If I had to break down all relationship issues to one single factor, it would be boundaries being disregarded. From trivial arguments to gross acts of unfaithfulness, it is the absence of clearly understood boundaries that is to blame.
Boundaries in the context of a relationship refer to the points at which acceptable behaviour crosses over into unacceptable behaviour. These points can and should be different for every relationship, based on the individuals involved. One thing that does not differ though is a positive correlation between boundaries being respected and how mutually fulfilling a relationship is.
There are different types of boundaries in a relationship; some are a lot more mutually beneficial than others. This article will describe those different types and discuss how to ensure that the boundaries in your relationship are always respected…
When you first start dating someone new, it is natural to fill in any gaps in rapport with assumptions about the other person’s character. As more intimate rapport is created, most of those gaps will get filled appropriately. However, boundaries are a common area where assumptions can supersede ever having a proper discussion and awareness of the subject.
Conveying your boundaries early in a relationship is a bold thing to do and most people are wary of not doing anything that might ruin a relationship before it has properly started. Consequently, a default practice is to assume that a new romantic interest has certain values and boundaries, perhaps similar to one’s own. The less varied relationship experience you have, the more basic these assumptions are likely to be.
If you do make assumptions about what your partner’s boundaries are and vice versa, at the very least you want to make sure that you both want the same commitment level in the relationship (an exclusive, monogamous relationship for example).
Remember that just because something is unacceptable in your eyes, it does not necessarily mean your partner automatically knows this. Likewise, if something is perfectly acceptable from your perspective, it does not necessarily mean your partner will be fine with it.
All subconscious boundaries develop from previous experiences, but it is negative past experiences that have the most profound effect on the boundaries we impose. If you have fully trusted someone in the past, only to have that trust abused without any obvious warning, then you are likely to have at least a few fear-based boundaries.
Fear-based boundaries are those stemming from insecurity, jealousy and distrust. Not wanting your girlfriend or boyfriend to be around someone of the opposite sex because of what it could potentially lead to is a common example of a fear-based boundary.
The worst side-effect of fear-based boundaries, other than your partner feeling that you don’t trust them, is that it is easy to come across as controlling. Your partner should never feel that they cannot do something. Everything they choose to do in the relationship should be because of how you both want the relationship to be, not to protect the relationship from how you don’t want it to be!
Insecurities are something that you can turn around with personal effort and awareness but until one of your fears has actually manifested (the irony being that fear-based boundaries are often the cause of boundaries being crossed in the first place), understand that they are irrational and most importantly, a result of how you conduct yourself in the relationship!
Action-based boundaries are intended to be concise and self-explanatory: certain acts are unacceptable whereas anything else is fine. The problem with boundaries like these is that such actions are rarely instantaneous or without premeditation.
Some common action-based boundaries are:
- Being physically intimate with someone else
- Being emotionally intimate or flirty with someone else
- Showing contempt for the relationship
- Creating or causing arguments
The problem with the above is that they are all outcomes to a process; none of them occur without induction. Even if the above acts are unacceptable in your relationship, they do not signify a boundary being crossed; they signify the OUTCOME of a boundary being crossed!
For example, if your partner cheats on you with someone else, it is not the physical act that is the issue but what led to it, as well as the secrecy and dishonesty surrounding it. The cheating would be a symptom of a boundary being crossed, not the actual boundary itself!
Intention-based boundaries differ from the previous types because they are flexible rather than fixed. They are not defined by physical acts but rather by certain attributes: respect, openness, honesty and integrity.
Someone who advocates intention-based boundaries judges each potential issue in a relationship on its own merits, as and when it happens.
The fact of the matter is that until you have actually experienced certain undesirable scenarios in your relationship (an action-based boundary being crossed for example), it is impossible to know exactly how you will react. That is why each instance should be judged on the intent behind it, rather than the act itself.
There is a big difference between boundaries being misunderstood or wrongfully assumed and boundaries being purposefully disregarded. Intention-based boundaries are about trusting that your partner will always act with respect, honesty and integrity towards your relationship. Consequently, the boundaries arrange themselves accordingly, without pressure or stipulation.
There are countless examples where your partner might inadvertently find themselves in an ambiguous or tricky situation and not know exactly how to react. As long as they are always acting with good intentions towards your relationship and what they know to be your values, they will by definition not cross that boundary.
How to ensure that your boundaries are respected:
It should be fairly obvious from the four separate definitions, which type of boundaries consistently lead to the most mutually fulfilling relationships. However, with most things in a relationship, you want to make sure that you and your partner are always on the same wavelength. They can’t respect your boundaries if they have no idea what they are!
Conveying your boundaries is more about an attitude than anything you have to verbally stipulate. As described throughout this article, boundaries do not have to be uncompromising, but your values, self-worth and integrity definitely should be.
A few traits that will help convey the sort of attitude I am describing are:
- Having high standards
- Possessing an abundance mentality
- Being confident
- Having self-respect
- Being non-judgemental
The last trait becomes even more important in long-term relationships because it will make your partner feel that they can tell you anything. They will be able to discuss their feelings and desires long before ever doing something that you would disapprove of.
Having that mutual awareness and understanding is what creates respectful boundaries. It does not mean that your partner should never be forgiven or given a chance to justify any unwanted behaviour. What it does mean is that your boundaries are always backed by reason.