Better Boundaries for Better Relationships

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No matter who you are, you’re likely to have quite a few relationships in your life. You may have a partner, family members, coworkers and friends to name a few. Additionally, most people have more casual relationships in their lives such as with babysitters, your children’s teachers, or even the person who cuts your hair. Throughout our day, we come into contact with people who have different views, beliefs, perspectives and ideas.

Generally, this is not a concern; however, there can be times when another individual’s personal ideologies or behaviors interfere with our own in a way that becomes problematic. If this happens over time, particularly in a close relationship, these boundary crossings can destroy relationships and cause significant emotional pain. Boundaries help to clarify your values, validate your feelings and reduce conflicts.

What is a boundary?

A boundary is any limit you set with another person, verbally or otherwise, so that you feel a sense of respect and safety in a relationship. Setting and maintaining boundaries is not only good for you, but it can help healthy relationships flourish. Some examples of boundaries may include:

  • Expectations of honesty in a romantic relationship
  • Having your teenager call if s/he is going to be later than expected
  • Not engaging in friendships that include gossiping

When the people in your life understand and respect your boundaries, trust can be established and relationships can be deepened. Just as every person has individual values and beliefs; each person has his/her own boundaries and is allowed to define what is comfortable to him or her in interpersonal relationships.

How do I set boundaries with the people in my life?

  1. The first step is to take time to clarify your boundaries in the context of a specific relationship
    1. Only set boundaries that you willing to maintain. The importance of this cannot be overstated! If you set a boundary and then let people cross that boundary, you will likely become more upset than if you had never set the boundary. If you cannot or will not maintain the boundary, don’t set it.
  2. Think about why this is important to you, so you can share your emotions with the other person
  3. Find a time and place when the other person may be open and receptive to hearing what you have to say
  4. Discuss the consequences of boundary crossing
    1. Consequences are just as individualized as the boundaries themselves, and they should make sense for you and the relationship you’re working to improve.

Boundary Crossings: What are these and what to do when it happens?

Boundary crossings are prone to happen. These often happen when a person is unaware that a boundary exists. For example, if you have never told your teenager that texting while you’re speaking with him or her is not okay, your teen may continue to perform this behavior. This is a good example when boundary clarification is needed. However, there are times when others will push or cross boundaries even if they have been clearly set. These times tend to be more frustrating and typically warrant applying a consequence.

I like to think of emotions being red flags that can signal us to a potential boundary crossing. If someone else’s behavior leaves us feeling disrespected, angry or violated, this may be a clue that a boundary has been crossed.

If someone crosses a boundary, it is important to communicate this to them clearly and calmly. Try using these three steps as a starting point:

  1. Using “I statements,” to specifically express the boundary crossing
    1. “When someone uses curse words when speaking to me, I feel disrespected.”
  2. Set the boundary
    1. “I can’t be friends with someone who doesn’t respect me.”
  3. Explain the consequences
    1. “If you continue to curse when we speak, I don’t think I can remain in this friendship with you.”

Some things to keep in mind when thinking about your boundaries:

  • Boundaries are typically not black-and-white
    • Barring some extreme situations (e.g., abuse, violence, threats), boundaries are best set on an individual basis taking into account your needs and the needs of the other person/people.
  • As with most conversations, there is a right place and time to set a boundary
  • Be open to negotiation, when this is appropriate
  • Before setting a boundary, be sure you know that the boundary is important to you and your well-being
    • For example, if setting an inflexible boundary with a friend, i.e., they can never be late to a get together with you, may cost you that relationship, make sure your friend being on time is worth the potential risk.
  • Just because the boundary is healthy for you and your relationship doesn’t mean that it will be easy to set and maintain. People may often feel a twinge of guilt or even selfish when they set boundaries. This doesn’t mean your action is wrong, it just means that you care about the other person. This is a skill just like any other and does not come naturally to everyone right away.
  • Remember that practice helps and boundaries improve relationships overall!

Image: moodboard on flickr and reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0

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