Strong Boundaries Are Critical for Healthy Relationships. Can You Stand up for Yourself?

Intimate relationships are stronger when you know where you end and the other begins.

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By Steven Lake

Boundaries in a relationship are something we don’t often talk about, but we engage with them every day. It often appears as a power struggle. Can you relate?

Having clearly defined boundaries, and boundaries that will be defended creates clarity for all parties involved. It tells the other what you will and will not put up with.

Unfortunately, for a myriad of reasons, some of us are not so good at 1) establishing boundaries and 2) keeping them.

In order to establish and keep boundaries, we must be able to tell the other person what we see or experience, how we feel about it, what we need, and what will be the consequences if our boundaries are not respected.

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There is an old saying that strong fences make good neighbors. It is the same with intimate relationships. When talking about strong boundaries I am not talking about withholding information, being secretive, not sharing oneself, or pushing the other away.

I am talking about self-respect, knowing your limits, knowing what works for you, what doesn’t, and being able to communicate; in other words, it is being assertive about where you end and the other begins.

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There is this fanciful notion that when people are in love they should have no boundaries. This is problematic in a huge way, as the dissolution of boundaries in the beginning of a relationship is, indeed, a real phenomenon. It is often called “falling in love.”

When in love, I feel like I am floating and my boundaries become permeable, like gas, and I mix with my partner, losing my sense of self. I see my partner through rose-colored glasses, she can do no wrong, and their imperfections are . . . cute, or interesting, or unique, and add personality.

This state of hypnotic trance can last for some time, but we tend to come out of this reality- blinding reverie within the first year. Another time when we can lose ourselves is during sex. This tends to be a momentary experience commonly referred to as a “climax” and, if the relationship is successful on the sexual front, this process can go on indefinitely.

Psychologists call this process a collapse of the ego state. As an experience — it is great! I forget about everything and become one with my partner and the universe. This is heady stuff. As I said before, it is a transitory experience lasting a few seconds, minutes, or if you are an accomplished yogi, or on drugs — hours.

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That is the positive aspect of ego surrender. The negative aspect revolves around the fear of letting go and not trusting so that we must control a situation through force or manipulation.

Every living thing has a boundary. At the most basic level, our biological boundary is our skin. But we can be assaulted without physical contact. When we talk, the airwaves vibrate, touch us, enter our ears and signals are processed and sent to our brain which then interprets what has been said and sends messages throughout our body — and we react.

A word can be a hammer or a gentle feather stroking our body.

When I am alone, awareness of my boundaries is obvious. I can see where I begin and where I end. However, when in a relationship, something shifts. I cannot do everything without thinking of the effect of my actions on my partner. If I don’t think of her, she reminds me.

In this moment, I have come face-to-face with the boundary of restricted choice, or from a positive slant, the boundary of “the relationship.” I become aware of my boundary, my partner’s boundary, and this new, third entity, the relationship boundary. But who defines the boundaries of the relationship? This is when the problems start.

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Mostly, it is you and your partner’s assumptions of how the other person is supposed to act now that “we” are in a relationship. And so, the “troubles” begin.

Troubles are created at a prodigious rate when there is:

  • a lack of awareness,
  • a lack of communication (resentment builds),
  • and a lack of conflict management skills such that when arguments erupt, boundaries are stepped on at will creating upset and hurt.

The best way to avoid an explosion of troubles is to know your boundaries and how to be assertive.

Assertiveness is the quality of being self-assured and confident, without being aggressive, and allows you to state your needs without infringing on the rights of others.

Think of assertive behavior as being on a continuum with passive at one end, aggressive at the other, and assertive in the middle. Being passive sucks when you are being stepped on and you will usually find ways of getting back at your partner. If you do it covertly, you might be labeled as passive-aggressive.

If you react violently to a threat or a perceived threat, you are responding with aggression. When in this state you do not care how the other feels or if their perception has any validity. You are only concerned about your experience and you will do and use whatever you have (e.g., controlling through violent words, action, threat or intimidation) to force the other to accede to your demands. Not pretty!

Do you feel you have the right to set limits? Do you have the right to request what you want? Do you have the right to defend yourself when someone is not being respectful?

Boundary infractions typically occur, and continue, if you let them. If you are able to respond assertively when an infraction occurs, this tends to reduce the likelihood of a further occurrence.

If it doesn’t, then you move on to consequences to enforce the boundary. In intimate relationships, this might mean, at the extreme, that you leave the relationship.

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In my practice, I see people, intelligent people, who let their partners walk all over them. The victim is not able to protect themselves because of previous life experience (e.g., learned helplessness), or shock at never having been treated this way before, or believing that the person needs understanding and a non-confrontational approach to work out their hurtful behavior. These approaches rarely work.

The longer one is in a boundary violating situation, the more difficult it is to enact change. Learning to set boundaries is all well and good, but are you prepared for the reaction from your partner? Assuming there is no physical violence in the relationship, the response from the other will be shock, disbelief and an escalation of the boundary-crossing behavior.

This is the time for a large dollop of courage, fortitude, and persistence. If you are able to maintain your stance, eventually the other will get that the relationship dynamics have changed. In a sense, it only takes one person to make a change to change the relationship.

When you say no clearly and respectfully while outlining your needs, you become empowered. Setting boundaries eliminates relationship busting troubles and sets the stage for a healthy partnership.

This story was previously published on The Good Men Project.

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