Updated: Oct 27
Dr. Butch Losey
Author of Managing the Aftermath of Infidelity
There is no quick fix to adjusting boundaries in a relationship. When boundaries are bad, you have a sense of being out of control, powerless to change the other person, and can start to question your own reality. Relationships without boundaries are dysfunctional, unreasonable, and hard to manage. If you are in a relationship with poorly defined boundaries and you do nothing about it, you are destined to a future of suffering.
I am writing this blog to help put you on a thinking path about how your boundaries are in your relationship. It would be nice if you and your partner read this blog and then discussed the topics together.
Simply put, boundaries are expectations and needs that help you feel safe and comfortable in your relationship. Expectations in relationships help you stay mentally and emotionally well, creating space for intimacy to grow.
Types of boundaries
There are many types of boundaries but let me share a few general categories first. If you think of boundaries on a continuum, there are porous to ridged boundaries. Porous boundaries are weak and poorly expressed expectations for the relationship and are unintentionally harmful. Examples are oversharing, not having the ability to say no, or people pleasing.
Ridged boundaries are usually self-protective and meant to build distance. Typically ridged boundaries come from a fear of vulnerability and a history of being taken advantage of. Examples include never sharing, avoiding vulnerability, and having high expectations of others.
There is also a board category of healthy boundaries. Healthy boundaries require awareness of emotional, mental, and physical capabilities combined with clear communication. Examples include being clear about values, listening to your own opinion, sharing appropriately with others, having healthy vulnerability, being comfortable with saying no, and being comfortable hearing "no" without taking it personally.
The benefits of boundaries are worth the risk of setting them. Boundaries will communicate what is acceptable and not acceptable in your relationship and cue other about how to treat you.
Boundaries communicate your needs to others and set the parameters on what you expect from others in your relationships. When boundaries are clear and respected, they create safety for the relationship to grow and be healthy.
Six specific boundaries
Your personal space and expectations around physical touch are your physical boundaries.
Touching, making sexual comments, or engaging in sexual acts without expressed consent as a violation of sexual boundaries.
You are free to have an opinion about anything you want. In intimate relationships, when you express your opinion, your words shouldn’t be dismissed, belittled, or ridiculed. However, stay mindful of what topics are appropriate for specific situations. I believe in intimate relationships, you have a right to express your ideas and the right to be heard by your partner.
As with intellectual boundaries, in intimate relationships, I believe you have a right to express your feeling and the right to have those feelings considered. It is reasonable to expect your partner to support you. When your partner belittles your emotions or invalidates your feelings, they are violating your emotional boundaries. Be careful though, you would be violating your partner's boundaries if your express your emotions aggressively.
Material boundaries have to do with your possessions. You have control of how you use your possessions and if you want to lend them to others to use.
This is probably the most violated boundary and the boundary that people tend to struggle with the most. Time boundaries consist of how you manage your time, how you allow others to use your time, how you deal with favor requests, and how you structure your free time. Many of the couples that I work with struggle with prioritizing and focusing their time. I regularly say that time is the one commodity that you will never get back. Spend it wisely.
Unsuccessful ways to communicate a boundary
A passive approach to boundaries is when you deny your needs by ignoring them to allow others to be comfortable. People who communicate passively are afraid of how others will perceive their needs.
An aggressive approach to communicating boundaries is done by attacking another person with harsh, pushy, or demanding words or behaviors.
And we all have heard the phrase passive aggressive, but whats that really mean? The person who uses a passive- aggressive communication approach typically thinks “I will act out how I feel, but I will deny how I feel”. Many times, this is unconscious. They haven’t communicated their need, but they have acted it out.
Manipulation is an approach that is also indirect, in that the person will do or say something and hope it will cause the other person to feel guilty and do what the person wants.
Systemic challenges with enmeshment, co-dependency and trauma bonding
A few other terms that we commonly use when talking about the function of couples and families include enmeshment, co-dependency and trauma bonding. In enmeshed relationships, individualization is not acceptable. The drive is for each person to be very similar to the other. If one person makes attempts to set limits, create new roles, or shift the dynamics, the relationship is in danger of termination. I am currently working with a family and the mother is setting new and needed, yet soft, boundaries with her adult son, and immediately he began causing quite a bit of conflict with other family members by rallying other family members against his mother, all shrouded in a threat of disowning his mother. This shows how enmeshed some families can become.
Clinically, enmeshment is defined as family relationships with weak boundaries, lack of emotional separation, and intrusive demands for support or attention that prevent family members from developing a strong and independent sense of self. You can see this in action in the example above.
In codependent relationships, family members believe they must help family members avoid consequences, saving them from unpleasant experiences. Sadly, the attempts to protect the person, the protective nature actually supports the person to continue their unhealthy behavior.
A newer term, trauma bonding, describes the resulting consequences of ongoing and persistent emotional and intellectual boundary violations. Over time, a person is manipulated into believing that in some way they deserve the negative experience that is happening to them.
Successful communication of boundaries
Successful communication of boundaries requires a clear, straightforward, statement of expectation without complicated words or jargon. Directly state your need or request. If your partner challenges your request with distracting questions or challenges the validity of your request, don't feel compelled to explain yourself or provide a detailed story about what’s behind your request.
When you choose to stand firm on a boundary, allow for an acclimation period. Allow your partner time to adjust to your boundaries. During this time, you will need to repeat your boundary and if necessary, create action to enforce it.
Boundaries with difficult people
When setting boundaries with difficult people, it’s a good idea to decide beforehand how you deal with aftermath. Difficult people tend to challenge boundaries in one or more of 5 ways.
Four ways difficult people respond negatively to boundary setting:
1) Pushback – they ignore the boundary and do what they want.
2) Limit testing-try to sneak, manipulate, or get one past you.
3) Rationalizing and questioning-by challenging the reason for the boundary or its validity.
4) Defensiveness – they challenge your character or make excuses about their behavior.
5) Silent treatment – they stop talking to you.
Letting go of difficult people.
When you have tried setting boundaries and your request are continuously violated, it may be time to consider ending the relationship. In toxic relationships, you may need to state an ultimatum. The term ultimatum comes with a negative connotation, but it may be just what you need to change the course of the relationship or exit it. An ultimatum is a choice given to another to either change or submit to a designated consequence. They are consequences that we intend to uphold. If an ultimatum is issued and not adhere to it as a threat. People don’t respect threats, but they can learn to respect ultimatums.
Insights and Questions
Are your boundaries more porous or ridged? Why is this style needed in your relationship? Does the style shift with circumstances? What is needed to move more toward the middle?
How do you set expectations with each other?
How do you respond when your partner sets an expectation for you? How do they respond?
What boundaries need to be strengthened in your relationship?
What action are you willing to take today to change your boundaries with your partner and increase healthy functioning in your relationship?
Tawwab, N.G (2021). Set boundaries, find peace. A guide to reclaiming yourself. Penguin, Random House.