Importance of Healthy Boundaries in a Relationship

If you want to live an authentic, meaningful life, you need to master the art of disappointing and upsetting others, hurting feelings, and living with the reality that some people just won’t like you. It may not be easy, but it’s essential if you want your life to reflect your deepest desires, values, and needs - Cheryl Richardson

Human beings are enmeshed in multitudes of interpersonal relationships, ranging from the one with their spouses, friends, co-workers, parents or in-laws. It is a part of bustling routines that people find themselves a part of these significant relationships, though differing in intensities but struggle to find their own selves- a struggle, least recognized and accepted as a valid one. Most of us struggle to define boundaries and are even ashamed to address this issue as an important topic to be discussed and implemented.

“Boundaries”, the word in itself provokes negative emotions if used in any relationship as a means to ask for space or time which might be viewed in a negative light or seem unjustified to the other. While we always equate boundaries with lesser feelings of love, admiration or even distance paving a way for eventual separation. One fails to recognize that boundaries are not borders but a space where one find themselves away from the interpersonal relationships. The ownership of one’s personal space, where one can identify intrapersonal space and explore the regimens of self, a place where one visits not because the love and admiration was insufficient, but because one recognizes the importance of finding a sufficient self within.

The dynamics of relationships are ever-changing but it’s the amount of work, you put in to maintain it that is most important. I have encountered many dysfunctional relationships that are fuelled with the fact that both the partners were not being their authentic selves, not asserting to their boundaries. Such is the case in many relationships that we all are part of.

Most of the instances that, we can recount would point that whenever we want to convey about our boundaries, we majorly put on a facade to reason out to something else, cover it with lies or come up with an excuse. But have you ever wondered for how long?

As one enters this pattern, it is not only that the person is getting habituated to not knowing where the ‘self’ starts and where does the ‘other’ begin, but is neither willing to be honest with the other about the flawed pattern.

It is the healing that should begin as one understands this recurring pattern of enmeshed inauthenticity. Each relationship struggles through a phase to construct a communication medium but one should also construct a channel where they are honest in a significant relationships about their authentic selves. A self that you find within your intrapersonal regime, an agency where your growth is shaped by your experiences and one communicates honestly about the why and how of it to the other. A beauty that lies in the assertion of the boundary.

As one steps into the journey of understanding the nature of boundaries. The first step in itself is the most important one i.e. to deconstruct the nature of unhealthy communication patters and constructing effective boundaries. We humans tend to view relationships as a construct where we are flawed to view the other enmeshed within us. Whether it’s our friend’s opinion which “should” match our own or whether our partner who “should” feel whatever we are feeling. This is where the problems in most relationship activates and the pitfall is the unhealthy communication patterns which adds into it exponentially.

As we understand that, just as there is a line in each relationship, one progresses to find a line between the self and the other. A line of permeability and mutuality.

One finds a renowned contradiction, much of the literature focuses on each significant relationship turning two souls into one. I suggest that a healthy relationship is the one in which two souls or more appropriately said, two minds co-inhabit together, and who also recognize that their self has a habitat of its own. My argument nowhere classifies that boundaries gives a space where you start hiding emotions, feelings or dilemmas from your partner or friend. It means a space where you can visit these issues by yourself and re-visit your partner again in their space to solve and discuss it.

As I point out the nature of the boundaries. One illustration that rightly points out the nature of boundaries encapsulates me. We have all heard, specially growing in the Indian context that marriage as a traditional social construct is shadowed under the stereotypical notion of two people becoming one self. A self which does not have any walls or exteriority of their own. Growing in this social realm and also understanding human relationships and still unfolding them each day.

One example that I find most relevant is: “Every healthy marriage is composed of walls and windows. The windows are the aspects of your relationship that are open to the world, that is, the necessary gaps through which you interact with family and friends; the walls are the barriers of trust behind which you guard the most intimate secrets of your marriage. Amongst those walls are some lines that you construct where you can find your own self. A line which is not secrecy but a mutual understanding between you and your partner where they understand that you can find agency within yourself. An agency where you are not separated by them but a pattern of self-growth where you travel alone but the experiences can be shared when you visit them in their space.”

As one realizes the importance of effectively constructing and communicating boundaries. A major distinction that a relationship psychologist, Howes, have seen between relationships and the nature of boundaries is that:
In healthy relationships partners “ask permission, take one another’s feelings into account, show gratitude and respect differences in opinion, perspective and feelings.”

In less healthy relationships, partners assume their partner feels the same way they do (e.g., “I like this, so you must, too”). They ignore the effects of violating their partner’s boundary (e.g., “They’ll get over it”).

While we have stepped into the journey of knowing boundaries, it is not a lesser known fact that boundaries often do not work even when communicated. Whether it becomes incapacitated by the lack of effective communication or lack of interest in making the other understand about what you need. This journey can never be completely explained.

I have seen people recognizing their personal space but still failing in relationships. It is not because their demands are unrealistic. One can talk effectively about the demands and give space to other who could feel the opposite and interact how and why a particular need is important to you.

One such factor that immensely deteriorates most relationships is using the absolute words- “Never” and “Always”. While you are communicating about any relationship boundary, one is advised not be say that “You can never...” or “You should always...” It, not only creates an unhealthy communication pattern, where your partner might feel the lack of self in the relationship but also signify communicated boundaries that are indicative of only one’s own needs.

For effective boundaries to function, one enters the cycle of recognizing them, communicating them, reflecting on your partner’s opinion and also re-visiting the space between the self and the interpersonal relationship in mutuality of respect, sharing and admiration.

Shaping from my own experiences, it was surprising to me that many people, whenever I talked about this, inquired that how do healthy boundaries sound like.

Keeping that in mind I have shaped few examples to illustrate the Healthy boundaries in some of the relationships:

Boundaries with Friends sound like:

“I can’t go out tonight.”
“I’m not able to talk during work hours, but we can chat after 6:00 pm. “

“I need to save money right now, so I can’t afford go to the expensive restaurant, can we go for a game night instead?”
“I’m not comfortable discussing this right now. But I will let you know when I am.”
“Talking on the phone overwhelms me, can we chat instead.”

“It’s important for me to spend time with my other friend, can we hangout the following day?”

Boundaries with Significant others sound like:

“I need to spend time with my friends this Saturday, can we go on date night on Sunday or sometime that you are free?”
“I got overburdened with work. Would it be okay if I get a shower and take some alone time, before we can connect and discuss about our day?”
“I love spending time with your family. But I have something important work to finish. Can I skip and join you next time?”
“I don’t tune well with that cousin of yours, can you please go to her birthday alone.”
“I want to go on a vacation. But my finances don’t allow me for the one you suggested. Can we try to look for a more affordable option?”
“Lately I have been feeling.., Can you please explain me this behavior according to what you think, such that I can consider your thoughts too.”

Boundaries with Family sounds like:

“Please do not comment on my body. “
“I appreciate your concern. But whenever I disconnect your call during work hours, it conveys that I’m busy”

“Mom and Dad, it is unhealthy for me to see you guys vent about each other. I love you both and I don’t want to be in the middle. I can lead to outside support or you could start communicating with yourselves first?”

“I was occupied with work/ college today. Can I please take some time to myself?”

“I can understand your concern, but can I tell you about this incident when I’m in the right frame of mind?”

While these are some examples that illustrates that you can positively communicate about the boundaries and can effectively work about the nature of it in each relationship in your social sphere. These examples are not mere examples but also indicators to people. When these statements are used, rather than finding ways to be pessimistic or passive aggressive about it, seek an explanation from your partner. Understand that, boundaries are not the exhibit of lack but to the contrary presence of a self which makes up the person that your partner/ friend/ mom/ dad/ sibling is.

For boundaries to work effectively, it is the effort of both in the relationship, the person who in honesty and mutuality communicates about their boundary, seek opinion and construct it in permeability, not secrecy of sharing, and the other who not only understand the self but helps the partner in this process by understanding their need and not equating their personal space as lack of love or admiration.

Lastly, just as we expect others to value our boundaries, it's equally important for us to respect the boundaries of others. As it is rightly said that, a person who keeps the self, intact in each relationship, helps to build the team of two that work together to maintain a growth within and outside them compared to the person who puts on a facade of enmeshed self only to bear fruits of failure due to inauthenticity.

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Vamika Arora

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