Recovery Relationships: Boundaries

“Setting boundaries is a way of caring for myself. It doesn’t make me mean, selfish, or uncaring because I don’t do things your way. I care about me too.”
— Christine Morgan


The Art of Boundaries

The concept of boundaries is a biggie. Drawing on a sports metaphor, we speak of setting and observing boundaries in relationships. Behavior that we deem acceptable is “within bounds” in our relationships, and what we consider unacceptable and totally out of bounds. We need to know what we will tolerate and what we won’t with our friends, family, and romantic partners, physically, psychologically, and mentally. Boundaries allow us to differentiate ourselves from each other. They communicate identity—I am me, and my needs, desires, and expectations differ from yours, and I am willing to voice them.”

Our boundaries might be rigid, loose, somewhere in between, or even non-existent. A complete lack of boundaries may indicate that we don’t have a strong identity or are enmeshed with someone else. That narrative goes like this: “It doesn’t matter what I want, only what you want.”

Boundaries are not just about what behaviors we accept, they are also about how much we are open or closed to others. If we grew up in a family where there were no boundaries—no private space, no ability to say no, no doors shut, nothing respected as private property, or worst of all, physical and sexual abuse—we may have developed overly strict or rigid boundaries to protect ourselves. But if we’re so closed off that we’re like a locked vault, then we’re too guarded and defensive to make connections with people. If, on the other hand, we’re a totally open book with no secrets, limits, or personal space, then we’ll feel depleted, drained, and lacking in a solid sense of self.


Why setting boundaries is so hard

You might believe that love is never having to set boundaries, but that’s wrong. You might believe that love requires us to deny our own needs, but that is also wrong. You might have learned that endless giving is what being a mother, wife, or friend is all about, and you may feel guilty at the mere notion of setting a boundary. Self-care challenges that idea. Self-care says that we have an absolute requirement to not let ourselves be stepped on.

You might feel it’s not worth the risk, because of the anger or conflict that could arise from setting a boundary. But in my practice and personal experience, this is absolutely not true. As Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend wrote in Boundaries, “The person who is angry at you for setting boundaries is the one with the problem… Maintaining your boundaries is good for other people; it will help them learn what their families of origin did not teach them: to respect other people.”


The cost of too-loose or nonexistent boundaries

We may be paying a price for the boundaries we fail to set. According to Boundaries authors Cloud and Townsend, if you have an interaction with someone that leaves you feeling sad, angry, depressed, critical, withdrawn, perfectionistic, and argumentative, it might indicate that a boundary has been crossed. This not only hurts you, but it also hurts your relationships. When boundaries are crossed, either knowingly or unknowingly, resentment happens, and when enough resentment builds up over time, we can stop feeling love, safety, and all the other warm ooey-gooey good feelings that come with healthy relationships. These negative feelings can lead to a thick crust of resentment, which can lead to withdrawal, emotional disconnect, and relationship breakdown.

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