One of the key issues I see in my work with clients is the inability to use boundaries and boundary-setting in a way that is healthy and productive for relationships. Boundaries are key! Why are they so important? Because if you don’t figure out how to set healthy boundaries, one or both of you will probably often be triggered, flooded, and unable to function well in your relationship. Without boundaries, you could (without realizing it) actually be feeding your relationship dysfunction instead of standing up for what’s best or right for you and the relationship.
What are Good Boundaries?
The first thing to note about boundaries is that very few people ever actually set them, but they sure do talk about them a lot. Saying “I don’t like when you do that,” or “When you do that, you hurt my feelings,” or “This is the last time I’ll ever put up with that,” isn’t creating a boundary, it’s simply expressing a preference. Telling your partner what you don’t like or don’t want isn’t setting a boundary unless it’s been communicated effectively that there’s an action you’re prepared to take if your boundary is violated. The other person can choose to listen, and hopefully abide, by your wishes, but if they don’t change their behavior, and there is no clearly defined thing that happens, then there’s really no boundary.
So, what are good boundaries?
- Good boundaries are aligned with your core values.
This is critical. Making up boundaries simply for the sake of making up boundaries is a fool’s game. But if your boundaries are aligned with your core values, when you communicate them, it will like an honest extension of your personality.For example, let’s say that one of your core values is to wait to have sex until you’re married. As long as you feel completely comfortable with your belief, perspective, and choice around this idea, then it doesn’t really matter what someone else feels about this, you’re setting a boundary that communicates who you are.Or, let’s say you grew up in a home where you were subjected to physical abuse, and afterwards you made a promise to yourself to never accept that type of behavior in your life again. These core values are part of what makes us who we are, and if someone is to fully accept you, then they also need to accept your values.
- Good boundaries are communicated effectively, including the results or outcome.
Make sure that your boundaries are made known to all of the people that need to know what your boundaries are. And make sure they know exactly what you will do if those boundaries are violated.Let’s say you are a recovering alcoholic, and part of your recovery program/plan is that you purposely avoid social situations where there will be drinking. You’ll avoid a lot of confusion and uneasiness with others if you simply let them know, in no uncertain terms, that if there will likely be drinking at an event, you’d like to know in advance so that you can make alternate plans. Also let them know that if you do, for some unforeseen reason, find yourself in a situation where there is drinking, you’ll simply excuse yourself and leave, and it’s nothing personal against them. Some of the problems with boundary-setting come up when someone has not clearly communicated their boundaries in advance and then are trying to, in the moment, explain something that should have been shared much, much earlier.
- Good boundaries are consistently enforced.
This is perhaps the most important part. For a boundary to be a boundary, it has to be enforced, and done so consistently. Otherwise no one will believe that you actually have a boundary, so they’ll walk all over you. If you say to someone, ”If you raise your voice when you talk to me, I’ll simply walk away and leave,” when they do raise their voice, you need to walk away. Otherwise, they think you’ll never follow through on the consequences you laid out, and they’ll never respect your boundary.
Barriers to Setting Healthy Boundaries
If boundary-setting is so important, why is it so difficult? Because many of us are so biochemically addicted to our circumstances (even if they’re difficult, even if it’s relationship drama,) that we have more fear of the unknown than of the known, no matter how painful. What I mean by being biochemically addicted is a little bit like how someone who loses a lot of weight often puts the weight right back on. In physiology we call this a body weight set point, where our bodies become “programmed” to be a certain weight and to store a certain amount of fat; and the body will fight back against attempts to change this set point.
In therapy, we see emotional set points. People will allow themselves to exist in terrible circumstances, even if there is a relatively easy way out, because they are more comfortable being anxious and triggered and uncomfortable than they are not experiencing those things.
Setting good boundaries and recognizing your emotional set points are incredibly important to emotional health and growth. If you don’t do this work now, you may forever be caught in a cycle of saying you want things to change, but still following the same pattern of behavior you’ve been following and wondering why nothing is different.
At the Marriage Recovery Center, we offer several options to help you set boundaries and learn your emotional set points! Everything from our men’s in-person intensive, Life Skills Training, to our women’s online program, Redeemed, to individual counseling. For more information on any of these programs or if you have any questions, please contact our Client Care Team and they’d be happy to help!