Boundaries Create Deep and Meaningful Relationships
“An intimate relationship is one in which neither party silences, sacrifices, or betrays the self. Each party expresses strength and vulnerability, weakness and competence in a balanced way.” Harriet Lerner
Setting and maintaining healthy boundaries can be overwhelming and uncomfortable. It requires knowing oneself and valuing one’s own needs. It requires sharing those needs with others, sometimes when it may contradict the other’s desire. Through honest and patient communication, boundaries help create healthy and long-lasting relationships. These relationships include space for each individual’s needs to be respected and honored. Each participant in the relationship has an equal voice in defining what is needed and what is not ok. Through open communication and a mutual respect, boundaries allow the relationship to deepen and flourish.
When setting healthy boundaries, we first need to identify our needs and wants. In our past, if healthy boundaries were not modeled or the boundaries we set were violated, we may not understand our needs and wants or believe we have the right to set boundaries in our relationships. Setting boundaries can disrupt the equilibrium of the relationship. Sometimes this is necessary for the relationship to strengthen and grow. Boundary setting can be tough, and my hope is to empower you to take the steps to have the type of relationships you deserve!
A common misconception about boundaries is that they are harsh and rigid limits that create a divide in the relationship. However, the truth is, boundaries are quite the opposite. Being fully known and cared for requires that we know our own boundaries as well as the other person’s. Communicating our needs, expectations, and limits allows us to better care for each other as well as care for ourselves. This allows a relationship between two unique and different people to deepen and thrive. As Henry Cloud states, “Boundaries give us a sense of what is part of us and what is not part of us, what we will allow and what we will not, what we will choose to do and what we will not choose to do. This leads to responsibility and love.” Healthy boundaries are not rigid, but rather flexible and negotiable. Appropriate boundaries allow each person to define their needs. When this is done with a mutual respect of each other’s values, beliefs, and opinions, greater intimacy is developed. Known and respected boundaries protect the relationship, as well as each individual. Melissa Coats states, “Boundaries protect relationships from becoming unsafe. In that way, they actually bring us closer together, rather than farther apart.” Relationships thrive with healthy boundaries!
For many of us, saying “no” to another’s expectation, desire, or request is very difficult. It might be helpful to ask yourself, “Why is saying no so uncomfortable? What stops me from saying no?” Perhaps, when you say “no” you fear hurting the other person’s feelings, or fear being seen as uncaring. Your past experience might have taught you that setting boundaries is dangerous, uncomfortable, and not worth the discomfort. Maybe when you say “no” you feel the need to justify your decision. Every person has the right to decide what is ok and not ok for them, what they are willing to do and what they are not. When one compromises one’s autotomy, they are compromising who they are. Sometimes it is appropriate to just say “no”, especially if the other person is unsafe or unwilling to accept your answer.
When There is an Imbalance of Power
There are serious dangers in relationships where there is a power imbalance, when one person has too much control over the other, or one person compromises what is true and necessary for themselves in order please or appease the other. Often people in these types of relationships are not aware of why they engage this way or that it is unhealthy. Unbalanced relationships often develop serious issues, that if left unaddressed, lead to unhappiness or even the end of the relationship.
You may be met with resistance when you initially set a boundary. A common form of resistance is the use of anger to manipulate. While anger or any emotion is a valid response, it is not okay to use anger to control. You may feel guilt and blame yourself for causing this response, or you might feel you are the problem, but you are not. The individual that is angry at you for setting a boundary is the one who has an issue. When you anticipate this response, you can stay centered. You do not want to retract the boundary, lash out in anger, shut down, or backtrack just to regain peace and their approval. The empowering piece in this dynamic is you do not have to do anything, you can remain calm while this storm rages, because the storm is not in you. You are allowed to state your limits.
What if Nothing Changes?
I often remind my clients who are dealing with difficult family dynamics of the Serenity Prayer, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Even when you firmly and clearly set a boundary, you cannot make another individual respect it. This leads to the importance of consistently maintaining your boundary, and if it is not respected, making the consequences of that clear to the other person. When dealing with individuals who have unhealthy or non-existent boundaries, you might need to sound like a broken record by repeating the same boundary statement over and over. Still they might not respect your decision. You might feel very powerless; however, you do have the option to stay or leave the interaction, and you can control your response. An important part of being loved and cared for is being respected and allowed to make one’s own decisions about what is ok and not ok, even when the other person does not agree with your decision or does not understand why you have that need. It can be helpful to ask yourself, “Can I continue to accept this treatment? Does this person love me as I am, or do they only love me if I am how they want me to be?” If you continue to experience emotional hurt, it is okay to limit contact, ask for space, or even end the relationship. Doing this is often scary and difficult, but if we compromise ourselves to please another, we lose ourselves. Boundaries are not to punish or manipulate, but rather to take care of oneself and communicate one’s needs.
Boundary setting may seem impossible in your relationship. Is there room for hope? Absolutely! Individuals can change and relationships can be restored. I am a firm believer that as long as a person is breathing, there is always hope for change, healing, growth, and at times even reconciliation.
If you are struggling with difficult family dynamics and would like some support, please reach out and schedule an appointment online, or by calling 703-951-6409.
Alison Curtis, MA, LPC provides individual, couple, and family therapy in our Sterling, VA office and virtually to those located in the state of Virginia. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary consultation via video or phone.