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How He or She Responds to a Boundary Is Telling

Detect and deal with an emotionally irresponsible person before it's too late.

Trusting and possessing empathy for others is valiant, but if a person’s good nature is exploited, it may be necessary to erect a healthy boundary. A personal boundary is usually a limit or guideline set by an individual who is avoiding mistreatment by another. Establishing a personal boundary after being used, deceived, or hurt may preserve a person’s mental health.

For example, say Kayla assists a friend who asks for help with a work issue. Kayla finds herself completing the bulk of the friend's work and discovers her friend has been claiming Kayla's work as her own. Kayla decides to establish a healthy boundary with this friend. The next time the friend asks for Kayla's help, Kayla politely states, “I am so sorry, but I need to protect my work. You can ask our director for help. I know she is an expert in this area."

How the friend responds to the boundary may be a barometer of his or her emotional health. The three responses that indicate the person may be manipulative include:

  1. Lashing out and unfairly blaming Kayla: “How dare you insinuate I stole your work! You are so toxic!”
  2. Playing the victim and inflicting guilt: “I can’t focus. My boyfriend broke up with me and I am too depressed to do my own work. You are the only one I can count on. Remember when I took your dog for a walk when you had the flu? Friends help each other. Just do this one more time for me.”
  3. The passive-aggressive approach: “I am sorry I forgot to invite you to the work lunch I organized. We had so much fun. Too bad you missed it.”

These three responses may place a person in an impossible position. If he or she reinforces the boundary, the other party may retaliate in an unfair and hurtful manner. Taking away the boundary leaves the person vulnerable to future mistreatment.

Although it is stressful, reinforcing the boundary and observing the way the other party responds may provide useful data. This information may help a person decipher the emotional health of the individual. Involvement with a person who manipulates and inflicts guilt inevitably impacts a person’s mental health. It may be best to decode the person’s manipulative ways and diplomatically and respectfully create space in the relationship.

Facilitating distance in a relationship may be difficult if the other party is a spouse or an immediate family member. In this case, resurrecting a healthy boundary is complicated but vital. The loved one may react negatively, so a person needs to be prepared. Remaining calm and empathically interpreting the dynamic to the loved one may be a useful first step.

For example, “Mom, I love you, but when you are with my kids, you say derogatory things about their mother. When I ask you about it, you scream and yell and point the finger elsewhere. I am sorry, but you cannot be with them without me or their mother present.” If the interaction escalates and mom becomes attacking or attempts to play the victim and inflict guilt, politely end the discussion. Inform her, “this interaction is unproductive. We can try again when you are calm.” Also, consulting a psychotherapist who is experienced with personality disorders may be necessary.

An example of a healthy response to a boundary may be useful in understanding the difference. Using the scenario involving Kayla, say the friend is hurt, but respects Kayla’s boundary; “I am so sorry. I was not thinking. I understand what you are saying. I will never ask you to share your work again. I hope we can still be friends.” This response is free from excuses and justifications. It exemplifies the friend’s ability to be accountable and view the situation from Kayla’s perspective.

Perhaps the friend is defensive initially, but then takes responsibility for herself; “I was really upset at first, but I realize what I did was wrong. I should not have copied your work. I am so sorry.”

If the friend is sincerely accountable, seems remorseful, and fully articulates an understanding of a person’s viewpoint, he or she may have made an honest mistake. Although forgiveness is important and necessary in sustaining a healthy and close relationship, it does not require the boundary be deconstructed. It simply means the parties progress in a positive manner with a greater understanding of one another’s needs.

Also, tendencies such as ghosting, rejecting, and withholding do not qualify as boundaries. Abandoning a close relationship without an explanation or a person’s refusal to be honest about his or her feelings are emotionally irresponsible behaviors. Refusing to talk about feelings to punish or hurt a partner is also a form of manipulation.

For example, Ron has been worried about his relationship with Anne for the past four months. Ron’s employer needs him to travel to Canada for three months. He loves Anne and desperately wants to stay together despite the geographical distance. Ron wants to plan visits during the separation and identify ways to communicate, but Anne evades any discussion about the future. She states, “I do not know what I want to do. I need time.”

Although this seems like a boundary, it may be a passive-aggressive attempt to punish Ron for leaving. Ron wishes to respect Anne’s need for time but longs to discuss her worries about a long-distance relationship so he can address her fears. Ron remains in the dark for months, anxious and distraught because Anne refuses to discuss her feelings. A healthy boundary is not a refusal to identify and discuss feelings and issues. This tendency may be the result of an individual’s inability to be in touch with difficult feelings.

Alternatively, a healthy boundary is enacted when a person politely excuses himself or herself from an interaction when he or she is the target of guilt, unfair blame, or a verbal assault. Respectfully establishing boundaries after being taken advantage of or manipulated is essential. How a friend or loved one reacts to a boundary may be an indicator of his or her emotional health. A healthy relationship is one in which people understand each other’s perspective, openly discuss and respect feelings, and strive to continue gaining an understanding of each other.

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