Setting Relationship Boundaries

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Being clear about what feels right for you, even when other people protest, is what it means to set boundaries.

Setting boundaries is intimate, because it delves into your personal space and sense of privacy.

Setting boundaries has been my most difficult personal challenge.

I started out not being able to set boundaries with people and not being able to hear it when they set boundaries with me. One of the earliest examples I can remember is trying to prevent my parents from barging into my room unannounced all the time. In my house, I couldn’t just say, “Please don’t barge into my room unannounced,” and expect that request to be honored. First, I’d get a lot of flack and accusations. Second, they wouldn’t listen anyway. So I put a bell in the entryway for them to ring when they were approaching. In that way I’d hear ding dong and wouldn’t be startled when the door just flew open. This early family experience has resulted in my tremendous respect for closed doors. It is probably the reason I don’t like unannounced visitors.

Boundaries are not universal. They vary according to each individual’s needs and preferences. You have a right to set them for yourself, and you must also make sure that if you’re living with someone, that you both communicate your needs. In fact, rather than being a barrier to intimacy, boundaries actually foster healthy intimacy. You protect your boundaries while respecting your partner’s. The purpose is to show honor and respect for each other’s personal space – physically, emotionally, and sexually. When you set boundaries, you assert the right to keep out what you don’t want and to let in what you do want. They are like permeable cellular membranes, keeping out toxins and letting in nutrients.

Naturally, everyone in your life seems to press into your comfortable limits, just like you press in on theirs. You may be unaware of these boundary transgressions, or misinterpret them as personality flaws, when in reality they are easily adjusted. It may be necessary to do a little self-awareness work to tune in to your own boundary signals, since boundaries are nothing more, or less, than what feels right to you. By the way, don’t expect your partner to sort this out for you. You are involved in the dance of intimacy with them, but the boundaries you set are your responsibility alone. And boundaries can change based on your own personal growth. That’s why I refer to them as permeable membranes.

Some of you find communicating your boundaries very challenging, and you’re not sure how to improve. Others of you might have no idea that boundary issues are behind many of your relationship upsets. Your issues might stem from childhood experiences, which got you into trouble with your family, and made you feel unlovable or “wrong.”

Examples of normal boundary-setting – which kids try to do naturally – could be drawing a line in the sand, not kissing a certain relative, wanting to pick your own clothes, closing your bedroom door, or refusing to share your toys. These attempts weren’t always popular with grownups when you were a kid, so early on you picked some kind of protective “people pleasing” strategy to get by, and decades later you’re still living a version of it. The thing about protective strategies is that while they might work temporarily to guard against a specific situation, they can become detrimental when applied to the rest of your life.

So for example if you always covered for an alcoholic parent as a child, now your strategy might be to make all the decisions in a relationship and be hyper-aware of a partner letting you down. Your partner might find your behavior overreaches his or her boundaries, while you’re not even aware of the dynamic you’re attempting to recreate. Or on the other hand, you might be trying to break out of a dynamic where you had little control, and so you need to make it clear to your partner that you like to make your own decisions. Whatever your issues, take responsibility for what you bring to the table, and set your boundaries according to your needs. It might seem like a lot of work at first, but the reward is a much more satisfying relationship.

Maybe you pick people whose demands overshadow yours, and that way never have to voice what it is you want. Or perhaps you’ve decided to be agreeable. You’re so easy-going, so okay with  everything (except for the constant, secret criticizing you’re doing there in the back of your mind)! Or maybe, like me, you come across strong, so strong that people don’t know how weak your boundaries are under all that tough talk.

I’ve been given the feedback that my protective strategy is to scare off “would be” boundary violators. Afraid that I won’t be able to stand up for my own space and my own needs, I scare certain people off before they can even put me to the test.  In your early years, you probably developed protective strategies like mine that helped to maintain your boundaries, but now that you’re grown, it may be time for a change into a more adult mode. Just look at your most recent intimate relationships – can you see what your boundaries, or lack of them, have been?

Here’s an example of a boundary upset scenario that happens to people quite often: Let’s say you’re hanging out with your lover, going with the flow, everything’s good, no real problems on the horizon. Then, suddenly your honey does something to violate one of your boundaries, such as walking in on you while you’re in the bathroom, or using your laptop without asking. All of a sudden you’re not having much fun anymore. You’re irritable and annoyed, but you don’t know how to handle it. Since you don’t know what to do, on the surface you pretend everything is okay, perhaps withdrawing a bit or becoming ‘sensitive.’ Then, if the behavior continues, suddenly, without warning, you snap. Yowza! Red alert! Watch out!

I was exactly like that. What I didn’t realize is that my snap yelling and screaming – and the feelings of betrayal and grief underneath the yelling and screaming – were all because I was afraid to make a simple request of the people closest to me at the early stages of a boundary violation. Whatever the underlying upset was, I couldn’t address it directly. So I’d let it go and let it go, and then, when I got to a certain level of discomfort, ka-boom! Many of you never set a boundary until the moment you’re ending a relationship, furious and destructive because your unstated and frequently unknown boundaries were violated.

Here’s the thing: your boundaries feel obvious to you. This is true even if you never defined them and never talked about them. Trust me on this: most of the time, your partner has no idea he or she has crossed the line of your personal space. Other people are worried about themselves and their feelings; you’re worried about yourself and your own feelings. Nonetheless, you often feel like the other person violated your boundaries “on purpose”, when in reality, they didn’t even know them. And most likely neither did you.

Remedy: Look deep into yourself and ask, “What are my boundaries?” Then sit down with the people you are most intimate with and communicate. You will probably find out they are happy to know your boundaries and wish to honor them to the best of their abilities. Why? Because they love and value you.

Laurie Handlers, MA, is the author of Sex & Happiness and President of Butterfly Workshops, LLC, a Phoenix, AZ based company currently offering sexual health and awareness courses and leadership courses for corporations and individuals throughout the world. She hosts a weekly radio show about sex and intimacy and has appeared in many articles, books and films. Find out more at www.butterflyworkshops.com.