The norms of ordinary social convention include the expectation that adults respect each other’s rights to make their own decisions and maintain their individuality, even in close relationships. The closer the relationship, the more fluid are the lines that separate us from each other. However, most people still prefer that their intimate partners allow them to retain at least some privacy. In professional or collegial relationships, the lines we maintain around ourselves are far less permeable. The term boundary is used in psychology to refer to such a line, and it implies that there needs to be some type of fence, however fluid, that protects our identity and autonomy. When someone steps on, or over, you, it’s a sign that the individual has decided your boundaries aren’t worth respecting. This behavior could involve handing you a task that isn’t part of your job description, prying into your personal affairs, or telling you something that is better left unsaid.
According to University of Connecticut’s Anne Dailey (2017), “We say that people have good boundaries when they are able to restrain their impulses, to limit desire, to hold back, to tolerate frustration” (p. 13). We object when those with poor boundaries invade our space. Women may complain about male privilege, for example, when the men in their lives presume that they have the right to ask women about personal matters, a presumption they would never make with men. The behavior of disrespecting boundaries can reflect a power differential (men feeling they have the “right” to intrude on women’s lives), but it can also reflect an individual’s failing to learn about boundaries from parents who themselves were intrusive and controlling.
The “bright lines” of boundaries “separate lawful from unlawful, consensual from coerced, free from exploited, ownership from trespass, fantasy from reality.” From this perspective, boundaries are everywhere in human relationships. Some boundaries are wide “grey areas,” “but the notion of a boundary always entails this idea of separation” (p. 14).
In psychoanalytic treatment, which is the focus of Dailey’s work, it's sometimes the case that therapists feel sexually drawn to their clients. Clearly, if they acted on this attraction, it would constitute unacceptable professional behavior. The therapist needs to “keep her hands off the patient” and sublimate, or refocus, those feelings onto the work itself. Used in this manner, the therapist’s attraction toward the client can help provide important clues about that individual’s inner life. Further, the feelings the therapist has toward the client may be similar to those that know the client outside the context of treatment. By understanding those feelings, the therapist gains insight into the client's most important relationships.
In everyday life, people experience such unwanted and unacceptable desires all the time. Work-related talk among colleagues suddenly results in “enflaming wishes for more” (p. 16). If they are to maintain the boundaries of their relationship, coworkers need to use a similar process of sublimation to turn passion toward each other into passion toward achieving successful work outcomes. There is a certain sadness to this: “the loss of spontaneity and desire unmediated by words” (p. 17). However, we have to give up those “lived intensity” moments for protection against violating or being violated.
In situations when you feel these urges, Dailey’s work suggests that you don’t try to shove them out of your consciousness, but instead use them to help gain insight into your relationship with that other person. It’s possible that you’re responding to cues from that other person, and this is why you feel so attracted. The notion of “countertransference” that forms the core of Dailey’s argument is that the feelings you experience toward others are in part a reflection of how they feel toward you. Sublimation means that you don’t act on those feelings, so that nothing changes in the outward nature of your relationship.
Let’s flip the situation around toward you being the unwanted recipient of someone else’s boundary violations. It’s all very well and good to analyze why this is happening and to use the experience to promote self-understanding, but it’s still unpleasant to be placed in this position. Perhaps you’re meeting a potential romantic partner for the first time and so you are just in testing mode with respect to this person. Early in the conversation, though, you find yourself being asked to answer some pretty intrusive questions: “What led to your divorce?” “Why didn’t you finish college?” “How much do you earn?” These seem inappropriate given the stage of your relationship, causing you to squirm or dodge the questions. It’s possible that the other person just feels very comfortable around you and thinks it’s okay to take the conversation in this direction, but you would still prefer not to.
Consider another example that more directly indicates boundary crossing in the form of taking advantage of you: Let’s say you’ve been invited to a reception honoring a colleague you know somewhat well, but the relationship is entirely work-based. A ceremony is about to begin in which the honoree will need to have his hands free. Seeing you enter the room, he shoves a plate of food and a wine glass into your hands, expecting you to hold it for the duration of the event. Does it seem to you that your colleague has mistaken you for a table? Was the act done with the air of someone used to having people wait on him hand and foot? This is hardly a violation of the sort encountered by people who are victims of real boundary crossing, but it feels insulting nevertheless.
When people with poor boundaries act in this way, you’re placed in the impossible situation of not wanting to seem rude, but also not wanting to be seen as a piece of furniture. Dailey’s work would suggest that you confront the feelings of insecurity that such acts trigger within you. Why should you feel it’s necessary to comply with inappropriate requests? Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, you can also use these situations to gain insight into what’s going on with others that led them to violate your autonomy and needs.
Being able to identify the unwanted crossing of boundaries that occurs when people invade yours is the first step toward asserting your rights to self-control, privacy, and individuality. It’s this recognition that will allow you to take that next step of acting on those rights. Boundaries are part of all of our relationships, and maintaining yours will help boost your own feelings of personal fulfillment.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017
Dailey, A. C. (2017). Violating boundaries. Studies In Gender and Sexuality, 18(1), 13-18. doi:10.1080/15240657.2017.1276781