Somewhere along the way, 'boundaries' became the enemy to loving and happy relationships. We decided that good relationships don't require boundaries and if your relationship does indeed need boundaries... well, that sounds like a bad relationship. What? Huh? ExSQUEEZE me? Where did we get these ridiculous ideas? Who is responsible for this misinformation?
Boundaries, as defined by Ryan Howes, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, Calif, are “the line where I end and someone else begins.” Boundaries between people are no different than the boundaries between states: they are the reason there are 50 distinct states and not one large body of land, and the reason there are two individual people in a couple and not just one person.
Why Do They Matter?
In healthy relationships, partners “ask permission, take one another’s feelings into account, show gratitude and respect differences in opinion, perspective and feelings.” In more unstable relationships, partners assume each other feels the same way they do (e.g., “I like this, so you must, too”), Howes said. They ignore the effects of violating their partner’s boundary (e.g., “They’ll get over it”).
Boundaries in romantic relationships are especially critical, because as opposed to other relationships, partners inhabit each other's emotional, physical, and sexual space. They're not just important, they're essential. And if you realize you're lacking boundaries - or not communicating clearly enough about them - here are some really simple steps to follow:
Step 1: Be Self-Aware
Self-knowledge is the first step, and surprisingly, it's one not everyone always takes. As Howes defines it: “You need to know what you like and dislike, what you’re comfortable with versus what scares you, and how you want to be treated in given situations."
Step 2: Clearly State Your Needs
This is the most important part, because it's what separates telepathy, AKA hoping your partner just knows how you feel, and reality. But there are lots of ways to do this wrong. Coming on too strong doesn't work, as Bridget Levy, LCPC says. “Boundaries that often fail are those that include the words ‘always,’ ‘never’ or any absolute language." Conversely, boundaries that are too vague or weak also don't work. Strike the right balance by speaking to your partner clearly, calmly, and rationally.
Step 3: Be Specific
Levy provides some great examples of this:
- “I want to hear about your day. I’ll be available to give you my full attention in 10 minutes.”
- “If you put your dirty clothes in the hamper by 10 a.m. on Saturday morning, I’ll be happy to wash them for you.”
- “I love you but am not willing to call in sick for you when you’ve been drinking.”
- “Do not read my journal. I feel violated when my privacy is disrespected.”
Step 4: Communicate Love As Much As You Communicate Boundaries
Boundaries aren't about creating space between you and your partner, they're about making you both feel safe and supported in your closeness. The love reinforcement is just as important, if not moreso, as the boundary request. So while being clear and specific... also be loving.
Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D, gave this example: “I need you to know that I love you and have every intention of us working through whatever issues come up. But I am not OK with you being verbally abusive when you get angry. If you want to talk about how it upset you that I ran into my old girlfriend, we can do that, but only if you don’t attack me.”
So that's it! 4 steps to creating and enforcing boundaries in your relationship. When it's laid out like that, it doesn't seem so intimidating does it? When it comes down to it, it's really just about being honest with yourself, being honest with your partner, and setting expectations. Oh yeah, and reminding them how much you love them. If you need to revisit old boundaries or set new ones, just cycle through 1-4. You got this!