How to Establish Healthy Boundaries in Relationships

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Relationship boundaries are invisible barriers that help preserve our sense of self-identity and personal power while participating in the dance of life with others. It’s about safely joining the dance party without getting our toes stepped on or feeling the need to always have a dance partner. Everyone can have a good time and still respect each other’s space.

The Purpose of Personal Boundaries

Boundaries should exist in all relationships, not just romantic ones. In any relationship, they help us preserve a sense of autonomy while signaling to others how we deserved to be treated. Likewise, healthy personal boundaries open up space for others to be who they are without our imposition and neediness. They stop us and them from being the figurative doormat.

Personal boundaries can be a tricky thing. Much like manners, they should be ever-present in our interactions yet we tend to only recognize and appreciate them when they’re grossly eroded. We wake up to the realization that this invisible barrier has started to disintegrate and we feel conflicted on how to restore it.

We Learn About Boundaries in Childhood

In a lot of ways, our perspective on boundaries is intimately tied to who we are because we learn about them at such a young age. The respect or disrespect for boundaries is modeled for us first with parents or guardians but later with siblings, teachers, and other influential adults.

Unfortunately, as young children, we don’t have the experience or wisdom to know what’s right and what’s wrong when it comes to this. So what we observe, whether it’s healthy or not, becomes our de facto normalcy.

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I remember my first experience with wobbly boundaries happened in grade school. I became friends with this little girl named Julia. We spent a lot of time together but I remember we had this lopsided dynamic. She would insist on doing things her way and I would just give in even though I didn’t always want to. The few times I experimented with holding my ground, she reacted strongly. Because I didn’t want to cause a rift and risk losing her as a friend, I eventually conceded. She got her way every single time.

Because I was so young, I didn’t have the awareness to evaluate the situation properly and recognize the unfair imbalance. Obviously, she learned that behavior from somewhere but I wasn’t equipped to fend it off. Without eventually benefiting from healthy influences in my young life, who taught me to recognize appropriate boundaries and behaviors, I could have kept that pattern of acquiescence going all the way through adulthood.

Lessons Girls Learn About Boundaries

While the issue of boundaries affects us all, I have observed it is generally a harder challenge for women. The subtle lessons girls receive early on about boundaries usually come through messages steeped in heavy topics like guilt, obligation, and responsibility.

In our society, females are taught that love and acceptance mean a self-sacrificing commitment to our relationships. Sometimes to an extreme and warped extent — togetherness without conditions, giving without limits, prioritizing others before yourself. This sound like the hallmarks of our society’s ideal image of marriage and motherhood.

Confusion and Ambivalence of Holding Healthy Boundaries

As young adults, we eventually mature and have enough life experience to gain some broader awareness of our relationship dynamics. When we finally recognize weak boundaries, we wrestle with conflicting emotions especially in how to rectify them. Boundary infringement tends to materialize most frequently in our most intimate (but not necessarily romantic) relationships. We are torn between two loyalties — ourselves and our loved ones. How do we come together but not lose ourselves?

We feel an intrinsic urge to stay within the tribe but sometimes we feel an internal frustration for the price we need to pay. We may feel a deep-seated resentment for being pushed around or taken for granted. Often these feelings linger in the background and come forward in waves. It may not happen all the time but it happens routinely enough that you know deep down that it’s a problem.

Without some action, the dysfunctional dynamic can linger on for years. It feels like treading water in the relationship. The infractions may not be bad enough to make a drastic move like severing ties, but they leave a lingering bad taste in the mouth. One of perceptible dissatisfaction.

Behavioral Patterns of Disrespecting Boundaries

With the fear of ruffling feathers or the unwanted perception of not being committed and cooperative, many who deal with this burden feel stuck. They don’t want these relationships to end, they just want everyone to act differently. More respectful and more balanced. The longing for improvement is there but with it comes the uncertainty of how to bring about change. A type of change that sticks.

Many years ago I read a book about the challenges of changing the dynamics of relationships with weak boundaries. I can’t remember the name of it but the psychologist author laid out a hypothesis that we all settle into roles with expectations of each other that are hard to change the longer they have been established. Like trying to wedge out of a ditch, it takes a great deal of power and momentum to affect a lasting transformation. Trying to fix it just a little bit at a time or inconsistently will just keep you stuck.

The author reasoned that over time we establish a set point of how we interact with one another, whether healthy or not. He said any attempts to disrupt the status quo is met with resistance. This is even if there is proactive and clear communication requesting a change to the dynamic and an agreed upon redrawing of the boundary lines.

For the antagonist who never respected boundaries in the first place, a shallow gesture of adopting change may be offered. But usually, in time, bad habits reemerge. The imposing behavior resumes because there’s an unconscious longing for the familiar — from both parties. Lasting change takes a lot of consistent effort and sometimes the path of least resistance just seems easier.

Creating An Action Plan to Reclaim Boundaries

To tackle such change feels daunting. It’s fraught with risk and takes a considerable amount of courage and effort which needs to be sustained to see the change through. From my own experience and from the guidance of professionals, I have found transforming unbalanced relationships takes community support, deliberate planning, and consistent long-term reinforcement.

Here is a 4-step action plan that can help create a pathway towards change.

1- Recruit a Support Team

When going head-to-head with someone who pushes boundaries, it feels like a battle. It’s not wise to go it alone. Recruit people from your life who can help you see the situation clearly, support your efforts, and keep you motivated. They can be a source of accountability and comfort when things get hard and you may want to give up.

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When I was in my early twenties, I had a boyfriend who brought to my attention an unhealthy dynamic in my immediate family. He thoughtfully encouraged me to take a stand and lay out expectations of how we could better interact. When the day came for my reverse intervention, he was very supportive and reassuring. Over time as things slowly changed with my family but sometimes slipped, he kept providing clarity to me for why I made this decision.

2 - Evaluate the Relationship

Creating a plan starts with a thorough evaluation of the relationship. Examine the dynamic and dissect what happens when boundaries are pushed.

  • In what circumstances are boundaries disregarded? What are the triggers? Give a lot of thought to this. Be specific and document it so your thoughts are clear.

  • What is the behavior of the aggressor and what is your behavior in response?

  • How does this make you feel?

  • Specifically, how would you like to see it change? Paint the picture of the relationship with healthy boundaries. How does everyone behave?

3 - Plan Your Communication

Using your analysis, come up with a plan to communicate your requests.

  • Pick a time, place, and condition that are neutral and free from stress. Don’t try to have this discussion in a moment when your boundaries are being pushed.

  • Explain what you want to change and why. Focus on making this about how you wish for a better relationship opposed to attacking them about what they do wrong. Focus less on their behavior and more on the desired outcome that’s win-win. This will focus the message and prevent them from becoming immediately defensive.

  • Present two or three behaviors that you’d like to see changed. This is important. Have specific examples of the execution of these ideal behaviors AND examples of their bad behavior. They will ask for examples.

Example 1:

A petition for desired behavior: I want to feel reconnected with you at the end of our workday.

When you come home from work, I would appreciate it if you would take the time to greet me and ask me about my day. And I will do the same.

Illustration of bad behavior: It seems like when you come home, I feel like you either ignore me or nag me about how the house looks. Like last night...

When presenting examples, try to keep emotions out of it. Instead, rely on facts. Pretend you are an attorney presenting evidence.

Example 2:

A petition for desired behavior: I want to feel like we’re both supporting our extended family. When you assume that I will babysit your kids without asking me first, I feel like you’re taking my help for granted. I love my nephews and I want to support you but I need you to respect my time as well.

Illustration of bad behavior: It’s not okay for you to assume I will babysit every Friday night. Two weeks ago I had to miss an important meeting because you were an hour late picking them up. This is very frustrating for me.

4 - Be Attentive and Consistent

When you deliver your request for behavior change, expect some resistance. No matter how well you couch it, most people will become defensive to some extent. Realize this is normal and that you are aiming for the long term here. Be gentle but firm and try to end the discussion on a positive note.

Over time also expect that bad behavior will creep up again. It will be very important to call it out the first time and every time an infraction occurs. Without this step, you will quickly resume old patterns and worse yet, you will lose credibility for sticking to your position. You can only come back to this well so many times. This is probably the hardest part of affecting change. It is also where your support team can really lift you up.

Believe In Your Right to Have Healthy Boundaries

Relationship dynamics are difficult to manage. No one speaks the rules out loud. Instead we proceed with unspoken assumptions. Under normal and healthy relationship dynamics, this is usually fine despite the periodic overstep. When a pattern emerges of routine boundary infringement, it’s time to speak up.

Recognize that you are entitled to healthy personal boundaries as is everyone else with whom you interact. Remember, to respect the boundaries is to respect the person. Exercise this power to draw the lines with a reasonable expectation that they are honored. Don’t tolerate anything less. You can enjoy your relationships without burden when you insist everyone stays within bounds.

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Take Action!

Do an audit of your most intimate relationships. Do you feel boundaries are honored most of the time? If no, and when you’re ready, create an action plan for addressing this imbalance. Remember it’s a long term proposition so recruit support and aim for consistency over time.

What other actions do you do to recalibrate the boundaries in your relationships? Please share below.