We talk a lot about boundaries but defining them is a little trickier. They are an essential element of a healthy relationship.The first challenge is defining what those boundaries are; what we will and will not tolerate in our relationships. We don’t always start off knowing. At first we may not mind when our husband stays out late with his friends. If our girlfriend blows up occasionally and has a hot temper it doesn’t seem so bad in the beginning when we can laugh about it later. We may not object too much if they sometimes drink too much and act sloppy. When we are looking to meet someone we have things in our mind that are deal-breakers but tend to put those aside thinking we can handle those issues because there are many other positive attributes. Behavior that may not seem that hard to put up with can become much more difficult to handle over time and with repetition. It can be confusing when someone says, “well you knew I smoked pot” or “you knew I had a temper” and we feel we are obligated to put up with behavior. We are not. Only we can decide what we will not accept in our relationships.
Boundaries apply in relationships with friends, siblings and children as well as with romantic partners. It is about setting limits in our mind of behavior we will not accept in those relationships. Sometimes those thoughts need to be expressed or made explicit but often it is just an idea we have in our mind. How long do we maintain a friendship when the person does not include us in activities with other friends? What level of relationship will we keep with a brother who never calls us? How long do we keep bailing out an adult son who can’t seem to hold a job?
Boundaries are the most difficult and the most essential in our relationship with our primary partner. I find that people often complain endlessly to that partner or to their friends about behavior that makes them unhappy. They cry, they get angry, they make threats, they plead. What needs to be done is to set a boundary.YOU must decide what you will accept or not accept in your relationships. How often do we hear from our friends, “I’ve asked him a hundred times not to (fill in the blank). We can’t control the behavior of others, we can only control our own behavior.
In a healthy relationship people are able to discuss problems and come to mutually agreeable solutions. That is the essence of a relationship that works. Complaints are raised in a non-confrontational and loving manner and are heard without defensiveness. Then solutions can be found. Relationships become unhappy when we are angry about something the other person does, they cross a boundary we find intolerable and nothing changes and we are not persuaded that the behavior is something we can understand and accept.
Only we can define our limits and our boundaries. Not every disliked behavior is something that is sufficient to make us want to end a relationship. Some things we decide we will live with and accept. When the behavior is unacceptable instead of focusing our anger and distress at the other person, it is up to US to say, “if you continue to do such and such I will take this action”. The action can be terminating the relationship but often there are other, less drastic choices. For the son who keeps failing college courses it can be refusing to continue paying tuition. For the friend who doesn’t reciprocate adequately instead of feeling resentful you can stop initiating as much. For the spouse who constantly hurts our feelings it can be a non-negotiable demand for counseling.
For the serious problems with a spouse-infidelity, substance abuse, verbal or physical abuse, risky financial behavior the choice may be that we have to end a relationship. It is very tough to draw a line but not drawing one, not setting a boundary only allows and supports the behavior we wish to stop. In seriously damaged and unhealthy relationships at some point we must stop being angry, disappointed and blaming and take action ourselves.