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Setting Boundaries Appropriately

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 26th 2016

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.


Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Assertiveness - Nancy - Apr 23rd 2011

I have been trying to understand assertiveness for some time and how to have boundaries that allow me to have a self period.  I used to think that in order to have a friend it menat dropping my boundaries, being very passive and did not realize how weak I had become until I let certain family members and all kinds of people walk all over me.  I didnt realize it was because I was broken and had not been honoring my own self.  I thought you had to drop those boundaries in order to be liked or accepted, so complete self-devaluation.  But it is not real...and you cannot have a real friendship if you are not honoring yourself.  It doesnt mean you have to get tough, but it reminds me of that saying about dont walk behind me or in front of me, walk beside me and be my friend.  So from that I am learning that if a have to give up personal power to have a friend, then it is not a real friendship because I am not real.  But God made me I am worth protecting. Thank you for letting me contribute...

abused at work - johnB - Dec 12th 2009

 i was new at my job.  usually, i worked mon-thurs.  they scheduled conference calls on friday, so i would join the calls and not get paid for it.  then, they started emailing me regarding systems problems.  because i was a good guy, i would answer the emails and help solve or solve the problems.  it got to the point where they expected me to be on call all of the time, essentially.  while i was on Xmas vacation, the boss contacted me and told me i needed to be on another teleconference.  we would do network maintenance, and the boss would email me saying "please ensure full coverage capability".  Etc, Etc, Etc.  I did not know, and still do not know how to be a "good employee" while at the same getting the people at work to respect the fact that I am not on call 24X7.

please help 


Emotional Abuse - - Nov 23rd 2009

I was in an emotionally abusive relationship and came out the worst of it all. He was just so over powering and convincing that I believed every word that came out of his mouth.. He cheated, lied, never respected me at all!  And Im the fool that accpeted it! He used always ring me after a night out to collect him (3-4am in the morning) and when id say no (very rare) he would play the guilt trip.. Hed say ok so Il walk, knowing damn well he wouldnt/couldnt! When I look back at it all I really hate myself for putting myself in the situation I did! Was so insecure in the relationship! Im now out of it four months or so and feel happier with out him! The anxiety I developed is horrible but Im working with a counsellor to help!

thanks for the article!

Boundries - - Sep 5th 2009

I was in an abusive  relationship. I never thought I would find myself in such a relationship. My life partner seemed to thrive on not respecting the self respecting boundries I tried to set with him. As time went on my self esteem begain to dimenish. When I became ill, he decided that he no longer wanted to be in the relationship. Everyone I have talked with, have given answers like, men need to be in control and they do not respect women when they are not in control of the relationship. Is this really true?

Psychological boundaries - Kim - May 31st 2008

I agree with the psychological boundaries and that when they are intrusive and or abusive it is hard to deal with. The hardest thing is convincing yourself that you don't deserve it and you are worthy of respect. If you have been put down for so long you tend to lose your self esteem and think that you deserve the abusiveness.

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