Let’s talk about boundaries in relationships. What are they, why do we need them, and how do we communicate these to our partner?
What are boundaries?
In simple terms, we can define boundaries as being our rules, limitations, and basic sense of self. In clinical terms, our sense of self is called autonomy, but for the purposes of this blog we can refer to autonomy as the freedom to simply be and make decisions for ourselves.
Why is our sense of self important?
Someone’s right to be themself is crucial in a romantic relationship and can include things such as someone’s personal style, their interests, values, hobbies, thoughts, opinions, emotions, personality and behavior patterns. How someone chooses to spend their time is also a part of their autonomy, although we will discuss how this can, and likely will have to be negotiated in relationships. You should never enter a relationship with someone expecting to change who they are as a person or their autonomy. This is asking for trouble and usually ends up with one or both partners being resentful. The person who desires their partner to change usually ends up resentful with their partner's resistance, and the partner who is being asked to change usually doesn’t like it. If who you are as a person doesn’t line up with who someone else is as a person, don’t continue dating this individual. This is why it’s important to allow enough time in a dating relationship to determine if your partner is a good match for you. We must present ourselves authentically in a dating relationship, and assume that the other person is doing the same. No bait and switch, that’s cheating the system.
Rules and Limitations
If you find that your autonomous self aligns with someone else’s autonomous self and you enter into a relationship, it’s time to start considering your rules and limits. In this way we can think about our rules and limits as the rules of a game. When you play a game, the only harmonious way to play is if both players understand the rules. This is why board games come with very detailed sets of instructions. The purpose of these instructions is to clearly define how to play and how to win. Anything that isn’t in the rule book or that is in opposition of the rule book would be considered cheating. I think we can all agree that no one enjoys playing a game with a cheater. In the game of relationships, some rules are clearly defined, some are unspoken, and others are created or adjusted as the game is played (with the agreement of both parties). The only way to win the game is if both parties thrive within the relationship (in this way, the relationship will usually thrive as well).
We all have rules and limits for ourselves and for our partner. Some rules are crucial and must be clear before a couple can enter into a relationship. Rules (or values) are created by our experiences and worldview. It doesn’t mean that these rules can’t change later, but you must assume that if major rules aren’t clearly defined in the beginning, problems will arise later if one person wants to change them. The biggest of these rules is the nature of the relationship. Are we working towards marriage? Is this a monogamous relationship or not? Essentially, if both players agree to play because future goals align, then we can begin to navigate and negotiate how to play the game.
Some rules are unspoken. Every Monday and Thursday morning my husband pushes the trash cans to the curb, and every Monday and Thursday evening he retrieves them and puts them back against the side of the house. He must consider this fair because he has never complained- maybe because he has never scrubbed a baseboard in our house. These roles are not something that we have ever discussed, so we can assume that we are both okay with these unspoken rules.
IT IS ALWAYS THE JOB OF THE PERSON WHO IS UNHAPPY TO COMMUNICATE THIS (in a respectful way) and to provide feedback to their partner. In the absense of feedback, we assume that our partner is content with how the game is being played and are unlikely to make adjustments.
There are many limits that will need to be clearly defined in a relationship, such as issues about finances, communication, intimacy, parenting styles, religion, etc. (I know there are many more that I forgot, so feel free to leave me some comments.) Many of these will be limitations of individual and family time, such as how much time we spend at work and with our friends versus time with each other and with the family. These issues should be clearly communicated, negotiated, and agreed upon so that neither person feels their autonomy is being stifled. It is important to have friendships and other relationships outside of the romantic partnership, and each party is entitled to this as part of their personal freedom- how this is negotiated is up to the couple.
Communicating and providing feedback is important, and how you choose to do it is crucial. Communication involving criticism or contempt will not be helpful and will likely result in your partner being defensive, stonewalling, or cheating at the game (i.e., lying to placate you). So how can we communicate in a way that respects our autonomy but is respectful of our partner?
How can we communicate our boundaries?
Here’s a skill that I give to my clients that involves three parts: communicating how you feeling using “I” statements, stating why you feel that way (without blaming), and asking for what you need. Once my husband made plans to take our kids on an overnight camping trip with his dad at a time that I couldn’t go because of work. He didn’t talk to me about this beforehand, and I was feeling left out. In actuality I was sad about missing this, but it came off as angry. I took a time out, investigated my emotions, and was able to clearly communicate without blaming by saying, “I feel sad and hurt because I can’t go on this camping trip with you and the kids. I feel left out and I’m sad that I’m missing the fun with you guys. Can you please ask me next time before you make plans?” Note that I only spoke about how I felt, and didn’t lash out at my husband.
Boundaries must be consistent in order to be respected and understood by your partner. Sometimes I let my Basset Hound on the couch and sometimes I insist that she stay on the floor. This is is confusing and she doesn’t understand or respect me. In some situations I allow her violations of my loose boundaries to win. I created this situation.
When to seek couple’s counseling
Assuming that your partner respects your feelings and limits (which mine did in the above situation), they will be able to make adjustments based on your feedback. The goal is always to provide feedback and ask for what you want or need, never to demand change or use emotional manipulation such as anger or guilt. If we can clearly communicate our rules and limitations and respond to the feedback from our partner in a way that is helpful, we can negotiate our boundaries as they exist and change over time. This is how we win at the relationship game! If you find yourself unable to agree on rules or communicate your boundaries, or your partner isn’t able to communicate theirs or respect yours, it’s time to seek couple’s counseling!