Boundaries: limits for living and loving.
One characteristic of comfortable relationships is that the people involved have a great deal of respect for both each other's personal boundaries and their own.
What is a boundary? Counsellors often use the term, but many people are unfamiliar with the concept. One definition is that a boundary is "where you stop and I begin". Psychologist David Grudermeyer describes a boundary as "a limit that allows you to love or work with others without resentment". In some cases, the resentment is easily discernible, but in others it may be camouflaged as stress or illness. Sometimes we feel the resentment, but are unable to make the connection to its true source.
We all have many types of boundaries, including physical, emotional, sexual and social boundaries.
Our physical boundaries are perhaps the most familiar. We all have a sense of a personal space around us, which extends out about three feet. We usually feel uncomfortable if a stranger comes into our personal zone. The most commonly recognized example of this is the discomfort many people feel when they must sit next to a stranger in a plane, train or bus. Yet we may welcome the closeness of a loved one. The biggest difference between the two is that we tend to resent the proximity of the stranger, but not the closeness of our mate or child.
Other types of boundaries may be harder to recognize. Take sexual boundaries, for example. It's easy to see that rape is an extreme boundary violation. But what about persistent requests for a type of sexual relations that one's partner doesn't like? Or lewd comments or gestures at work? Would the recipient likely resent them? If so, they are probably boundary infringements.
Social and emotional boundaries centre on personal beliefs, choices and integrity. All of us need to be treated with respect and dignity, even when our beliefs differ from those around us. An adolescent has a developmental need to separate emotionally from his/her parents as part of the growing up process. The parent who will not or cannot give their child gradually increasing personal responsibility may be having trouble recognizing their offspring's new social and emotional boundaries.
There are two important aspects that are common to all types of boundaries. The first is that we all need strong, healthy personal limits in order to protect ourselves in the world and to feel good about ourselves. Our resentment or anger when they are violated help motivate us to defend ourselves or to work toward establishing better relationships.
That doesn't mean that we should be aggressive when our boundaries are trod upon. We may only need to learn appropriate ways to assert ourselves and our interests. It is an important life skill to be able to tell when to leave a dangerous situation, when to hold our ground by being assertive, and when to vigorously defend ourselves.
The second thing about boundaries is that in addition to knowing and asserting our own boundaries, we need to recognize and respect those of others. In other words, we all have a right to express our needs and preferences, but we don't have a right to hurt others in the process. For example, it's OK for us to politely and assertively point out to a salesperson that they have made a mistake, but it's not OK to be verbally abusive to them.
In close relationships, boundary issues may come up repeatedly. Even the most loving, respectful couples may occasionally have conflicts regarding personal needs or preferences. The way the participants resolve these conflicts is what determines the ongoing emotional tone. The couple that calmly discusses and explores their differences and creates mutually acceptable compromises will likely have a long, comfortable relationship. Others may not be so lucky.
Many people who experience depression or low self-esteem may find that boundary issues are a big factor, and that resolving them can go a long way toward personal healing or recovery. Most counsellors and psychotherapists are versed in helping clients recognize boundaries that need shoring up and in developing effective strategies for personal change.
There are also many books on the topic of boundaries and the related areas of assertiveness and emotional abuse. My favourites are Your Perfect Right by Alberti & Emmons, Learning to Say No by Carla Wills-Brandon, Boundaries by Cloud & Townsend, and Dealing with Difficult People by Roberta Cava.