It can be hard to know how to hold and keep appropriate boundaries in relationships. Let me tell you 2 stories…(not based on any specific individuals but accumulated from my experience of clinical work)

Susan is 35 years old. She comes with her partner Craig for couple therapy, and talks about her unhappiness in the marriage. All she feels she has done for the last 10 years is follow him around as his job took him around the country, look after their 3 children, and keep the house clean and tidy. She feels completely unappreciated and unseen. She is thinking of divorce. Craig is confused and upset. He had always thought that their family life was the most important thing to her, and he had supported her staying at home rather than going back to work. Why had she never said how unhappy she was? Susan tearfully explained that she never knew how to tell him. She hadn’t wanted to rock the boat. She felt that she didn’t have the right to be unhappy when this was the life she had chosen. Yet, it was making her miserable and she didn’t know what to do.

Joanna is 49 years old. She comes to therapy by herself, having just finished a 2 year relationship with Sarah, who was 10 years younger than her. She feels disheartened and lost. When this relationship had started, she felt sure that Sarah was The One. Everything seemed so easy at first, but about 6 months into the relationship, Joanna started to feel overwhelmed by Sarah’s needs. It seemed like Sarah wanted to spend all her time with Joanna and Joanna felt trapped. She started to lie to Sarah about her working shifts, so that she could spent more time apart. She found herself behaving deliberately in ways that she knew would be upsetting or annoying to Sarah. Eventually, she started an affair with a work colleague and when Sarah found out and left, Joanna didn’t stop her. However Joanna feels confused as this is a pattern which she recognises from previous relationships, where she creates distance in the relationship to avoid feeling overwhelmed.

So whats’s going on with these two clients, Susan and Joanna? Why are they struggling in their relationships? One of the answers can be found in exploring their boundaries.

What are boundaries in relationships?

Boundaries can be thought of as how emotionally close we let someone get to us. For some people, it is very easy to let someone into your heart and mind, but for other people this can be a very distressing experience. Boundaries also dictate how much ‘give and take’ we can cope with in a relationship, and where you might draw the line between ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ behaviours.

With Susan for example, it seems a lot of her relationship has been based on giving herself and her time to others and ‘putting up’ with the resentment and upset this has caused her. She has found herself at the bottom of the priority list, and now, in crisis, she wants to find a way to climb back up the list but doesn’t know how without ending her marriage completely. In not wanting to ‘rock the boat’ she has given up her rights to her own opinions and feelings. And in doing so, she has not been able to build her own emotional boundaries within the relationship.

Joanna on the other hand, has found it difficult to let her boundaries down. At the start of relationships, when she has been in the ‘getting to know you’ stage, she has been able to build connection with her partners, but when the relationship becomes more intimate with time, she has build up ways of keeping distance. In other words, she has built her boundaries higher and higher and more rigid as the relationship progresses. In a desperate attempt to keep her boundaries watertight and to reduce the emotional closeness, she sabotages the relationship and has an affair.

The most important thing with boundaries is to treat ourselves with compassion and to try and understand why we have either not built them, or have built them too high. Shaming ourselves about our boundaries is unlikely to be a helpful experience.

If our boundaries are too low, or non existent, it often stems from a belief that we are not entitled to our own feelings, like anger or sadness, or our own opinion. We put others before ourselves and we invalidate our right to our feelings. This can often stem from our early childhood experiences, perhaps where our feelings weren’t validated by a parent, or where expressing our needs was not acceptable. We then carry this ‘script’ into our adult relationships, where we hold the belief that for the relationship to work, we have to keep our own needs under wraps. ‘People pleasing’ is a common trait here. If we express our needs, we worry about conflict or disaster. So we don’t have clear boundaries so that we can continue to give all of ourselves to the other person to keep them happy and avoid conflict.

If our boundaries are too high, or too rigid, we might feel that we can’t trust other people with our vulnerability. Being emotionally close and intimate in a relationship can be a very vulnerable feeling, as if we let someone in, then they have the potential to hurt us if they leave us later on. Therefore, it can feel easier to reject someone first before they can hurt us. Again, this can stem from our childhood if we felt unsafe in our family or that we couldn’t really rely on our caregivers to look after us. The only person we can rely on is ourselves, and therefore we hold high, firm boundaries to protect ourselves from potential harm.

What can we do to keep healthy boundaries in relationships?

To keep healthier boundaries, you might need to ask yourself some important questions.

If your boundaries are too low:

  • How do I really feel about this? How can I give myself the right to these feelings?
  • How can I give myself permission to express these feelings? What is stopping me from expressing them?
  • What are my fears about expressing my true feelings? Where have those fears come from?
  • How much reality is there in my fears coming true?
  • What positive changes might occur from me holding my boundaries?
  • How can I support and cheerlead myself to hold my boundaries?
  • How can I take responsibility for my own happiness?

If your boundaries are too high:

  • What am I protecting myself from? What feelings am I trying to avoid?
  • What would it be like to feel the feelings that I am trying to avoid?
  • What might be the positive outcomes from me recognising and allowing those feelings?
  • How can I ask others for help with my boundaries?
  • How can I look after myself and also let important people into my life?
  • How can I balance out my independence with togetherness?
  • How can I communicate my fear or feelings to my partner openly and healthily?

There are no easy answers to these questions and you may find that counselling or therapy is a good place to help you explore these.