Our last blog discussed what boundaries are and why they are important to the function of a healthy relationship. This follow-up provides tips on how to actually implement boundaries, something that’s easier in concept than practice!
In many instances, boundaries are observed naturally and come about without a direct conversation. For instance, if your landlord always provides you notice before entering your apartment to conduct maintenance, they are observing a boundary. If your boss refrains from calling you on Saturday morning with a work question (regarding your weekday job), they are respecting an unspoken boundary. Similarly, if a partner is respectful of you as a person and doesn’t resort to name-calling even when feeling anger, they are observing a boundary.
But what do we do if boundaries are not being observed or if the two parties in question simply have different boundaries and don’t naturally see eye-to-eye? Suppose that a family member calls you three times a day to chat when your expectation was that you have a phone conversation only once every few days. You feel pressure to answer the phone but also resentful that you have to pause your activities three days in a single day to have a conversation with them. Perhaps you’ve tried to hint in the past that you’re busy or would rather communicate less frequently only for the person to respond with hurt feelings or a guilt trip.
The first step in setting a boundary is to recognize that you have a boundary in an area that is being violated. You may feel used, resentful or angry and need to identify the reason behind the emotion.
Once you’re clear with yourself as to what you need to be safe or respected in the relationship, it’s time to communicate it respectfully to the other person. In the example above, it may be stating clearly, “our relationship is very important to me but the frequency of our conversations is difficult for me to sustain. I would love to be in touch every few days.” Sometimes the other party immediately respects a boundary as stated (perhaps they were not aware it wasn’t convenient for you and are happy to change) but more frequently, there will be some resistance. They are used to a certain way of interacting and may feel the change is threatening. It’s best to anticipate this and not doubt the need to set the boundary in the first place.
If the person continues to violate a boundary after it’s been stated, it’s important to allow them to experience the natural consequence of their behavior. This isn’t a punitive or vindictive measure but rather than absorbing the negative impact of their behavior (by, say, answering the phone each time even when it’s interrupting something important), allow the person to feel the natural negative impact of them violating the boundary. The natural consequence in this case would be to not answer the phone multiple times a day when you’ve already stated you’re not available that frequently.
Many people will adjust their behavior and begin respecting the boundary when they see it isn’t working otherwise and the relationship can continue in a more healthy and genuine way for both parties. Other times it becomes very clear that they are unwilling to respect the boundary and it may be necessary to increase the distance in the relationship or leave the relationship. Examples include leaving a job that demands all of your time or a relationship with someone who is consistently disrespectful.
Addressing boundary issues in a relationship can be challenging, especially initially, but also results in richer, healthier relationships that both parties find more fulfilling! For help with boundaries or other relationship issues, contact the Adne Institute to meet with a therapist!