“A boundary is simply what’s ok and what’s not ok.” Brene Brown
The mystery of boundaries in relationships is that they are like rules or fences, but you don’t always know what or where they are. Like the invisible fence that my dog didn’t see until she was shocked a few times, we often find out where another person’s boundaries are by trial and error. You know we’ve come up against one because the whole feeling sense of the relationship shifts when you do.
Every relationship faces the task of negotiating their unique boundaries, in spoken and unspoken ways. Why is it that you feel free to go to the refrigerator without asking in one friend’s house, but not in another’s? Do you sleep with a person on the third date, because that’s what’s expected of you? Does a couple combine their finances?
Explicit boundaries are made between two people, such as wedding vows and business agreements, but there are also implicit boundaries that we make within ourselves where we draw a line based on our own standard. If while on a date, the person we are with becomes drunk and belligerent in public, that may be the end of the very young relationship. It gets much more complex when it’s your wife of 15 years.
Boundaries are about respecting the otherness of the other. Building bridges naturally arises when people have clear boundaries. When you feel seen and have the distance to see the other person, something naturally bubbles up out of your limbic self to bond and become more of a unit or system, rather than remaining in the illusion of separateness.
There are three components of boundaries:
- The external system that exists to protect the body and controls distance and touch.
- The internal system protects our inner world—our thinking, feeling, and our behavior. This system acts like a block or filter, similar to the reticular activating system part of the brain (RAS) which sorts input from the outside. It naturally begins to adapt and protect at the same time.
- The spiritual system occurs when two people are being intimate (not necessarily sexually) with one another and both are using their external and internal boundaries systems and then transcend them for the benefit of the relationship. Each person surrenders a sense of separateness in regard to their very beings. This allows for that kind of cosmic love when we bring all of ourselves to another, or even to a cause. and together we allow ourselves to create a new future in the inter-subjective space we share.
Here is a breakdown of typical boundary violations that all healthy relationships need to be aware of:
Internal boundary violations
- Yelling or screaming
- Shaming another person by word or deed.
- Ridiculing or mocking another person.
- Breaking a commitment for no reason
- Attempting to control or manipulate another person
- Calling names
- Insisting that another person do it your way
- Telling another person you know what they are thinking or feeling.
- Demanding an apology.
External physical boundary violations
- Standing in another’s personal space without his/her permission.
- Touching a person without his/her permission
- Getting into a person’s belongings and living space such as one’s purse, wallet, mail, and closet, without his/her permission
- Exposing others to contagious illness
- Listening to a person’s personal conversation or telephone conversations without his/her permission
- Smoking around nonsmokers in an identified nonsmoking area
Sexual boundary violations
- Engaging a person sexually without his/her permission
- Insisting on having your way sexually in the face of another’s “no”.
- Demanding unsafe sexual practices
- Exposing others to sexual experience without his/her permission.
- Sexually shaming another person
Your personal and relationship boundaries change over time and must be re-negotiated. Often the crossing of a boundary that becomes a source of disconnection can be avoided if you have an open discussion.
The boundary we place on our language is key. Daphne Kigma says, “Language does have the power to change reality. Therefore, treat your words as the mighty instruments they are – to heal, to bring into being, to remove, as if by magic, the terrible violations of childhood, to nurture, to cherish, to bless, to forgive – to create from the whole cloth of your soul, true love.” (True Love: The Four Essential Keys To Discovering The Love Of Your Life)
No healthy relationship can endure without boundaries, because the need for autonomy would not be fulfilled. It is loving for us to both have our own clear boundaries and to honor those of others, including those of our own children. I could cry when I think of the hundreds of stories of disrespect I have listened to from clients over the years, where parents recklessly disregarded the boundaries of their own children, verbally, emotionally, physically, and even sexually. Children don’t have strongly developed boundaries, and it is up to parents to both define healthy boundaries for their children, and to respect them consistently.
Have you ever witnessed a parent screaming at children that they should be more quiet, or seen a parent hit a child for hitting his sister? You may have done it yourself. I have yelled at my children to stop yelling, and seen the look of confusion on their faces. If you are honest with yourself, you don’t regard children as having the same boundaries as adults, due to the power differential. We are big, they are small, but that does not mean that they don’t deserve the same respect that we do.
Try this powerful experiment for one week, in all your relationships. Make RESPECT your mantra, and consciously treat everyone, including the children in your life, with respect. Notice when you receive it from others, and how you feel when you do.
As you more often see the light in everyone you meet, your own light will become brighter, as the light you see reflects back to you. You will discover the miracle of deep respect.