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Setting Boundaries Appropriately

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

For some people, the problem is not so much about creating new relationships, but rather about making the ones they currently have work better. People are not always happy in existing relationships. Relationships are fragile living things that change over time. Though they may start out well, they may not end up that way over time. They do not always turn out to be as equitable as people hope they will be when they enter them. When partner's beliefs and values get out of sync, and are no longer well matched, one or more participants usually ends up unhappy.

At issue in such relationships are the ways that people learn to manage the boundaries that define their relationships. In the physical world, boundaries are things that separate one thing from another, like walls that separate the outside of a house from the inside. Though they have no physical substance, psychological boundaries act very much like walls, by separating the private parts of people or relationships separate from the public parts. When an intimate relationship of any sort is occurring there is, in a manner of speaking, a psychological boundary around that relationship. The boundary is not there in any physical sense, of course, but nevertheless, secrets stay within the relationship as though there is a real wall holding them in place. It is trust that holds shared secrets in place and which creates the relationship boundary. If trust is betrayed, the boundary fails, and strangers get to learn the private details of the relationship.

There are also psychological boundaries around each individual in a relationship. These individual boundaries have to do with self-determination and self-respect. They define each partner's right to keep some part of themselves separate from the relationship (to not let it define them utterly), and also to expect that their partner will treat them with respect. When these individual boundaries are intact and in place, the partners feel respected and cared for and not taken for granted. When they are broken by disrespectful actions (such as when one partner abuses the other, or makes unilateral decisions) they end up feeling abused.

Boundary violations of any sort tend to cause relationship problems. When one partner's actions cause another to feel belittled, unimportant or abused, then that other partner is faced with the task of learning how to defend themselves.

Learning how to effectively defend yourself against unwanted intrusions is not as simple as it might first seem. It is, of course, necessary that you learn new ways of interacting with intrusive or abusive people which will cause them to back off and leave you alone. Less obviously, however, you also have to learn how to recognize and become aware that you are being intruded upon in the first place, and you must also decide that you are a worthy person who does not deserve to be invaded or treated badly. Until you master the latter two tasks, knowledge of the former will not do you much good. With this insight in mind, we next discuss Assertiveness Training, a means of psychological self defense that helps people to understand when they are being taken advantage of and what they can do about it.