Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Elaine Aron, Ph.D.

Elaine N. Aron Ph.D.

Graceful Boundaries Part IV: Dating and Close Relationships

Making boundaries in intimate relationships.

This article is the last of four-part series.

As we have seen, boundaries are a huge topic. So are close relationships. Thus, I will stick to those in “romantic” relationships, new or long-standing, and not talk about close friends and family members. Even with these limits, this grew to be very long. I had to limit myself a bit with dating, but most of this applies well as you gradually grow closer to someone. Some of it applies to first dates.

As for those of you not in a romantic relationship now, I hope you can adapt many of these thoughts and suggestions to other types of close relationships and perhaps gain insight into past relationships we well.

Love and the Expansion of the Self

Art, my husband, has been studying close relationships since graduate school, when we met in Berkeley, California, in about 1967. I have sometimes been involved as well. There was a hiatus for 10 years while he researched meditation. When he returned to the topic of close relationships, we wrote together an academic, theoretical book on it, Love and the Expansion of the Self: Understanding Attraction and Satisfaction. It was published in 1986, about the time that I first began my interest in HSPs. (Don’t try to buy this book on Amazon—the paperback is $400+ and the hardcover $200+!)

This book’s ideas went from being totally obscure, having been written by two almost unknown psychologists and based, no less on a Vedic text, to generating so much discussion and research within the field of the study of close relationships that self-expansion theory and the Inclusion of the Other in the Self (IOS) Scale that emerged from it have generated thousands of papers and conference presentations.

If you doubt this, go to Google Scholar and look up “self expansion,” “Aron self expansion,” or any of the alternative search items below it. The IOS Scale has been cited in scholarly research articles at least 3000 times. The original book, now difficult to find, has been cited, according to Google Scholar, in other research articles 984 times as of today. Some of the extensions of the idea (not ours) are pretty funny: Self expansion as including a brand in yourself (an extension to the field of marketing), including your cell phone in yourself, or including the person with whom you are sharing a joke.

Why am I telling you all of this? Be patient a little longer. These were the two big ideas in the book: That we all seek to expand ourselves—what we know, what we can do, what we possess or control, and just our sense of ourselves. This may seem very greedy and self-serving, but one of the main ways we expand ourselves is through loving another person—first when we fall in love, and then when (and if) we continue to self-expand through the relationship.

The IOS Scale, for seeing how much one has included the other in the self, is simply an image of a set of overlapping circles. Those being studied choose the one that best describes how they experience the relationship they are in. (You can see the measure by searching on the web for “IOS Scale Aron” and going to images.) You might say that the circles represent each person’s personal boundary, and the overlap indicates how much they let each other in, include the other. Most people choose moderately overlapping circles to indicate their relationship, but some couples indicate very little overlap or almost total overlap. And of course, the two individuals may choose quite different images to describe their relationship.

Boundaries and the Unbounded

About the Vedic text which started all of this, it is a passage from the Upanishads (Bhrihadaranyaka, 4.V.1), saying something like this: The love of the wife for the husband is not for the sake of the husband, but for the sake of the Self. The love of the husband for the wife is not for the sake of the wife but for the sake of the Self. Same for the love of children, wealth, and every other conceivable aspect of the “relative” world. Socrates said the same thing, according to Plato, who recorded his ideas.

It all comes down to a not-yet-realized craving for the unmanifest, non-relative world of pure being, pure consciousness, God realization, satori, or whatever you want to call it. How about, since we are talking about boundaries, the unbounded? Maybe that’s the ultimate graceful boundary.

According to Socrates and the Upanishads (and what is called the Wisdom or perennial tradition) both the self-centered and loving aspects of self expansion are all steps on a path to the big Self. Maybe when we are young we want a pony. If we get one, when we are a little older we lose interest in the pony and want a car. Or a girlfriend or boyfriend. If we get one, maybe we part and go in search of just the right one. Then we marry. But we get used to the person and to being married and want kids, a better job, then more money, an even better car, travel all over the world—and we enjoy each for a while, but not forever. Or if we are not so lucky, we get stuck along the way, although some people stop this whole process and take a leap forward. Because according, again, to this Upanishad, nothing quite satisfies us because anything in the “relative” is finite and we get used to it.

We CAN experience the unbounded, really. Many have. And once people realize it is an achievable goal, for many it becomes the only goal. Not that other things in life become unreal or not enjoyable. They just lose their overwhelming importance. For me, it makes it easier to let go of the small stuff, including having to have a relationship or a person be a certain way. “It’s all relative.” For a picture of it, here’s your big problem of today:

How Close Do You Want to Be?

First a word about dating. As you get to know someone, those circles begin to overlap more and more. There is a sense of rapid self expansion, always a wonderful feeling, as you include another in yourself. But of course there will be hitches, places where you do not overlap, whether it is how far apart you live, your boundaries around sex, your politics, or your diet. Most HSPs are slow to commit, thinking very carefully before taking each step that increases closeness. And at least in the area of sex, compared to those women who are not HSPs, HS women report being more careful and also report fewer bad experiences and fears. It seems that our way works. You still will make mistakes, but try not to let anyone rush you. It’s best for them, too, that your decision be right.

Obviously people, dating or committed, vary in how close they want to be—how they want those overlapping circles to be overall and in different domains. There are physical boundaries—some partners sleep in the same bed, some in separate beds, and some have separate homes across town. Emotional boundaries—do you want almost total openness and depth, or prefer a more private depth that you do not share with anyone? Work boundaries—do you like to do a task alone or with the other? Some run a business together, some say they could never work with their partner, as if the idea is absurd. There are obviously boundaries around your time—how much of the time do you want to be together? And money, since “time is money.” Do you merge finances or keep them separate? Some have the same interests and hobbies; some go their own way—one on a fishing trip and one on a pottery-making retreat. This is all true for close friends also.

Here is a big one: How much do you share (or want to have) the same attitudes and values? Some have the same attitudes on almost everything; some do not on almost anything, including religion and politics. Eek–in the U.S., a red and a blue! Or different sports teams! (Or sports versus no interest at all in sports.)

Here is an important potential difference—how much of a boundary is there between you as a couple and other people? Do you like to have other people over? Are you both extroverts? Or one yes, one no? Is it okay to flirt or have sexual fantasies about someone outside the relationship, or even have sex with someone else? Would you do it but not tell your partner? Or would you never do that, and be upset if your partner did? (By the way, with fantasies, there is a big difference between what goes on in your head and what you tell the other about or do.) What about having your closest friend be someone besides your partner? Would that be okay for both of you? Are you careful about talking about your partner to others, such as their parents or yours, or close friends, with the other present or not present? Or do neither of you care or even expect confidentiality?

At some point, differences may lead to lack of respect for the other. To me, love and respect seem almost the same, and sometimes these boundary differences lead to the end of a relationship. But we can even differ on how much we can differ before we lose respect for the other. Often, we learn from our families or our culture where the boundaries should be. “Of course, partners differ,” or “Of course, you agree with your husband (or wife) if you want to get along and be happy.” These days, we probably learn from trial and error how to handle all these boundaries in a relationship. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong here, as long as you come to an agreement that works for you both.

The main thing is that early in a relationship, or when it is time for the relationship to change and grow, it is important for you to be clear about what you want your boundaries with the other to be. This might change. However, if you do not have some desires, and the other does, it will naturally turn out according to the one who does care. As an HSP, you may have clear desires, but also feel your desires are a bit odd or that you don’t want to make the other person unhappy if you can possibly avoid it. If you have not thought about it, maybe do it now: How would you like your boundaries to be in these areas—physical, emotional, work-related, time spent together, money merger, and shared interests, attitudes, and values?

Potential Boundary Problems for HSPs in Close Relationships

Where do we run into problems? Let’s begin with over-stimulation and downtime. When we are overstimulated, over-aroused, stressed out, overwhelmed, and “about to lose it,” or shut down in hostile silence, we need rest. We need a break from the stimulation. Downtime. Sometimes we need it so much that no one else’s boundaries seem to matter. We hardly feel any love anymore either. “Everybody just get away from me.” But the fact is that you need your significant other to support and encourage you to take downtime. You do not want that person resenting your need—although with time they should learn that they are better off for seeing you get downtime. But in the short run, this is a place to hold on a few minutes more and be graceful.

Some of this can be done beforehand. Be sure your partner understands that this is not about you not wanting to be around them. Not at all. You want to be able to be with them and enjoy your time together, but you can’t until after you get a break. When you are desperate in the moment for that break, hang on long enough to say where you are going and for how long, and ask your partner if this is all right. If it isn’t okay, pause, take a deep breath, and see if you can negotiate this. Rest is just a few more minutes away. If your partner consistently does not want you to take downtime, you have a bigger problem.

All that sounds like an HSP with someone who is not. But what about two HSPs? Each of you understands the need for downtime, but if anything has to be done, you will have to alternate by seeing whose need is greater at the moment. Again, you will need flexible boundaries.

What about other boundary issues for HSPs in close relationships? One is that HSPs often do capitulate, adjusting their boundaries too often for the needs of others. Their empathy makes them feel the other’s needs must be greater. But you must consider whose needs are greater around this boundary? If you do not speak up when your need is greater, the relationship will suffer and you will be forcing your partner into a selfish stance without any chance to do otherwise.

HSPs also may fear conflict or just dislike it, so they would prefer to give in. I find that partners (and children, co-workers, and even pets) sometimes have learned, perhaps unconsciously, that they will get their way if they make such a fuss—use so much volume—that their HSP will find it too overstimulating and back down. You will have to endure the fuss sometimes and make yours even bigger, for the sake of love prevailing over ranking.

You can exert power in other ways besides raising your volume, by the way. It’s a way to role model that for the others in your life too. Use your insight: “I notice you just changed the subject by venting about all sorts of other things. You often do that to avoid our calmly talking about something, especially when the status quo is suiting you, but this time we are going to keep discussing this until we are both satisfied.” Use some confrontation: “I know you think you can get your way by making a big fuss until I back down, but it isn’t going to work this time (any longer).” Or brute fact: “I hear you that you really don’t feel like taking out the compost tonight but it has to be done by one of us tonight. It seems that I am more exhausted than you are, given you are about to go for a bike ride with your friends.”

Then there is Nonviolent Communication (very useful for HSPs—see Marshall Rosenberg). “Can you tell me why you don’t want to take out the garbage?” Listen for your partner’s needs behind the refusal. Often it is a need for autonomy. Not to feel outranked. Nagged. Shamed. It may be that just putting more linking, more love, into the request would help. “We both have some plans for tonight—me to go rest and you to take that bike ride. I know the bike ride is important to you and I’d like you to be able to go soon. The rest is essential to me. Any ideas for how we solve this? Maybe you do it on the way out? Or I do it another night, one when it would ordinarily be your turn?”

What about times that you are the one rigidly insisting on your boundaries? Do you sometimes zealously exert your “HSP rights,” proudly and without compromise? Mostly this will be to avoid over-stimulation in a situation where your partner would enjoy your company or you have different stimulation boundaries—physical, emotional, or any of the others. You hate shopping malls, or sporting events, or entertainment with loud music. You do not like parties or even having people over. Can you go ahead, be flexible about these boundaries, and sometimes endure for the other’s sake? Be sure your partner knows you are doing a favor that will not always happen. But also do it with good will, not complaining. You made the choice. As we will discuss below, your act should be out of love, out of linking, not out of ranking, yours in this case. Those with high rank get to set the boundaries. You do not want to often or always give in because you have a lower rank, just as you do not want to “rule the roost” by insisting you deserve a higher rank.

Here is another example. Suppose you as an HSP have found that you would sleep better in your own bed, not sharing one. You feel you need to. The other feels that romantic partners naturally sleep together. To your partner, it is a necessity if the relationship is going to feel right. The question is, whose need is stronger? Attachment, including physical expressions of it, can be a strong need in some people. And as you will see below, it could be an issue for you as well in this situation, if you have an “avoidance style.”

The point is, do not drift into always feeling right about having firm boundaries in the name of self-care. Close relationships require negotiation. (By the way, research finds that on average people sharing a bed sleep less well, but live longer!) The ideal is that you feel you are or you were free to choose what works best for both of you. That you are not rigidly bound by the experience of past failed relationships, yours or the other’s. Some people have been so damaged by prior relationships, especially in childhood, that they must push the boundaries to the extreme: Rarely together or always on top of each other. Never agreeing or always agreeing. Never revealing their feelings or expressing them uncontrollably. Never overlapping circles, or wishing they were entirely overlapping. Let’s talk about how these extremes develop and revolve around ranking, not loving.

Attachment Styles and HSPs

As some of you know, ranking and linking (think of linking as a matter of degree of liking or loving) and attachment style are two of my favorite subjects. Actually, in close relationships they are usually the same subject. If you have an insecure attachment style, this will make it much harder to have the right boundaries in close relationships.

Now, about attachment styles (patterns, working models)—we learn these in early childhood. These are the models we use to help us decide the best way to get what we need from our caregivers, which is a lot when we are very young. Infants quickly learn to adopt a pattern based on what they have observed about their parents, their first close relationship. By sticking to these styles in childhood, we are more likely to make it to adulthood, fed, clothed, and not too mistreated. We also tend to stick to the same pattern in adulthood when we are in a close relationship. The mind decides that on important subjects like this, the past is the best predictor of the future.

It is generally agreed that there are three styles. The first is to have a secure attachment so that, as children we are confident, we are loved, and as adults we expect usually to like people and for them to like us. In relationships we can be honest, close, freely offer support or turn to the other for support when needed, yet feel independent.

There are two insecure styles. However, the two types are not as rigid as they sound—you might use both styles at different times or with different people.

The anxious model or style results from inconsistent parenting in childhood. Those with this pattern had to learn to please and cling in order to get what they needed. Otherwise they could be abandoned or betrayed, or another child would be favored. As adults, those with the anxious style have that same drive to please, cling, and worry about abandonment. In a close relationship, they are actually somewhat ambivalent, wanting closeness but fearing emotional openness.

The avoidant pattern is more often the product of neglect or disinterest on the part of the parent. Whining, clinging, or acting needy or even asking might mean you get even worse care. The child learns to seem to get along without the caregiver. “Be tough” is the motto. But as children or adults, those caught in this pattern are always insecure down under that surface indifference. As adults, they seem preoccupied or self-centered, perhaps focused on comforts (giving themselves what they did not receive as children.) They may still say they want a “close” relationship. But as soon as you get close, they back off, and as soon as you give up on them, they act interested again. It is common for those with anxious and avoidant styles to get together—and make each other miserable, as they expect close others to do. It is probably true that to help someone with the avoidant style, the person must first accept a more openly anxious model.

Do HSPs more often have insecure attachment style? The research data vary on that, but almost half of the general population had childhoods that left them insecurely attached, and if an HSP does have an insecure attachment style, it may affect them more, especially since it was probably in combination with their high sensitivity not being understood. So, what I am saying would probably apply to half of you at least, and be the cause of most of your boundary problems. If you have an anxious attachment style, you probably want to set boundaries that may seem, to a partner or friend, too close, as if you want to merge with them. But do you really get your needs met this way, or does the other just fall into the rank that is left, higher? If your style is avoidant, you probably try not to let those circles overlap, managing to stay distant yet connected.

Attachment, Ranking, and Linking—and What to Do

Now you see the connection between ranking, linking, and attachment? Those with secure styles are flexible with their boundaries according to the situation, wanting to please others but not having to, and expecting others to be the same way. When they were children, their parents’ boundaries (limits, rules) were clearly there out of love or along with love. As adults, their boundaries are based on linking as much as possible, without neglecting their own needs.

Those with an anxious style had to accept a lower rank and their inner model tells them to do the same with any adult they want to be close to. They have learned that the one with high rank chooses when to leave, when to stay. So, their behavior says “Whatever you want. I’m doing all I can to keep you happy–please don’t leave me.”

Those with an avoidant style ranked lower than their parents as children, but it did not help them to grovel. As soon as possible, they wanted a high rank too, to feel in control of their lives. As adults, they still feel safest with a high rank—“I don’t need you—I have everything I want.” They can seem to be or are narcissists, but not always. If they are in a close relationship, which they unconsciously crave, they are potentially weakened. They feel anxious underneath that indifference, so they say in effect, “if you want to be close to me, then you must please me. Do what I say. Admire me. Need me. Preserve my high rank. Prove you are not like all the others.”

Insecures of either type are hard to live with. Whatever their parents did to make them insecure, ranking predominated in their family of origin. They hardly know what real love is. Becoming aware of how the attachment style of you and your partner is affecting your boundary setting is a big step. But if one or both of you have either insecure style, doing something is even bigger and harder. Sometimes it changes slowly with a secure, reassuring partner who understands when you are acting from insecurity, and probably loves you for other reasons and in spite of those times.

Usually the change comes over along with a psychotherapist who works specifically with attachment issues (this will not be cognitive behavioral therapy, but Emotion Focused Therapy). There is even a couples’ therapy based on attachment style (Emotion Focused Couples Therapy), which is perhaps the best way to heal it if you are in a close relationship.

Here ends my discussion of Graceful Boundaries. I have set a boundary and stopped! I hope some of it has helped you. May you overlap just to the amount you desire.