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Why relationships cannot thrive without boundaries

My wife once asked me to help her put some shelves together. It was a Monday night though, and I play volleyball with my friends on Mondays. I heard somewhere that healthy relationships need boundaries and that we need them to keep our sanity. A strong boundary protecting volleyball night seemed like a good idea to me, but perhaps my wife would see my personal boundary as getting in the way of our relationship.

So, which is it? Do boundaries facilitate relationships or are they obstacles that prevent people from connecting? This article proposes a model for relationship boundaries and explores its implications. I wrote it because this was an area of confusion for me, and I hope what what I’ve learned can help you in your relationships.

The concentric circles of relationship boundaries

To understand relationship boundaries, imagine a circle. It is perfectly round and enclosed by a thick line. Outside the circle are the unacceptable actions in a relationship – the activities both parties should never do. In a marriage relationship for example, sexual infidelity and physical violence hopefully lie outside the circle.

In the center of the circle are behaviors that both parties in a relationship decide must occur. Also in the circle are the activities that the couple can do if they would like. Both people in the relationship must agree on what lies inside the circle, which activities are optional, and which lie out of bounds.

Every relationship has its own set of concentric circles, its own commitments and forbidden territory. As the people in a relationship change over time, their boundaries can evolve too. Neglected commitments make boundaries fade, but when both people in a relationship remain faithful to their obligations, the participants feel more secure and confident in their connection.

Personal boundaries versus relationship boundaries

If we are going to understand relationship boundaries, we must distinguish them from personal ones. When two people agree on an activity that one of the parties must perform or that both must do together, they have a relationship boundary. They have something more than an alliance of convenience where two people enjoy spending time but have no real obligation to one another.

Personal boundaries, on the other hand, are individualized sets of rules people use to protect themselves and to get what they want. These boundaries apply to everyone around an individual and do not require input or agreement from anyone. People carry their personal boundaries around with them, and individuals are responsible for maintaining and enforcing them. Personal boundaries can get in the way of relationships, but they can also help people resist controlling or inappropriate behavior. Most people maintain their own sets of personal and relationship boundaries simultaneously.

Boundary violations

When you violate a relationship boundary, your relationship weakens. The lines of the circle fade or appear cracked. Breaking boundaries causes relationships to suffer even if the other person is unaware that you crossed the line. People who violate relationship boundaries tend to tell themselves that the other person deserved the betrayal or that the relationship was weak in the first place.

Without boundaries, there is no lasting relationship. If marriage or friendship is a commitment, then there must be an agreement to do something. You know when you have a relationship boundary when you feel frustrated because a spouse or friend violated the accepted rules of your relationship – even if you’ve never spoken about it. Shared expectations are the sign of mutual commitment. In most religions, even God makes commitments to people and asks them to make promises in return.

Misaligned boundaries in relationships

In most relationships, both people have conflicting ideas about what the relationship boundaries are. This creates competing sets of circles where one person is offended when the other violates a previously unknown boundary. If one person in a couple believes that a daily text or phone call during the workday is necessary for a good relationship while the other believes a call is an optional nice-to-have, one person in the relationship is going to feel betrayed and the other will react with confusion.

The key is to agree upon a small number of must-dos and never-dos and to fulfill them as faithfully as possible. When you fall short, apologize, and try to remain constant in the future. And an agreement alone does not forge a strong relationship. Promises must be fulfilled over a period of time to cement a happy relationship. And with greater understanding and more complete realization of your promises, the relationship will grow healthier still.

The give and take of boundary negotiations

When one person violates a single boundary, the relationship is not necessarily over. It is weakened yes, but boundaries can be renewed. And other commitments may still be in place. Both people in the relationship can recommit to the existing boundary or make necessary modifications. The secret is to come up with the right kind of boundaries – not very many of them – and then to remain faithful to them.

As a youth, I once asked my friend’s father who would clean his house during his upcoming vacation. He and his wife were planning to leave their teenage children on their own for a week. He did not answer the question as I expected him to. He said, “I realized early in my relationship with my wife that we were not going to have a clean home. I was unwilling to do the work myself, and I had to let go of any expectations of cleanliness to be happy in my marriage.” My friend’s father took “keep the home clean” out of the must-do category and put it in the can-do category. And it seemed to be working for the couple.

Timeboxing and relationship boundaries

Boundaries that define the must-do category are timeboxed, meaning that both parties in the relationship must agree to a timeframe during which the activity should be performed. Take a date night for example. If a couple agrees that they will go on a date at least once a month (unless health or travel prevents them from doing so), they have a relationship boundary.

If, on the other hand, the couple agrees that dating is important and they should go out frequently, they have no relationship boundary. They really have not made a commitment to date because there is no time or frequency as part of the obligation. They have simply identified an activity that they can do together when convenient. It lies in the can-do category.

When two people agree to never perform an activity, it is also timeboxed in a way. For every moment between now and when the relationship dissolves, the participants must not perform an action. One slip-up will weaken the relationship. Lie once for example, and you have violated the boundary.

A competing model without boundaries

There is a competing model of relationships, one where boundaries do not really exist. If we were to diagram this using our concentric circles, no activity would be out of bounds. Everything would live in the can-do area, meaning that each member of the couple would be free to do whatever he or she wants at any time. Nothing required and nothing forbidden.

People in this kind of relationship enjoy one another’s company, and they help each other when they can. So every kind act should be received with gratitude. Both people maintain their own personal boundaries and punish one another for perceived violations, but they have no shared promises.

The problem with this model is that relationships are not always convenient. Non-committal relationships can falter during times of trial and pain, and those times come to all relationships. When life is busy and complex, participants in unattached relationships can drift apart. There is no committed bond to see the relationship through the hard times.

I believe healthy relationships are not built on a large number of rigid guidelines. Such relationships would be inflexible and stifling. Lasting relationships are also not a free-for-all of non-committal kindnesses. Such associations would not generate lasting trust. Successful relationships combine a small number of mutually agreed upon guidelines with frequent acts of kindness. They capture the best of both paradigms.

How to create relationship boundaries

There’s a moment near the beginning of a romantic relationship when someone attempts to establish one or more relationship boundaries. The individual might ask one of the following questions:

  • Where is this relationship going?
  • Would you consider me your boyfriend?
  • Are you still dating other people?

These conversations can signal the beginning of a long and healthy relationship… or they can lead to painful breakup. Discussions about relationship boundaries can shatter fantasies that one person holds about another’s beliefs, values, or level of commitment. They can stir up emotions from past betrayals and ongoing disappointments. Conversations about relationship boundaries can be stressful, and they certainly shouldn’t take place when either of you is angry.

As painful as they can be, romantic partners and friends must have ongoing conversions about boundaries if they are going to have any chance of a long and healthy relationship. These are not one-time discussions that iron out every boundary of the relationship. You and your friend should discuss one boundary at a time and then debate another sometime later. Provide friendly feedback to one other when one of you crosses a perceived boundary or when fading commitments need to be reevaluated.

It is unnecessary to discuss the consequences of a violation when creating boundaries. Simply agree on what should be and what must never be. For example, if the couple agrees that no one should spend over $500 without the other’s permission, no one needs to describe the tortures he or she will inflict on the other person if the rule is violated. Trying to come up with punishments for every imaginable infraction is impractical and likely to lead to an argument.

With friends, establishing a boundary might be as simple as saying, “That was fun. We should do this every month. You in?” For romantic relationships, it may be best to ask you partner about his or her expectations instead of attempting to impose your own. The conversation will naturally turn to your own expectations, and there can be a give-and-take of ideas and opinions. And if you can agree on a relationship boundary, it is time for celebrate the accomplishment.

Do relationships need boundaries?

Returning to the question of whether boundaries inhibit or facilitate relationships, I believe that the most successful relationships have clear shared boundaries inside of which both parties loyally keep their commitments. Some boundaries exist in all enduring relationship. No one lies, steals, or murders the other party. Physical violence is unacceptable. Both parties agree to spend time together on a regular schedule. They frequently perform actions from the can-do category to make one another’s lives better. They have a clear sense of the shared boundaries and work together to improve them over time.

Relationships don’t just need boundaries. Relationships are boundaries. Without them, there is no commitment. There is no connection. There can only be detached kindnesses and uncommitted service.

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