Learning about and practicing healthy boundaries in relationship is challenging. The fundamentals of good boundary work are complex – so much so that I offer a full-day boundaries workshop for women (Celebrate the No! Your Path to Clarity & Serenity with Better Boundaries) through my private practice.
In my post creating your haven of safety I discussed the four types of boundaries and how they operate. They are:
I define boundaries as the practice of creating physical (including sexual), intellectual, emotional and spiritual safety through protecting ourselves and others. At the extremes of boundaries, we are either boundary-less (too vulnerable) or walled off (invulnerable).
Boundaries serve two primary functions:
- Boundaries create safety by protecting ourselves from others and protecting others from our inappropriate or boundary-less behavior.
- Boundaries define who we are by letting others know how close they can get to us physically, sexually, intellectually, emotionally or spiritually. Like a physical fence, boundaries communicate that “this is me/mine.”
In order to know your boundaries, you must know your reality. Your reality at any given moment is your physical sensations, thoughts, emotions, and behavior.
When you know your reality, you can identify and express your needs and wants in relation to your physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual self.
There are two types of non-negotiable boundaries. Non-negotiable personal boundaries and non-negotiable relationship boundaries. Personal boundaries involve physical and sexual touch, while relationship boundaries involve more complex, interpersonal dynamics.
Generally speaking, non-negotiable boundaries are those around which you are not willing to negotiate or compromise. Physical and sexual boundaries are non-negotiable personal boundaries, meaning that when a person says “no” to physical or sexual touch, their “no” must be respected. Otherwise, it’s a boundary violation.
Violation of certain non-negotiable boundaries are relationship “deal breakers” because if the boundary is crossed, the person who has established the boundary will leave the relationship. These are non-negotiable relationship boundaries. Some common non-negotiable boundaries created by partners are:
- abuse of a child
- viewing of child pornography
- sexual contact with another person outside the relationship
- ongoing deception (e.g., lying over a long period of time about abstinence or sobriety)
Non-negotiable relationship boundaries are very personal and specific. No one can tell another person what their non-negotiables should be.
You must be be absolutely sure that you’re prepared to follow through if you set a non-negotiable boundary.
This is true of any boundary we set. If you say you will leave if the addict has a slip, lies to you again, or doesn’t follow through with a commitment of some kind but you doesn’t follow through, you become untrustworthy to yourself. Your words become hollow and lose their power to protect you and to communicate your wants and needs. Boundaries should not be made in haste or in the midst of experiencing strong emotions.
See my post non-negotiable boundaries for a more detailed explanation of non-negotiables.
Myths & Misperceptions about Boundaries
When practiced in relationships, boundaries are sometimes seen as punishment carried out by rigid, uptight or selfish people. They’re often thought of as harsh, cold or uncaring. Because boundaries create limits, they are sometimes seen as repressive or restrictions on personal freedom.
If you grew up in a family where one or more family members repeatedly violated boundaries and wasn’t held accountable for their behavior, you may believe there are certain people with whom you don’t have a right to establish boundaries. This is simply not true.
One of the biggest misconceptions about boundaries is that they allow us to tell another person what they can or cannot do. In a parent-child relationship a parent can tell the child what he/she can or cannot do.
In adult-adult relationships, you can make a request for a change of behavior but you can’t demand any action or behavior from another person.
However, you do have the right to take action for your own self-care or protection if the other person can’t agree to an important request or they break an agreement. These actions can be as simple as taking a time-out or as significant as leaving the relationship.
Sometimes when you make a decision to protect yourself, your self-care is interpreted as punishment. For example, if your partner has been irresponsible with money repeatedly and has broken financial agreements, you may decide to get a separate bank account. The choice to get a separate account is not a punishment. It’s an act of self-care and a consequence of repeated boundary violations.
Boundaries create safety and determine the quality of our relationships.
Practicing healthy boundaries is complex, challenging and rewarding. If you’ve been struggling to set boundaries, make a commitment to take one small step today.
©Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW (2014)