We can best begin to understand boundaries by thinking in terms of physical boundaries. When I drive south to the US border, there is no disputing it, one side is Canada, and the other side is the United States, and there are very official looking people who are there to make sure I realize, I can’t just cross this boundary without permission. They take their work of enforcing the boundary very seriously. I’m glad they do!
We have boundaries around our property. If you have a fence between your yard and your neighbor’s yard, it is very clear, which part belongs to you, and which part belongs to him. We respect these boundaries. I can’t just suddenly decide I’d rather sit in my neighbor’s yard on a hot summer day, without getting his permission (even if he has a swimming pool and I don’t). And if I do sit in his yard (and swim in his pool) without his consent, I have violated a boundary. Likely my neighbor will enforce his boundary and ensure that I leave. If he doesn’t, he may begin to experience stress.
There are other boundaries too – people boundaries; physical, emotional and time boundaries.
Our skin is a physical boundary that has to do with our person. What’s inside my skin is me, what’s outside my skin is not me. If someone strikes me or sexually abuses me they have violated the boundary of my skin. This is a severe boundary violation, and people who’ve been violated physically, will likely suffer emotional trauma as a result.
In life, it is as if we all have our own private front yard and backyard around our life. It is the part of our lives that belongs to us and it is our responsibility. The problem is other people have a tendency to throw their garbage in our yard. It doesn’t belong in our yard. It is their garbage, so it belongs in their yard. It is their responsibility.
The problem is learning to recognize and understand our own personal boundaries. Then learning how to maintain our boundaries and not allow others to make their problems into our problems. Problems with boundaries cause problems in relationships. Not just marriages, but with children, extended family, friends and in our jobs as well. And when we don’t have healthy boundaries in our lives, we experience undo stress. We allow others to take advantage of us.
Having clear boundaries is essential to a healthy, balanced lifestyle. Boundaries define who we are and who we are not. Physical boundaries help us determine who may touch us, mental boundaries give us the freedom to have our own thoughts, emotional boundaries help us to deal with our own emotions and spiritual boundaries help us to choose our own beliefs about God.
Many people have drawn overly flexible boundaries (unwilling to say no, always accommodating others’ needs) or overly rigid boundaries (to the point of being righteous and judgmental).
Dr. Henry Cloud in his book called Boundaries; shares this example to help explain boundaries:
A family, mother, father and grown siblings come into Dr. Cloud’s office to talk with him about the many problems the other sibling (a brother who isn’t present) is having. Apparently this brother is a real mess, he can’t hold a job, has no money, has trouble with relationships, substance abuse, the list goes on and on.
Dr. Cloud listens to the family describe the problems the brother is having for a few minutes, and then he stops them and says, “I don’t think your son/brother has any problems at all.”
“What! How dare you say this! Don’t you understand? Didn’t you hear us describe all the terrible problems he has?” the astonished family asks.
“Where is your son today?” Dr. Cloud asks.
“Oh he’s skiing. We tried to get him to come, but he just wouldn’t. He doesn’t even seem to care about how badly he’s doing.”
“I don’t think he’s doing badly at all. He’s out there skiing. He’s having a great time. I don’t think I can help your brother at all. He’s not having a problem. You guys are the ones with the problem. Look at you. Here you are in a psychiatrist’s office. You aren’t having fun at all. And it sounds to me that YOU are having a lot of problems. But I do believe I can help you. You see I can help YOU to help YOUR SON/BROTHER HAVE A PROBLEM. What HE needs is a problem. How did he get out of jail?”
“Oh well we bailed him out. We believed in him. We felt he needed a second chance.”
“How did your son get the money to go skiing?”
“Well, since he can’t hold a job we have to help him financially from time to time, ‘til he gets his feet back on the ground.”
Many of us behave in very similar patterns to this family when our spouse has been unfaithful. We keep asking, “How can I get my spouse to change?” We fail to realize that we may need to change.
When we catch the ball someone else drops (which is almost like a reflex), we are picking up the garbage that belongs in their yard.
The nicer the person usually the greater the problems they have with boundaries. It is very important for those around us to experience the consequences their own actions.
What are healthy boundaries for you? There is no set rule. You have to ask yourself: What is and isn’t alright with you?
For example, a boundary I have is I don’t take business calls at my home. My home is a private sanctuary (a boundary), a place for me to relax and enjoy my family. If someone calls me at home about business, I kindly cut them short, tell them I don’t take business calls at home, and provide them with my office number.
Another boundary I have is I don’t allow people to call me derogatory names. If someone does, I come right out and tell them that this is unacceptable. If they intend to have a relationship with me, they either stop, or I withdraw from the relationship. If my husband were referring to me with such language, I would do the same. Tell him this is unacceptable and I will not tolerate this. If he didn’t stop, I would separate or get a divorce. I would not stay in a verbally abusive relationship.
Self-esteem and maintaining good boundaries go hand in hand. If I believe I am a valuable person (which every person is), I will not allow others to mistreat me.
Once I was having a problem with a close extended family member calling one of my children names, and attempting to manipulate and control me. I hung up the phone on this person 8 times consecutively. (This was so uncomfortable for me that I sought the help of a counselor who affirmed I had handled the situation correctly. Enforcing boundaries is awkward at first. We almost feel guilty.)
A period of no contact ensued for several years. Then one day, they called again. No criticisms, no mind games, and a respect for my ability to make my own decisions. I enjoy a marvelous and close relationship with this person today, which I don’t believe would be possible if I had continued to allow this person to violate my boundary.
Another boundary Brian and I have in our marriage is we expect each other to be truthful, and we expect each other to conduct ourselves above reproach when interacting with the opposite sex. We bear in mind that even the “appearance of evil” is unacceptable. Mutual respect and open honest communication are foundational to understanding, and to respecting each other’s boundaries.
It is also healthy to have a certain amount of privacy, for example I keep a journal, and for Brian to read my private journal without my permission would be violating a boundary. (Of course after a major boundary infringement, such as an affair, the person who has had the affair must realize they now have to give up some of their freedoms for a time while trust is reestablished in the marriage.)
In a marriage it is appropriate to have physical boundaries, never being hit, never being held against your will, monogamy in the marriage, equality regarding work, money, child raising responsibilities, recreational time. We should be respected. It is inappropriate to call each other names, or be overly critical (both face to face and when our spouse is not present).
We have a right to our own opinions, and even a right to pursue our own religious convictions (without inflicting them upon our spouse if they are different). We have a right to pursue same-sex friendships outside the marriage. I should have a right to better myself as a person by having some freedom to attend a local support group meeting, see a counselor, confide in a friend, or read books that interest me. (Yet viewing pornographic materials would be a boundary violation, as that crosses the sexual boundary in the marriage.)
Where people draw their own boundaries is up to them. What is okay with you? Couples need to discuss and AGREE upon mutual boundaries that fit their unique marriage.
Most of the idea’s presented in this article, are based upon the teachings of Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend in their books and video presentations on:
The information presented in their books is life changing. Discovering boundaries and applying them in your life is a process. If boundaries are a struggle for you, as they are for most people, I strongly recommend reading their books. I cannot begin to present the concepts as well as they have. If you would like to share a success story, helpful insight or comment on this article we welcome your remarks. Email your questions or comments to Brian and/or Anne firstname.lastname@example.org