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Boundaries: Good Fences make good relationships

Often in therapy a significant amount of time is dedicated to exploring and processing the various interactions, conflicts, and achievements we have in our closest relationships. Yet, a consistent theme of this work is that as critical as our close relationships are to us, we can go our whole lives receiving relatively little guidance on how to build and maintain healthy relationships. We may pick up bits and pieces of sound advice from well-meaning friends and relatives, or through our observations of people who appear to be happy in their relationships, but piecing this information together into a useful, unified whole can be a messy and confusing affair. That is why I would like to discuss an important part of our relationships that we often pay lip service to but can be easily misunderstood and ignored: boundaries.

When we use the word “boundaries” in a relational sense, we are referring to a concept that has several components, much like a physical boundary out in the world. Imagine a fence around a yard, for instance. The fence represents a number of things: it is a physical barrier that prevents entering and exiting the yard, it may note a property line that separates one piece of land from another, and it signals a certain intent or desire, specifically “do not enter my yard without permission.” Much like a fence, the boundaries in our relationships aim to accomplish similar goals. They create a degree of distance between us and others, they mark out where we begin and others end, and they communicate intent and desire about our needs and how we wish to be treated. Just as good fences make good neighbors, having good boundaries can help to make our relationships healthier and more satisfying.

Just as no one fence is appropriate for every situation, no one boundary is appropriate for every type of relationship. Boundaries have a number of qualities that can be adjusted depending on the unique needs of the individual and the context of each particular relationship. Permissiveness is one of these key qualities, and a boundary can be less permissive (“rigid”) or more permissive (“porous”). Rigid boundaries are ones that clearly define the lines between one person’s experience and another, including their thoughts, body, behavior, desires, feelings, and more. Information exchanges and interactions in a relationship with rigid boundaries is limited, typically in order to protect one or both parties, or because the social rules of engagement have strictly defined the nature of the relationship. Examples include a family member that you wish to remain in contact with despite having a conflicted or tempestuous relationship, so you only call them at certain times and only discuss very specific topics. Or a coworker with whom you have had some disagreements or difficult encounters, so you only discuss professional topics in a civil manner and have no other interactions. While rigid boundaries can be useful for trying to protect us from harm, exploitation, or stress, they also significantly limit our range of interactions and prevent forming deeper, more meaningful relationships.

Porous boundaries are ones in which the flow of information and interaction is relatively free, and the lines between ourselves and others are thinner and less defined. Because of this, we likely have a better understanding at any given moment of that person’s needs, feelings, and thoughts, and we also are better known to the other person. Examples include a parent, mentor, or confidante who we share our deepest concerns with, or a partner who knows our desires and needs almost as well as we do. Porous boundaries allow us to form deep, meaningful connections with others, but can also be problematic when we feel overexposed or taken advantage of.

We can have boundaries in a number of different domains, and how permissive those boundaries are likely fluctuates within each of those domains and for each relationship. Our intellectual boundaries define our thoughts and beliefs, and we may set more rigid boundaries with a friend who is prone to being argumentative: “I don’t want to talk about this, let’s change the topic.” Our financial boundaries reflect our access to material resources and how readily we might share those with others: “Sorry, I can’t lend you any more money right now. Once you pay me back we can talk about it again.” We might share our emotions more with a close friend or partner, especially when their behavior impacts us positively or negatively: “I felt really proud when you stood up for me, thank you for defending our relationship.” And we might clue trusted others into our sexual desires and areas we wish to explore or needs that have gone unmet: “I’m interested in trying this next time, what do you think of it?”

As we begin to get a sense of where our boundaries stand in different relationships we are likely to find some lines that we wish to shift. How we go about changing our boundaries can differ depending on the relationship, but in many cases this change requires us to be assertive and vulnerable enough to state that we have a need to modify the relationship, even if we are only stating that fact to ourselves. To someone who is only cruel or disrespectful towards us, we may institute the firmest of boundaries by cutting off contact, and no warning or explanation may be necessary. In most other cases we can make our intent clear when the topic comes up: “I don’t want to do that anymore, let’s not talk about this, I don’t find that funny, please do not use my things without my permission.” If the person asks about the change we may or may not provide a significant explanation, depending on the individual. We may give more of an explanation to a friend (“I realized that I am not comfortable with these jokes anymore, so let’s talk about something else”), and less of one to a coworker or acquaintance. For those closest to us we may want to give a heads-up in advance that we are considering changing a boundary, that way they can provide feedback and have time to adjust: “I would like to talk about our fantasies more often, would you be comfortable with that?”

Despite our best efforts to be respectful and set appropriate boundaries we may find that other people push back when we try to change the nature of our relationships. This is a human trait, we find fences and push back or jump over them, so be prepared for some degree of initial defensiveness. If you stand firm and kindly provide explanations where necessary, the hope is that most people will come around and respect the new boundary. Try to develop an understanding of where they are coming from in reaction to the change and help them understand what made the change important for you. However, if they reject the new boundary then you may be faced with some difficult questions about what kind of relationship you can have with someone who does not respect your limits. A coworker who persists in making jokes about your appearance even after you have explained that you find the jokes to be both insulting and racist is going to be very difficult to have any meaningful relationship with, and it may be time to consider a significantly more rigid boundary.

When we succeed in finding boundaries that are appropriate and healthy in our relationships those boundaries can help us achieve a number of goals. They can help us to limit our exposure to unwanted or harmful behaviors while encouraging the behaviors we want to see in other. They can encourage dialogue about how we treat each other and develop reasonable expectations of what it will be like to interact with us. And by acknowledging, understanding, and respecting one another’s boundaries we also show respect to the other person, which can pave the way to more satisfying and nuanced relationships.

I hope that this article has provided a better understanding of the role that boundaries play in maintaining healthy relationships and encouraged consideration of whether your relationships are working for or against you. Remember that relationships are complex and no one boundary will work in all cases, so think through what your needs are, what type of boundary might need to be adjusted to better meet those needs, and how you would like to go about establishing that new boundary. It takes some courage and some vulnerability to let others know our needs or that we want to change how we interact with one another, but often our efforts are rewarded with more satisfying, more meaningful, and less stressful relationships.

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