Relationships and Boundaries

When we think of making a relationship work, we often think of compromise and sacrifice. And while we certainly need flexibility in our closest relationships, we also need to balance that flexibility with a strong sense of our own boundaries. A relationship without that balance will be unfulfilling at best.

Know Where the Boundaries Are

In any relationship, it’s important to know where the boundaries are. We need to know ourselves well enough to know what’s negotiable and what isn’t. We need to understand the details of our highest values and our strongest triggers. (And we need to know the same things about our partners.) It isn’t enough to understand that I need to feel respected, and that not feeling respected is a relationship breaker. I need to understand how I define “respect.” When do I feel respected, and when do I feel disrespected?

Boundaries Are About Respect

One person’s respect means to be included in decisions. For another, it means keeping certain things private. For someone else it means being spoken to, or spoken about, nicely. Setting a boundary about “respect” is like getting in the car without knowing where you’re going. That’s fine if you’re happy with a ride on a sunny day. But if you want to reach a particular destination, you’ll need to drive in that direction. Any boundary related to respect must be specific. It must be include how decisions are made or what kind of information is private – or whatever it is that matters to you the most. Without the details, it doesn’t work. You never get where you wanted to go.

Here are some simple boundary-setting statements:

“The new TV is gorgeous, but it’s also expensive. I’m feeling angry and hurt because you didn’t talk to me before you bought it. It’s important to me that we make the larger financial decisions together.”

“Finances are private for me. I don’t talk about my salary with my family, and I don’t want to talk about it with yours, either.”

“I felt humiliated when you made those remarks about my driving. Please don’t talk about me that way again.”

Each of these statements, in addition to setting a boundary, shares information about the speaker. In each case, the information is important and may not have been shared in the past. We often expect others to simply intuit our boundaries and respect them. After all, doesn’t everyone know that a couple needs to make decisions together? Doesn’t everyone understand basic privacy? Doesn’t everyone understand manners?

The answer to those questions is a resounding no. We all have different ideas about privacy, decision-making and what’s polite (or what’s a joke and what isn’t). We tend to gravitate toward people with similar ideas, which reinforces our belief that everyone understands us. But the truth is that if we don’t communicate our most important values and beliefs, we can’t expect others to honor them.

Knowing Our Partners Through Boundaries

Our partners get to know us in many ways, and one of the most powerful is through the boundaries we set, how we set them, and how (or whether) we maintain them. Some people set their boundaries with strong words but never give them teeth. This lets family, friends and partners know that they like the drama but they’re not really serious. The setting of boundaries is part and parcel of how we relate to one another.

We also get to know our partners through their boundaries – whether those boundaries are for others or for us. Just as our boundaries help others to understand us, we learn about our partners through theirs. What does respect mean to your partner? Maybe you’ve discussed it; maybe you haven’t. It may be that you know the answer to that question through boundaries that have been set over the years.

The Value of Boundaries in a Relationship

Without properly communicated boundaries, we may never really know the people we care about. And when we assume that they know what’s important to us – even though we’ve never really told them how we feel – we’re asking for trouble. Sooner or later we will feel ignored, taken advantage of, or just plain unloved. Setting and maintaining appropriate boundaries keeps our relationships free of unnecessary anger and resentment. Without those destructive forces, we’re finally free to grow together.

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