By Jamie Edwards, LCSW
Read any article, blog, or book about happiness, and among the information will be a reference to the importance of maintaining interpersonal relationships through the years. Yet in a world of over scheduling, FOMO (fear of missing out), and instant gratification, relationships can seem daunting and overwhelming. Why is it that they seem to take so much work? Why is it that some feel like you are putting in more than you are getting out? Is it possible to have them and still have time for yourself? One way to get clarity is through exploring boundaries and what role they can serve in relationships.
In any healthy relationship, there are three components and/or identities: the relationship itself and the two separate individuals. Boundaries are a way for us to establish definition between ourselves as individuals and the relationship; they tell us where the relationship ends and each individual begins. When boundaries are vague, blurred, or crossed, we are more likely to feel tired, confused, and frustrated. With every relationship there is give and take, so at times, it is okay for boundaries to be unclear, but if it happens repeatedly over time, we are giving at the cost of ourselves and our own identity is diminished. For example, a friend who continues a behavior that really bothers us – maybe we have asked the friend to stop or maybe we haven’t – or a parent who continues to treat us like a child even though we are an adult. The relationship will feel imbalanced and unequal, from this, resentment will build over time and the relationship will suffer. Eventually if this is not addressed, we may find ourselves avoiding the relationship or ending it altogether.
When boundaries are clear and respected, we are more likely to feel positive about and want to engage in a relationship. However, we may avoid establishing boundaries even if we know they are needed and can improve the relationship. One major reason for this is that boundaries appear to be mean – if we tell someone no or that we didn’t like something they did, we may hurt their feelings and feel some anxiety ourselves in the process. Although this may be true in the moment, what happens if we look at the situation in a more long term way? What we find is in a healthy relationship, being able to work through conflict grows intimacy. It’s impossible for us to always be agreeable, and the person we are in relationship with will hopefully in time come to appreciate our honesty and genuineness. When we are honest about how much we can give, we can be fully present when deciding to engage in the relationship. Thus instead of being mean, boundaries can be seen as caring and loving since they ultimately grow and deepen a relationship; this also means they are not selfish in nature.
So if boundaries are healthy and important in relationships, how do we go about making them happen? Here are a few tips:
1. Be clear and direct when establishing a boundary – We want to avoid assumptions, especially since as human beings we tend to over personalize situations when we are left to interpret what is going on. If we are establishing a new boundary in an already existing relationship, our behavior may be confusing and even concerning, this makes it that much more important to explain.
2. Explain that the boundary is because you care about the relationship and you believe this will make it stronger- Although you know that your motives aren’t selfish or mean in nature, this may not be clear to the person you are in relationship with. Coming from a place of caring will open up the conversation and make it more likely that your message is heard.
3. Take accountability for what’s yours – In relationship we have the option to model healthy behavior, and taking accountability is a great example. Starting off with being vulnerable ourselves will connect us deeper and allow the other person to feel more comfortable doing so. It will also soften the boundary we are introducing.
4. Be consistent and follow-through – Our words are only as strong as our actions. If we say we are not going to talk about X subject, if X subject comes up we need to stop the conversation or walk away. If instead we talk about X subject, the message that’s sent is that it is okay to talk about X subject no matter what we have said previously.
Following these tips may be hard in the moment, but in the long run will give us fuller, more satisfying relationships we can celebrate through the years. They allow us to put in less work over time, feel like we are getting out of the relationship what we are putting in, and have time for ourselves as individuals.