Setting Boundaries in Relationships: How’s & Why’s

Love Therapy
setting boundaries in relationships
Khushali Adhiya

‘Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder’ – William Shakespeare

There is a reason why it would be beneficial for us to pause and reflect on this above statement. It makes a colossal difference when we alter the way we perceive (that is interpret or giving meaning to) thoughts, actions, and emotions. Are you ready to color? Then here are the magic crayons for setting boundaries in relationships!

Let’s consider the ‘beauty for the ashes’ for a concept that is often looked down upon, and even tabooed sometimes: boundaries. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines boundaries as something that sets limits or an extent. My invitation to you, my dear reader, is to keep this meaning of boundary in mind as we explore the treasures of this “negative” concept.

They say “all is fair in love and war.” I choose to disagree. Statements such as these have navigated human thinking for centuries now and are often used to win arguments. Statements such as these harm us by disrespecting our rights to privacy, confidentiality, and more importantly, humanity.

I recall when I had first talked about the need for boundaries in my life and relationships; I would often be rebuked for being so formal and uptight, even in personal relationships. There were several taboos around laying rules in an intimate relationship (romantic and non-romantic).  More specifically, there are several quirks about calling out a rule to be followed in relationships; I was expected to understand their implicit existence without a chance to share how I felt about them.

What followed after years of being silenced for sharing how I feel, and about the way the world expects me to be in a relationship was naturally disastrous. Fortunately, amidst the shattered glass lay my clarity: boundaries are a necessity, not a luxury!

Why do we then play out in our relationships the way we do? Come to think of it, you would find the sources in our socialization (the way our elders trained us in our relationships with them), enculturation (the way we observed our elders play out their relationships), and observation (the way popular mass media showcases and glamorizes either the cutest parts or the worst parts of relationships, without showcasing how exchanges between two people can be settled with simple, bias-free, arrogance-free conversations!) The result: a forest-fire!

 

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Contained versus Widespread fire: Which do you use to cook food?

Fire in relationship

 

Do we burn the house down to cook our food? No. We build fire in a small contained area, with all the precautions so that the purpose is met: food gets cooked. When the purpose is met, we close down the fire that stayed within the stove!

I would like you to consider a similar function for the transactions of our relationships: which could sometimes be intense and inflamed like fire, or chilly, and soothing like water. They could also be the cool autumn breeze or the sunny springtime. No matter the nature of transactions in our relationships, containing them sets their limits, their extent. Containing them trains them with “how much” and “how far” can they go between the two of us (me and you or me and me!). These have been two of the most powerful questions I have learned to ask myself whenever in doubt, for many conflicts in my life: how much and how far?!

It comes across clearly that setting boundaries are rather a healthy precaution than a negative concept. In other words, we think of fences as what keeps us in and we think of walls as what keep others out (Gurowitz, 1975). And boundaries contain fences and walls – fences relate to us and walls relate to others (Kaplan, Capace & Clyde, 1984). Boundaries protect all the parties in the transaction; they protect everyone’s feelings and rights without hurting the other. They help establish/retain a personal identity within a relationship. Eventually, setting boundaries result in good mental health, good emotional health, a stable sense of autonomy, a unique sense of identity, avoids burnout and messy feelings.

Setting boundaries in relationships may be a task, but it is surely useful. I strongly believe that setting boundaries in relationships is the first step to self-care and self-love. It sets the limit for how much and how far do I want to invest in something or someone, and how much and how far do I want to be swayed by something or someone. It helps me stay in the balance, the grey (and not alternate between a black and white which is often conditional).

Simply put, boundaries are the lines from where I get to love you and myself at the same time. Boundaries allow me to respect you and me at the same time. Boundaries allow me to protect you and me at the same time!

Let’s consider the types of boundaries you may want to think about.

Fifty Shades of Boundaries

setting boundaries in relationships

We may of course understand some major categories of boundaries here. However, do note that these are umbrella terms that give us a direction to think. Eventually, you would like to consider these in terms of how they relate to your personal life.

One way of considering your boundaries would be to think of them as intrapersonal and interpersonal. This means you can first think of how much and how far do you wish to engage with your ‘self’, criticize your ‘self’, love your ‘self’, listen to your ‘self’ and forgive your ‘self’. Once this becomes clear, write them down and contract with your ‘self’, promising to follow these rules. You could then consider how you wish to convert these contracts with others in a relational space: how much and how far would you want to share, invest, forgive, love, care, and support the other.

You can also think of how much and how far you would like yourself to be invested into, loved, cared, forgiven, and supported by the other. You can make this process deeper by thinking of these interpersonal boundaries differently for different people in your life. For example, how different would you want to deal with your personal and professional relationships? It is a significant question when considering setting boundaries in relationships.

A second way of looking at boundaries would be to consider where you want these boundaries: physical aspects, emotional aspects, and digital aspects of your relationships. Pause and reflect periodically, during an alone-time with your ‘self’, as to how much and how far do you want to get physical, when, and how you wish to invest physically in a relationship. Touch is surely a healer and yet, if the touch is fiery, you may want to consider some fences! You could also think of how much and how far would you like to be emotionally involved with your partner and allow you to be involved with them.

Finally, and I urge you to think of this: how much and how far would you prefer a digital engagement with your partner? How would you like your password privacy, your tagging preferences, commenting preferences, following or friending preferences with mutual and unique people on social media sites? What are your preferences for using each other’s devices and posting about your relationship online? Think about these concerns before igniting a spark into a forest fire!

Thinking Seriously about Setting Healthy Boundaries in Relationships?

setting healthy boundaries in relationships

If you are convinced about the vitality of considering and setting boundaries (fences and walls) in your relationships with self and others, I am sure you would next wonder how you can share this with your partners without hurting them. Let’s be honest: it is not common for couples or partners in a relationship to read up so much about saving their relationship (with self and/or others). Hence, the decision to make the change is pretty much your own, which I hope is an unconditional one because you prioritize love over conflicts and not keep score about being the one working on the relationship! None of these help in the short and long run!

This is why it is recommended to begin with a few pre-requisites. Just as you need to lay pillars deep into the ground before constructing a building or checking all the vitals before performing a surgery, it is important to establish a few pillars to setting boundaries in relationships.

  • Love – an unconditional sense of love for the self and other is integral to setting boundaries in relationships. In fact, let’s use the word “healthy boundaries.” A love that keeps no score and love that places no conditions for something in exchange; a love that expects no barter and kind love. In short, the 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 kind of love is important.
  • Patience: In a world when we have quick access to almost everything and have lost the practice of waiting, keeping patience is quite a challenge. And yet, I recommend it. Time has its way of working around us.
  • Grace: God gave us forgiveness and mercy, even when we did not deserve it. That is called true grace. So, giving grace to the other (self-included) is important. Allow people to make mistakes and learn from them with your support and grace. Necessitating perfection is only going to hurt. Forgive them, like you have been forgiven and like you expect it too!

With these pillars firmly laid in your existence, here are two simple tricks I have been successfully using for setting boundaries in relationships. I call them my magic crayons. Disclaimer: they work most of the time and the times they don’t, I don’t beat myself up. I rather pause and reflect on what else is there for me to learn about people and their world!

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Magic Crayon One: Boundaries are two-way streets

I am a visual-kinaesthetic learner and hence, often a pictorial representation helps me understand knowledge better. About boundaries too, I use the visual representation of boundaries I learned in my study of Transactional Analysis. One of Eric Berne’s legacy was the use of diagrams to represent psychological processes. In the literature of Transactional Analysis, boundaries are diagrammed in three ways:

Boundaries Diagrammed

The elastic line allows a two-way street of investment by both the parties in a relationship. And that’s the one I remind myself to operate from in my relationships. Say, doesn’t this help you understand the idea of setting boundaries in relationships? Let us know in the comment section below!

Magic Crayon Two: Communication is the key

It is easier for you to figure how much and how far you would like things to happen in a relationship with your ‘self’ and with others. The trickier part is to communicate that with the other and accommodating their individual, unique boundary preferences! This is where my magic crayon number two fills in healthy colors. Communication has been, is, and will always be the central key to a healthy relationship. Communication entails a sender and a receiver and they swap their roles in a transaction: this means I am as much a receiver as I am a sender of some information. Note the word I use is a receiver that relates to being a responder and not a reactor!

How can we mutually come up with healthy ways in setting boundaries in relationships? Consider this simple formula for verbally communicating your boundary preferences: DESI.

D– Describe. Paint a verbal picture of the specific situation which has discomforted you or has called for your attention. Describe the situation beginning with ‘When…’.

E– Express. Express how you feel regarding the situation or the person’s behavior in the situation you have just painted. Now, remember, express how you feel and not how the person made you feel. You chose to feel that way because you perceived it in a specific way. Start with ‘I feel..’.

S-Specify. Specify your preferences and boundaries. Specify how much and how far are you comfortable with that specific situation/person/aspect. Rather than saying, ‘You should/must…’, consciously choose to say, ‘I would prefer’ or ‘I am comfortable with..’ or ‘I want/would like…’.

I-Invite. Invite the other to also share how they feel about what you shared and if they would like to specify their personal needs. Encourage a co-creation of boundaries, rather than one party/person setting them alone. A two-way street with rules always allows a free movement of vehicles, right?

DESI will surely be your savior in setting boundaries in relationships, but, healthy boundaries… positive boundaries!

If you are interested in reading more, consider books easily available online, such as ‘Boundaries’ by Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend, ‘Beyond Boundaries’ by Dr. Townsend, and ‘The Dance of Connection’ by Dr. Harriet Lerner. They will surely enable you in setting boundaries in relationships in a healthy manner.

REFERENCES

Gurowitz, E. M. (1975). Group Boundaries and Leadership Potency. Transactional Analysis Journal, 5(2), 183-185.

Hay, J. (2018). Psychological Boundaries and Psychological Bridges: A Categorisation and the Application of Transactional Analysis Concepts. International Journal of Transactional Analysis Research and Practice, 9(1), 52-81.

Kaplan, K. J., Capace, N. K., & Clyde, J. D. (1984). A Bidimensional Distancing Approach to Transactional Analysis: A Suggested Revision of the OK Corral. Transactional Analysis Journal, 14(2), 114-119.

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