Creating and maintaining boundaries for healthy relationships

What is a boundary, psychologically speaking?

It is something that marks off where one person begins and ends. It isn’t exactly a wall, because it can be flexible (move backward or forward) and because it can be permeable (allow ideas/ people in and out). It is just there, and that is its primary function. It acts as a checkpoint, to ensure that the self within the boundaries makes conscious choices about what comes in and what stays out.

When we don’t do this consciously, we are not aware of exactly how the other person has an effect on us. We could let in people too close, too fast, and end up being hurt by them because they did not merit our trust. At the other extreme, our self could be walled inside a fortress, where nothing and no one is allowed – which could hurt the significant persons in our life, and ultimately cause us also much pain.

These boundaries play out in the interpersonal sphere. In some form or the other, it starts playing out as early as kindergarten. By the time one is 6-7 years old, there are ‘best-best friends’ and the ‘second-best friends’ and ‘bus friends’ and ‘apartment friends’. Each group is defined in terms of proximity to the self, in terms of how much one allows them to affect us. So a fight with a bus friend could be shrugged off but one with a best-best friend could need even parental intervention.

Even as we become adults, we have concentric circles of interpersonal space that we regulate around us: old school/college mates, office colleagues, family, friends, lovers/ partners, kids. The problem usually, but not always, is in the circle of lovers/ partners, and sometimes also in the circle of friends. But this article will refer mostly to the circle of intimate relationships because this is the place where we have the most to gain and the most to lose.

Very often, romantic beliefs centre on the state of no distance and no difference between the self and the beloved. We often include those closest to us within the circle of self, in a way that they are extensions of us. We treat them like we treat ourselves, and we expect them to behave the way we do. So: we are two bodies, one soul; when my partner is happy, so am I; when he’s down, of course I will be too; I can make her happy by doing something; he can make me sad by doing something else.

How would any of this be different with a boundary applied?

A boundary does not allow me to assume sameness of purpose or action or feeling, nor does it allow me to assume a cause and effect relationship between my actions and my partner’s feelings. It makes me recognise that I am the person responsible for my feelings – if I allow my partner to sway them, it is precisely because I have allowed that! This is good because then I always have a choice about what to do and how to feel. It’s good because I respect my partner’s choice to do/be different from me without feeling insecure in the relationship. It’s good because I can protect myself if my partner’s actions threaten/hurt me.

Some examples of boundary issues:

“I’m only doing this because you made me”
Correction: nobody can make me do anything, unless I give them permission to do so. But then, I gave that permission, and I can refuse it to you as well.

“If you really loved me, you wouldn’t go ahead with your plans when you know I’m sad about you going out with your friends”
Correction: love has nothing to do with two people temporarily wanting two different things or feeling differently about the same thing.

“I trusted him and he took advantage of that”
Correction: if I let him too close too fast, that’s a sign of poor boundary-keeping – and that is something under my control.

“She makes me happy”
Correction: ‘me’ feels happy when ‘me’ is around her – but she does not have the power to make ‘me’ feel anything without my permission.

“I have to make him feel better”
Correction: ‘I’ can do what is possible, but it’s up to him whether he feels better.

“I gave up so much for you”
Correction: ‘I’ gave up so much because I thought it would help in some way – make ‘you’ happier, make the relationship smoother, whatever. Just because spouse A demands something does not mean that spouse B’s acceptance is solely A’s responsibility.

“I won’t allow you to do………….”
Correction: ‘I’ may not like it, but ‘you’ have a right to agree or disagree with ‘I’s rules.

Physical violence
Correction: one person being physically violent with the other is NOT okay, no matter how much they say they were ‘provoked’ into it.

Emotional and/or sexual abuse
Correction: these are boundary violations of the highest order. On the victim’s part, there is inadequate self-protection and the abuser has an over-valued sense of his/her own power over the other.

If you struggle with boundaries in your close relationships and want to discover how you can empower yourself and take responsibility for your feelings, talk it over with a trained and empathetic counsellor.

Talk It Over

About Gayatri Swaminathan

Gayatri Swaminathan is a clinical psychologist with 7 years of practical experience in the field. She has worked as a trauma counsellor, a qualitative market researcher, lecturer and private practioner. She has an M. Phil in Clinical Psychology and M.A. in Applied Psychology from Delhi University and B.A. (Psychology, Sociology, English Literature) from Bangalore University. She is trained primarily in the cognitive-behavioural approach, but also incorporates other schools of therapy and techniques as and when needed. She works with individual adults, couples, children and adolescents and their families.