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3 Steps for Creating Healthy Boundaries in Relationships

Setting boundaries isn't all bad; it can be a positive experience for all.

Key points

  • The relationship boundaries one shares with others in close proximity are perhaps the most complex.
  • Research shows that boundary management in households is positively related to relationship satisfaction. 
  • Identify your own emotions and see whether they're triggered by a history of past boundaries ignored.
Christina Wocintechchat/Unsplash
It's best to be open about setting boundaries!
Source: Christina Wocintechchat/Unsplash

If you've ever watched the classic TV series Seinfeld, you'll probably remember the episode in which a woman breaks up with George by telling him, "It's not you, it's me." An offended George indignantly replies, "I invented 'it's not you, it's me.' Nobody tells me it's them, not me. If it's anybody, it's me!"

What does this have to do with boundaries? Well, actually, it's a surefire way of avoiding having to set any boundaries at all. It also avoids the conflict and in-depth discussion that can follow when setting boundaries.

If George or his girlfriend had really wanted to continue the relationship, they'd have to talk about what was not working for them and what their needs were.

Boundary setting isn't an ultimatum, but a dialogue about the relationship, mutual needs, and desires.

If George and his girlfriend had really wanted to have a relationship, they might have said: "It's not about you or me; it's about us."

Multitudes of Boundaries

Almost anything can constitute a boundary. There are personal boundaries that we set for ourselves, such as avoiding indulging in alcohol, getting to work on time, getting a good night's sleep, and flossing nightly, just to name a few. Self-discipline can be thought of as an important boundary that's necessary for success.

Then, there are social boundaries that exist between ourselves and the environment, like the stop sign and stop lights that protect ourselves and others; stepping to the back of a line instead of jumping ahead of others; respecting others through kind speech and patience.

Perhaps the boundaries that are most complex and can result in the greatest friction are the relationship boundaries we share with others who we live with or are in close proximity. To that end, the book Clearing Emotional Clutter offers several strategies and ideas for setting boundaries and identifying your own strengths.

When a Lack of Boundaries Masquerades as Depression and Hopelessness

Let me share the story of Gary, a client who came to me because he was failing miserably at vocational training—which offered him the chance for stability and a steady job after being in the prison system. It was no surprise to me that he was depressed and had lost hope.

Now, I suppose I could have worked directly with Gary's low mood—but I saw Gary's problem as being relational. Why, you ask? Because I learned early on that Gary grew up in an unpredictable, chaotic, and trauma-inducing environment. Research on early childhood experiences shows how adverse childhood experiences can hinder one's social and emotional development.

As I dug deeper, I learned that Gary's living arrangements mirrored his upbringing. He lived in a house where a lot of people came to "party" with his roommates. Gary found it hard to say "no" and not join in. When he couldn't keep up with school assignments, he felt doomed to repeat his old problems. To make things worse, he felt horrible about himself.

I suggested Gary find someone at his school to help him create a study schedule. Then, he needed to address his boundary needs with others—with a sense of openness, motivation, and trust. He ended up reaching his study goals and gaining self-esteem. In fact, research shows that boundary management in households is positively related to relationship satisfaction.

Three-Step Practice for Creating Healthy Boundaries

  1. Recognize how a lack of boundaries makes you feel. Do you feel hurt, sad, upset, etc., when someone disregards a boundary? Write down your emotions. Are these emotions being triggered by a history of such boundaries being ignored or disrespected? If you find an old pattern repeating, keep in mind that there's no need to blame yourself or the other person.
  2. If you could create one new boundary, what would it look like? How would you feel if this new boundary could be set? You can always start small by thinking of one thing that could be changed.
  3. Talk with another about the boundary and why it is important for you. Be honest and direct, not blaming as you talk about a boundary. This is about building trust with another person. You might even explain your history with this boundary and why it matters to you. Remember, too, that not everyone will respond to your need to set a boundary.

If others are unable to hear your concerns right away, recognize that this is part of the process. You can always try to address them later. Above all, don't give up. Boundary setting can be uncomfortable, but it can create new understanding when done with kindness and out of respect for all involved.

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