Inevitably, when I work with couples that have long-standing problems in their relationship, I come across a litany of boundary issues strewn along the way starting from the very beginnings of the relationship. For more on why the beginnings of relationships are absolutely crucial, please click here. In this particular article, I want to focus on the very specific but essential topic of boundaries. Typically when people think of boundaries, they are actually thinking of cut-offs, or situations in which such a firm wall is put up that it literally cuts off all further communication or connection. For example, “Don’t call me after 9pm,” is a cutoff; the idea being that there will be absolutely no further phone contact after 9pm. Or “I’m so mad at you that I never want to speak to you again.” Again, I think it’s clear that statement is more of a cutoff than an example of appropriate boundary setting.
So what exactly are boundaries then? The way I see it, boundaries are guidelines that people put in place to allow them to enjoy their lives and relationships better. In this sense then, boundaries are built on internal values. So for example, if someone values his or her free time, then they will set boundaries on how many hours they are willing to work. If an individual values their time (and therefore promptness), they will place a boundary on people showing up on time to meetings and appointments. Again, boundaries are based on values. If we are not clear on our values, we will have absolutely no boundaries. If we don’t place a priority on our values and we subordinate them to the values of others, then we will also lack boundaries.
Let’s take a closer look at the issue of promptness as an example. If we are going on a date and value our time, we will have a clear boundary about how much we are willing to tolerate lateness. If our date shows up half an hour late, that would be a boundary violation. What we call “red flags” are really boundary violations. For someone who values his time, if the date shows up half an hour late without an excuse, that will be a red flag. For individuals who don’t value promptness and show up late all the time themselves, if their date also shows up late, that probably won’t be considered a red flag. So again, boundaries (and boundary violations) are based on values. Red flags are really another term for boundary violations.
Let’s stay with this dating scenario and take a look at how the individual who’s boundaries have been violated can respond. On first glance, there are three distinct response possibilities. The person can either bring up and discuss the boundary violation reasonably, blow up in reactive rage, or suppress the annoyance and not address the violation at all. Blowing up in rage is merely reacting to one boundary violation with another (assuming most people don’t like to get yelled at), and suppressing or ignoring the violation does nothing to deal with the problem or the internal emotions that the violation evokes. In fact, by suppressing the anger and just ignoring the problem, the individual is actually undermining the relationship by sowing the seeds of resentment. For more on how resentment erodes relationships click here. Sometimes by the time a couple enters treatment, they’ve had 5 or even 10 years of built-up resentment, and by that point are looking for any solutions to dig themselves out of the hole. In my mind, the best way to resolve resentments is to never allow them to exist in the first place. And the way to do that is through maintaing appropriate boundaries.
By maintaing boundaries and explaining to the late person that such tardiness will not be tolerated, the individual is not only establishing boundaries and conveying values, but also allowing the other person to then make a choice. The other person can either choose to apologize and be mindful of these boundaries for next time, discuss his or her own boundaries (if they don’t coincide) and explore a compromise, or just completely dismiss the boundary request out of hand. Regardless of which choice this individual makes, it provides further information to decide if the relationship is worth pursuing. If the boundary is dismissed, the first person then has the option of either standing firm or relenting on one’s boundaries. But by letting one’s boundaries slide, one is setting oneself as an inferior, lesser partner in the relationship.
The main point here is that we can not get our needs met without asserting appropriate boundaries which reflect our values. If we have weak or nonexistent boundaries, we risk the very strong possibility of undermining our own needs and any possibility of success for the relationship. If we suppress our needs, we not only build resentment but also set the frame that keeping the relationship intact is more important than our boundaries. This is a recipe for failure.
So, if setting boundaries is as easy as determining our values and then communicating them to others, what prevents people from doing so? This is where the role of emotions comes in. Negative emotions such as fear (of abandonment or of being alone), shame (at having needs), or overpowering anger can all block us from the simple task of making and communicating our boundaries. By focusing on the emotions that prevent such important communication, we can then examine how we can resolve these emotional blocks to help us get more of our needs met within our relationships.