“Boundaries make for good neighbours”, goes the saying. What does that mean?
A boundary is a demarcation line; a way of distinguishing where one thing begins and another ends. National borders are boundaries that separate nation states into separate entities. Fences and walls demarcate property lines between neighbours. In a home, boundary lines distinguish how different parts of a living space are utilised. At work, boundary lines may be negotiated as when two people negotiate a contract over a task; they may also be set down, as when one person applies for a job according to a particular job description. The degree of negotiation over what boundaries are in place, if any, varies on the situation, the setting, the cultural context and expectations, the power relationship between the parties, and the parties involved.
In relationships, boundaries are used to contain, both self and other, and they are also used to protect, and define the relationship. In this way, they serve to demarcate what is acceptable (in) and what is not (out) in any one relationship. They can specify the degree to which one has access to certain resources or privileges, and hence, the power each person has in the relationship.
Boundaries can also be thought of as a way of managing proximity and contact. We use boundaries to manage physical distance and touch, such as issues of personal space, as reflected in our own highly individual sense of what is close, not close enough, and what is too close in terms of our proximity to other people in our lives. When others do not abide by our own sense of ‘optimal distance‘, we can feel disrespected, hurt, or even violated. Boundaries are invoked in relation to access to information, privileges, time and resources. Every parent has to negotiate boundary wars with and between children over bedtime and homework routines, household chores and self care routines, and access to toys and desirable treats.
Boundaries arise in the realm of information. Our sense of boundaries plays out in what we choose to reveal to others about ourselves, and what they in turn elect to share about themselves. The sharing and withholding of personal information of significance to us has a strong bearing on the degree of closeness and intimacy or distance we feel towards another person. How we both treat this information, whether we respect it in terms of privacy, deal with it sensitively, and exercise care and discrimination regarding what we do with this information also impacts our sense of safety and of being cared for and respected in relationship.
Boundaries in human relationships can also refer to a set of parameters we set for ourselves (“I will never use heroin”; “I will not hit my children”;”I will not drink and drive”) in terms of our own behaviour. Boundaries are often a reflection of and a way to uphold values we hold dear – about respect, health, care for others, honesty and so on. They can also refer to a set of parameters we set down for others to follow in their dealings with us (“If you borrow money from me, I expect you to return it within the time frame we have agreed to”; “You are never to hit me”; “We are monogamous”). In the realm of self care and our own conduct, and the realm of relationships, boundaries enable us to convey care, respect, and commitment to ourselves and others through the ways we treat ourselves and others. How others treat us, in turn, reflects how they consider their own boundaries with us and their attitudes towards us and our boundaries.
This said, boundaries are often unstated and not negotiated, or at best loose and unclear, providing much opportunity for conflict and pain. The more explicit a boundary is, the less chance there is for people to inadvertently cross it, and the more everyone is aware of what the terms are.
We often only become aware of a boundary issue when we feel a boundary has been crossed – the person who touches us inappropriately at the Christmas party; the man who takes up too much space on public transport on the seat next to us; the family member who reads our personal mail; the friend who violates our privacy and repeats a confidence; the friend who flirts with our partner. Boundary violations go all the way from the relatively small to major breaches, but they almost always impact our trust and feelings of safety in a relationship. What feels minor or irrelevant to one person (e.g. the friend who thinks it’s okay to flirt with your partner) may feel like a major breach of trust to you.
In my practice, I notice many people are uncomfortable with overtly raising issues about boundaries and having conversations with others in their lives about what they need in order to make their relationships work. People tell me they are afraid of offending the other person, they are afraid of losing privileges or access to resources they currently access at will, they fear hurting the other person or being hurt themselves if things are made explicit. I often counter that with the question – which problem would you rather have? Right now, before things go too far down the track, or a larger potential problem later because things have soured and the issue has been allowed to be a problem for too long?
Boundaries are a way of conveying both self respect and respect for others. If you experience a difficulty with someone in your life, or someone else appears to have some kind of issue with you, it is very likely that part of the issue will involve boundaries. Consider the following questions –
1. Were you both clear at the start of your relationship about your expectations regarding boundaries around the issue in question?
2. Has one or have both of you changed over the course of your relationship?
3. Have expectations and roles changed but the boundaries and expectations around them have not been adjusted accordingly?
4. Try asking yourself: what boundary (yours or theirs), if there was one, has been crossed? Try putting into words what that boundary says, whether it is yours or the other person’s. Experiment with phrases like “On this issue, it’s okay for me/ them to…[fill in blank]” and “On this issue, it’s not okay for me/ them to… [fill in]”. You will have a clearer sense of why there is a conflict between you once you can identify what boundary has been transgressed.
5. Try to identify whether your boundary on this issue differs from theirs (e.g. “I want to remain monogamous, but s/he wants to open the relationship”).
6. Try to identify what sort of boundary would go towards remedying the issue between you. In doing so, attempt to accommodate both of your individual views on this issue.
7. Then, take your courage in both hands and have the difficult conversation! Approach the other person and ask them to sit down and talk with you about this issue from the standpoint of boundaries, share your ideas about it and hear theirs.
And if you feel you might benefit from talking to someone about it or having both of you come in and talk with a third person about boundaries, call me.