would know when they were crossing them. But the reality is we are the only ones responsible for enforcing our boundaries and a failure to do so for ourselves, leads to the loss of our individuality, needs and sense of self.

Some simple steps to begin:

  1. Know what your boundaries are and when you are being flexible. So following the same example – if usually you would expect your partner to be home for dinner as they agreed to be, but you understand that the friend they are catching up with they see rarely, you would say something that makes the boundary clear but shows you are agreeing to a variation as a once off: “Normally when you’ve agreed to be home I prefer it when you honour that and come home but I understand this is a rare opportunity so go have fun with your friend…”
  2. Know when you don’t want to be flexible and honour your needs in the situation. If it is your birthday, while your partner for whom birthdays are not that important, may be thinking you can celebrate together tomorrow night, you don’t want to spend your birthday night alone: “You know, honey I don’t want to spend the evening alone on my birthday. I would like you to come home as agreed and catch up with your friend next time they are in town.”
  3. What you need is what you need. The other person in the relationship does not get to talk you out of your needs. Watch out for the other person saying things to negate your need or in any way make you feel "less than" for having that need – they are pushing your boundary: “that’s silly you won’t be alone. I will be home later” or “it’s only a birthday we can celebrate tomorrow night”. They want you to agree with them so that they can violate your boundary with your permission.
  4. If you can compromise without violating your boundary then great if not don’t. You could agree to postpone your plans for an hour or so or join your partner and have a drink with their friend. Or you may not like the friend and so that compromise would not work for you especially on you birthday. On other days you may be happy to have a drink with your partner and their friend you don’t like. It is really up to you to determine how much you can give before it causes you to compromise your needs.
  5. The other person gets to choose whether they will honour your boundary or not. You cannot make the other person respect your boundaries but if they choose not to, you will need to assess the importance of the relationship for each of you. If you don’t you will start to feel taken advantage of and unimportant.

Anger or resentment are signs that you have gone too far in compromising your own boundaries. The goal is to get better at knowing yourself and your limits, to stop and speak up before it goes too far.