Man and Woman Near Grass Field

Setting Boundaries by Carly Harris

Setting Boundaries is like bumpers on a bowling alley lane. We all like to think (or boast) that we don’t need them, but ultimately they help us get where we need to go. They can act as a blueprint or map for both you and others to successfully navigate the relationship. Boundaries can also serve as a tool to help you feel safe and secure in a relationship. Without boundaries, we often feel overwhelmed, burnt out and lost in a relationship. Setting boundaries does require the use of multiple skills spanning a variety of topics like problem-solving, values clarification, emotion regulation and assertive communication. Before we dive in, let us cover the different traits of boundaries: diffuse, rigid and adaptive.

Diffuse is a fancy way of saying there aren’t many (or any) boundaries put into place. This may look like oversharing personal information, accepting abuse or disrespect from others or even people-pleasing. Rigid boundaries are the opposite and exactly how it sounds… rigid. Keeping others at a distance, sharing very little and maybe even seeming detached are just a few ways this may manifest in a relationship. Finally, we have adaptive boundaries. These are boundaries rooted in your values and are not compromised based on others. Adaptive boundaries allow you to feel secure when others say “no” and remain confident in your own opinion. It is typical to have a mixture of these traits, particularly in different settings. For example, one may have more rigid boundaries at work, while maintaining more diffuse boundaries with their spouse. Both may be appropriate given the setting and goals of the relationship.

Each relationship will have different types of boundaries. The term “boundaries” is often used in a more general sense, but differentiating the type can provide even more clarity for yourself and the relationship. The different types of boundaries include physical, emotional, intellectual, sexual, material and time boundaries. Physical boundaries indicate your comfort level regarding physical touch and personal space. Emotional boundaries refer to sharing your emotions with the other person, while thoughts and opinions make up intellectual boundaries. Sexual boundaries consist of mutual understanding and respect for the other person’s limitations regarding sex or sexuality. Material boundaries refer to possessions and money, while time boundaries focus on how a person spends their time.

Always remember, setting boundaries starts with you. It requires a confident knowledge of your needs or wants and the ability to effectively communicate those to the other person. Begin by taking a step back and clarifying what your values are regarding this particular issue. Perhaps it’s a time boundary conflict between your work and home life when you may value family and connection over success or accomplishment. Maybe there is an emotional boundary issue in your marriage, feeling like your partner is distant or detached when you value connection and quality time. Boundary issues may feel like a violation of these values and leave you experiencing anxiety, depression or insecurity in the relationship. If that is the case, spend some time regulating your emotions first by taking a break, getting some fresh air, practicing deep breathing or mindfulness. If you feel stuck while clarifying your values, click here for a free resource!

Once you have defined what you value, you can better determine the boundary you may need to establish. Going back to the examples of boundary issues mentioned before, setting a time boundary that you must be home by five o’clock on weeknights and forgo staying late to finish a project or clear your inbox may mitigate the stress you feel balancing career and family; or advocating for a dedicated 15 minutes each night with your spouse to debrief about the day could help meet your need for connection in your marriage. 

Finally, boundary setting requires communicating this newly defined adaptive boundary to the other person. Boundaries cannot be set if they are not spoken. This can be accomplished by describing the issue, expressing how you feel, empathizing with the other person, specifying what you need and communicating the potential positive consequence of this boundary. Here is another free resource on assertive communication.

Using bumpers may feel silly, but it will keep you and others on the path to success, which in this case means resilient relationships.

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