Healthy boundaries in relationships
At Counselling Twickenham we will explore the patterns of behaviour and communication that are causing conflict in your relationships. Whether you need to form stronger boundaries and how to negotiate them, so there is enough space to be individuals, as well as being better partners.
Boundaries in relationships are emotional, physical and social guidelines which define the limits of our personal space and those around us. People who we are in relationships with. But boundaries not only define our limits; they also form our attachments at the “contact boundaries” where we meet and interact with each other. Contact boundaries, tell us who we are in relation to others. They say: “This is me. Here I am”; or “That is you. There you are.”
Contact boundaries help us reach out and make contact with one another, rather than pushing back to define the space between us. They provide us with an emotional connection so we can interact, communicate and express ourselves to others. For example, when I hug someone with affection rather than sexual desire, I am expressing that I am seeking a close bond with people through physical and emotional intimacy, but not sex.
Boundaries also offer us a framework of mutually acceptable behaviours, interactions and ways of engaging with each other – setting out the conditions for how we negotiate our roles and responsibilities at work; as well as our position in families and intimate relationships.
Individual boundaries define who we are as people – a way of constructing our identities, letting people know what we want in relationships, and managing our expectations and values about others. For example, if I keep my head down, with minimal eye-contact and body language, or I keep quiet and unobtrusive, I am telling you I am shy, introverted, or perhaps just that I enjoy my own solitude.
By maintaining healthy boundaries in relationships, they help us to protect our individuality, autonomy and self-worth. And prevent us from falling into the trap of codependency. It is important to recognise ourselves as separate individuals as well as being part of a relationship. If I communicate this by expressing who I am with a set of passionately worded opinions and values, I am asserting my boundaries and telling you how strongly I feel about things.
Boundaries also protect our individual rights and freedoms, but they come with responsibilities. Sometimes the attachment patterns we learn in childhood are different than our partner's and they may feel too close or distant. We are all different. Healthy boundaries need to be mutually agreed and negotiated, with terms and conditions that suit everyone in the relationship. So that once they are agreed, boundaries help us respect our values and needs, as well as the people we want to share our lives with. They provide us with an imaginary template of how to be and interact in relationships – expressing where we stand in our relationships with a sense of equality, social justice or within a fixed hierarchy.
In society, we have rules, laws and regulations which define the rights and freedoms of its citizens, but they also protect us against violation and provide sanctions or punishments against those who violate us. This form of boundary is about social control. However, in relationships, setting boundaries is not about control, or sticking rigidly to the rules. And having consequences when our boundaries are intruded upon, is not about punishment, but agreeing to a red line and having a means of redress.
Boundaries are there to help us connect with each other, to engage in conversation, to express our emotions and have our needs met by loved ones. They are the ‘contact boundaries’ where we meet; whether we make contact physically, sexually, emotionally or everyday social interaction there is always a ‘contact boundary’ between us. It is continually shifting and moving with the ebb-and-flow of our ongoing relationships. There is never any point at which a boundary becomes fixed, even if we want it to. And so we have to pay continuous attention to how we engage with our boundaries in relationships and be willing to continually communicate and negotiate our boundaries. When a boundary works it is because it has been mutually agreed and fulfilled. But it is only a healthy boundary because it can grow or evolve, according to the circumstances we find ourselves in.
Where do we learn boundaries?
For some people setting boundaries feels like an unnecessary threat to personal freedom. Almost as if it were controlling or defining the limits of their behaviour, in order to comply with the same rules and values as their partners. But control is actually a lack of boundaries and becomes an intrusive way of dominating or abusing others. Sometimes control can be presented as love, but it is a transactional kind of love which requires a return on one’s emotional investment. For example, I care for you when you are vulnerable and alone, but in exchange you owe me undying loyalty and support in relation to other whenever I demand it. This is often what people expect in co-dependent relationships, i.e. “You must do as I ask, because it proves that you really love me”. “You must think and feel like I do; or you do not support me.”
Setting healthy boundaries, however, is the opposite of co-dependence, as they allow us to maintain our independence and sense of identity. Healthy boundaries can accommodate our differences i.e. “Can you accept me as I am?” “Am I allowed a difference of opinion?” “Am I allowed to like what you dislike?” And they allow us to take complementary roles in relationships, rather than co-dependent.
When we agree to individual boundaries that respect our differences we are much more likely to feel accepted and trust each other with our deepest feelings. However, if we believe that we cannot be accepted for ourselves, then we’re much more likely to feel judged and disrespected. We get stuck in vicious cycles of conflict, trying to assert who is right and wrong. Trying to win the argument to protect ourselves, rather than being able to move on and change how we interact in the relationships.
Blame, becomes shame and is used as a weapon to attack our loved ones, rather than using empathy to deepen our understanding of one another. There is room for understanding even when we disagree. It can be a healthy. People who appreciate each other differences, even when they feel uncomfortable, need to accommodate some degree of disagreement and compromise. Empathy allows us to understand each other and sense what it’s like to be in other people’s shoes, not necessarily agree with them. It also gives us space to reconcile our differences and opens up the ground for mutual understanding.
The reason for this is that we can sense when we make mistakes or feel vulnerable we will not be judged, shamed or rejected by loved ones. If we’re going to feel safe in relationships, then we have to believe that even when we get it wrong we can reconcile our differences. This allows us to take responsibility for our actions and move forward despite our mistakes.
During childhood, we often learn a rigid survival strategy in relationships. This is passed onto us by our parents – such as who shouts the loudest gets heard; who cares for others gets valued; I depend on you, you depend on me.
- We may have learned faulty beliefs about boundaries that we transfer unconsciously into adult relationships. We might believe we are not allowed to take care of our own needs first, or that it is wrong and selfish to have expectations of our own.
- We may even have learned it is acceptable to be abusive to get what we want, or to manipulate others for our own ends.
- We may believe that we are destined to rescue others and take responsibility for their faulty behaviour to be accepted, even if we feel they’re wrong.
- We may even end up supporting loved ones by enabling their abusive patterns or feeding their addictions.
- We may take the role of constantly caring for others at our own expense in the misguided notion they will one day repay our act of kindness.
We may fear that if we set boundaries we’re being selfish or controlling the other person, or proving that we do not love them enough. We may also fear being shamed or abused for saying ‘No’ to our loved ones, when they demand more love than we can give. Loved ones who do not respect our boundaries may accuse us of not caring enough; or test us in order to prove how much we love them. If the only way we feel valued is by giving-in to others or caring for their needs, we allow ourselves to be exploited. Often we do this because we cannot seem to separate our feelings from the person we love. We feel their pain and suffering, so we want to heal it for them, but in the end this deters them from taking responsibility themselves, and it sets up a cycle of learned helplessness.
As soon as we start setting boundaries it may even feel like an uphill struggle because our loved ones start to resist the changes or undermine our confidence. This is when we’re most vulnerable because it’s difficult to validate and maintain the boundaries we’re putting in place. We fear the negative outcomes of conflict and arguments, or even being abandoned. But the truth is we feel more alone in relationships, when we’re being manipulated, exploited and abused.
We can’t live with them, we can’t let go. Eventually, the boundaries which are mutually agreed and respected help both people to appreciate their individuality and independence. Boundaries uphold our right to freedom, autonomy and the ability to stand up for ourselves. Not at other people’s expense, but certainly not at our own.
How to set boundaries
An internal boundary means developing a deeper sense of self-awareness around your own physical sensations, emotions and thoughts, so that you can exercise independence, make your own decisions and express opinions that better reflect your beliefs and values. As your deepen your awareness your self-confidence improves, you initiate action, express yourself and explore what you want out of life, by discovering your own likes and dislikes. Separating your thoughts and feelings from your partner and putting yourself first, before you take into consideration other people’s needs.
As you become more mindful of yourself you will begin to pay more attention to your bodily sensations and practise self-compassion – by developing better self-care routines and improving your well-being through diet and exercise. You may also start to challenge yourself to try out new things, take small risks, become more adventurous and take up creative pursuits – all of which promote self-esteem and a positive self-image. Human dignity and self-respect are all ways of protecting your personal boundaries and living a more fulfilling life.
You need to be open, clear and direct when you communicate your boundaries and expectations. Stating what your boundaries are let’s other people know where they stand. Try not to send mixed messages, where you state a boundary and then reverse it because you’ve lost confidence. Being clear with your boundaries generates an atmosphere of mutual respect and agreement about what you expect of each other. If you agree your boundaries early, before disagreements escalate you are less likely to end up in conflict with your partner. However, when you send out the message from the beginning that you are passive, compliant and willing to sacrifice your autonomy, then you lead yourself wide open to manipulation.
It is essential to maintain the continuity of your agreed boundaries once you’ve set them. This means that even if you’re partner tries to push at the boundaries they are clear, reliable and well-defined. This is much more likely to engender trust and respect between you even when you argue or cross the line. If you have boundaries that are repeatedly crossed or disrespected then you will undermine the common values and agreements you have made together. If someone ignores the boundaries or breaks them repeatedly there must be agreed consequences. They are not there to punish or discipline anyone but to remind both people to take responsibility for their actions. Examples of consequences are withdrawing care and support, when you feel emotionally or physically abused; saying ‘No’ to unreasonable demands; or even ultimately separating for a period of time.
Being assertive in relationships means taking responsibility to say what you feel, by adopting an attitude which puts you interests first, but not at the expense of your partner: “Me first, with you in mind”. Self-interest is not about being selfish, it is a reasonable position to take and makes good sense. You can say how you feel and ask for what you want, by focussing on expectations that derive a positive mutual benefit. By asking for what you want more clearly from the beginning, you do not end up complaining about what you don’t want, which is much more corrosive to your relationship.
Listen to and accept each other’s boundaries if they are reasonable and proportionate. If you want people to respect your own boundaries, you need acknowledge and respect the boundaries of others, even if they sometimes appear to conflict with your own. Do not accept boundaries that are harmful or come at the expense of your personal freedom, but even if there are differences between you we can learn to negotiate our boundaries for the benefit of the relationship rather than the individual alone.
Everyone has absolute red lines in relationships: such as an agreement against inflicting harm or abuse on each other. It is your right to assert these as long as they are reasonable and respectful of others. Most other boundaries are in constant state of flux as your relationship changes and grows, because you have a children, you change jobs or your personal circumstances. Be aware of the need to renew and renegotiate your boundaries when appropriate.
Your boundaries are more reliable and secure when they are mutually agreed so that each person have been heard and respected. Make agreements based on common interests and you must include the terms and conditions of both you and your partner. An agreement can then act as a reference point during a conflict as you can remind each other with a gentle nudge, without using blame or accusations to make the other person back down.
No one can change who they are overnight, so it’s important to realise that sometimes boundaries will be crossed unintentionally, or because it’s hard to break old patterns of conditioned behaviour. As you make changes to your relationship both of you will act on default and make mistakes. You both need to accept change is slow and clunky. But the more you encourage each other with gentle but firm reminders; the less painful change is. Try not to give into the temptation to blame each other is the change doesn’t come fast enough. It is inevitable that you will take two steps forward and one step back. As long as you acknowledge your mistakes and learn from them, you will be okay.