Problems often arise in relationships where boundaries do not exist. When partners struggle to set proper boundaries resentment, anger, and feeling taken advantage of often arise, leading partners to blame one another for such feelings. While one partner may have acted in a hurtful manner, we are each personally responsible for setting our own boundaries, which then help us decide what we will and will not tolerate from our partner.
When there is a lack of healthy boundaries in relationships, choices are often made out of guilt, fear, or obligation. For example, saying “yes” and agreeing to something out of guilt or fear, when you really wanted to say “no”. Such exchanges only lead to further resentment. By not sharing our true thoughts, we disempower ourselves and quiet our voices. While the act of setting boundaries can be difficult, learning to do so can be an empowering experience, allowing us to regain our voice in the process.
When talking with clients about creating boundaries, one of the biggest barriers is not a lack of desire for boundaries, but rather confusion over how to create them. It is helpful to consider the following when establishing healthy boundaries:
- Always communicate calmly and respectfully.
- Ask for what you need/want without demanding or trying to control your partner.
- Identify and share your non-negotiables in a clear and calm manner.
- Share what consequences will occur if your boundary is crossed.
- Be ready and willing to enforce those consequences if needed.
(This is the most difficult and yet most crucial part of setting boundaries. Follow through is what turns an empty threat into a boundary. Follow through also strengthens our voice.)
To ensure your boundaries are in fact healthy boundaries, they must fit all the following:
- The boundary keeps me safe
- I must be willing and able to uphold each boundary
- I have 100% control over the boundary
(Example: If you ____________ I will make you move out. I cannot 100% control whether or not he or she moves out, which means this is not a boundary.)
- The boundary can be kept even if the other person disagrees (they likely will!)
(Example: If you ___________ I will leave and spend the night with a friend.)
Boundaries are so important, and yet can be so difficult to set. That being said, here are some helpful pointers to keep in mind:
Setting boundaries will hurt. It may even increase the pain.
When boundaries are first implemented in a relationship where boundaries have never existed, the receiving partner will more than likely not tolerate the change and react negatively. That person’s behavior will often get worse before it gets better. Be careful not to get sucked back into an unhealthy pattern due to their resistance. Stay persistent and stay strong!
We give up the right to complain about the other person’s behavior or lack of response.
When we set a boundary, complaining when the other person does not comply is not productive. Instead, if our partner does not respect a boundary, our job is simply to continue to show up for ourselves using good self-care and grieving any loss associated with our partner's lack of awareness. Remember, you can only control you!
Boundaries alone won’t make things right.
This may be the toughest reality of them all! Our goal in setting boundaries cannot be to change the other person. Rather, our goal should be to grow personally while disentangling ourselves from unhealthy patterns.
Boundaries lead to more satisfying relationships. When we understand our limits and how to maintain them, we feel more open and free to give of ourselves to others without feeling taken advantage of or walked all over. Setting healthy boundaries can be the most compassionate thing we do for both ourselves and others.
~ Written by Emily Dressner, MA, AMFT and the BIM Team
Want to learn more or be encouraged in setting boundaries in your marriage and relationships?
Contact our office for information about joining one of our therapy groups designed just for this purpose.