What Are Boundaries in Personal Relationships?
Parenting can help us learn about boundaries. Imagine a family with a young child. In this household, the rule is, “No cookies until after dinner.” The child, as children do, continually tests this rule. “Maybe if I scream loudly enough, I’ll get that cookie”, they think. They push and poke to see what they can get away with, hoping that their will is stronger than the adult’s patience.
A practiced parent upholds the guideline firmly and without emotion, “You will get your cookie after dinner,” is repeated calmly and frequently in response to the tantrums.
The parent knows that this pushback isn’t personal, even if the child tries to make it seem so with screams of, “I hate you!” and “You’re the worst mommy/daddy ever!”. Just as we know that the no-cookies-before-dinner boundary is not created to harm the child.
Boundaries are important in adult relationships as well.
Obviously relationships between adults are different than those between a parent and child. The power dynamic is equally shared and personal agency is maintained. Yet even so, we can use those simpler relationships to help us learn how to create and enforce boundaries in the rest of our lives.
Boundaries are a statement of what you are willing to tolerate. They do not seek to control someone else, yet they also are a refusal to be controlled. Like in the situation with the cookies and child, boundaries are not coming from a place of wanting to harm another. They are simply facts, communicated clearly and followed with consequences if broken.
Boundaries create a distinction that says, “This is me. And that is you.”
In adult relationships, healthy boundaries are a sign that each person has a strong identity and awareness of their own values. They are an indication that there is enough independence that each partner has the right to state their own needs and limitations.
Of course, your needs don’t supersede those of your partner. And so part of boundary-making involves risk. Because if they decide not to accept your guidelines, they may elect to leave. It’s a good reminder that you can control your actions, but not another’s response (nor are you responsible for that response).
Boundaries don’t negate “I love you,” but they do say, “I won’t love you if it means neglecting myself.”
In the parlance of the commonly cited oxygen-mask metaphor, setting boundaries doesn’t mean that you won’t help others secure their life-saving devices. It simply means that you refuse to let them interfere with your right to affix yours first.
Boundaries are critical for the health of ALL of our relationships – romantic, parent/child, work, family and friendships. Effort spent in improving this domain will have far-reaching benefits for you and those around you.