Boundaries – Essential to Healthy Relationships

By Licia Ginne, LMFT

What are boundaries and why are they so important?

Boundaries are about protection; they set limits, define us, set expectations and give us rules about our roles. When boundaries are strong they also become flexible, we are able to adapt in the moment. Boundaries are a problem when they are so rigid they have no flexibility or so flexible they have no power.

So what are boundaries. Boundaries are the internal and external personal lines that we draw. They help us stand up for ourselves, they keep us from agreeing to things we don’t really want to do and then feeling resentful. They help is protect and take care of ourselves. Boundaries help to define who we are and who we are not and help to define the relationships we are in. They keep us separate from others so we can have better relationships. They regulate the personal space of relationships. We all need time to take care of ourselves outside the relationship and when we set a boundary it lets us do what we have to do in the world. It lets others know what to expect from us, how to react and lets us know our role within the relationship.
Our boundaries are constantly shifting and changing depending on the circumstances we are in and who we are with. As we go through our day we set many boundaries, we set boundaries about who can touch us and how, how physically close we get to others or them to us, we make decisions about what information we share with people and who gets to know certain aspects of us. It is a constant negotiating of how we are in the world and a monitoring of how safe we feel in different situations and with different people.

In relationship we are all frightened of being hurt and need to be able to negotiate our risk level, our personal space and our commitments. Often people who do not set boundaries will set them by disappearing, failing to meet their commitments, or making excuses. Many have become afraid that if they set a boundary the other person will go away. As frightening as saying no can be it builds trust and leads to a stronger relationship.

Let me give an example.

I am sure you’ve had the experience of someone walks up to you to talk and they get too close, in response you’ll take a step back for more personal space. In stepping back you have just established your physical boundary to that person.

We are constantly setting boundaries throughout our day and these boundaries change according to the situations.

You are at work and a co-worker places their hand on your buttocks, you are surprised and remove their hand. This is not only a physical boundary but has now become a sexual boundary and they have crossed the line. When you get home that evening and greet your girlfriend she places her hand on your buttocks and that may feel like a warm greeting. The gesture is the same but the boundary has changed because the person has changed.

Five types of boundaries:

Physical – help us determine who may touch us, how to touch us and when we may be touched.

Spiritual – protect our spiritual beliefs. I set my boundaries on who I allow to know about my spirituality, who I share my beliefs and practices with and how I allow others to interact with me.

Sexual – I choose who I share my sexuality with, when and how I talk about sexuality, who I share my beliefs with. Sexual boundaries go beyond physical activity it includes jokes, comments, gestures, what I watch and listen to.

Emotional – my feelings need to be protected. My emotional boundary will include how others treat me, whether my emotions are respected and honored and how I treat others.

Intellectual – boundaries protect my experience of my intellect. To protect how others talk with me, whether my ideas and perceptions are considered and listened to. It is also includes my access to knowledge and learning.

What is important to remember is that when boundaries are in place relationships flow smoother. When my boss is clear with me about expectations with my job performance then my boundaries at work are being set. When my romantic partner is clear with their boundaries, with what they need and want from me, I know where I stand and how best to fill my role. When I am aware of my boundaries and boundaries of others I will know how to go about my day, I know how to prioritize my work and activities and increase my chances of being successful in relationships.
For further information on the definitions of Physical, Sexual, Verbal, Social, Intellectual, Spiritual, Emotional abuse and neglect and abandonment, go to my article on abuse.