Boundaries are one of the most critical and fundamentally important tools for a healthy relationship, but they’re also arguably the most misunderstood and misconstrued as well. There’s a lot of conflation concerning boundaries, rules, and relationship expectations, when in reality boundaries are specifically their own concept.
“People conflate them as the same thing over and over again; a boundary, a rule, an agreement. What are all these things? They think they mean the same thing, when perhaps they actually don't.”
Boundary building blocks
Everyone has boundaries. The word “dealbreaker” is often used as a synonym, which can be a helpful starting point for those trying to understand boundaries.
Boundaries are not rules. Boundaries are created to protect you, not to control someone else’s behavior the way a rule does. A boundary is created by you, enforced by you, and applies to your own behavior, not someone else’s. It’s a way to promote your own safety, and empower yourself to take the appropriate measures to protect yourself without having to rely on other people.
Not everyone is up front about their boundaries. This doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Some people may not want to express every single boundary they have on a first date, or they may have boundaries that even they aren’t aware of yet.
Ruling on rules
While the decision to include rules in a relationship is a personal one, it’s important to take a step back and ask yourself a few questions about why you feel the need to have a set of rules in place.
For instance: What are the consequences if a rule is broken? Many people don’t have an answer to this question. It’s difficult to enforce a rule in a way that makes people feel good, rather than focusing on a punishment for breaking it. If a proposed rule is something like “You can’t have sex with someone until I meet them,” and that rule is broken, there isn’t a way to ensure a positive reaction.
Agreeing on agreements
Agreements are also not the same as boundaries. As stated before, boundaries are something that are only enforced by you. Agreements may or may not have their place in your relationship, but sometimes reframing something that could be seen as a rule into an agreement can be a step towards more healthy communication. Instead of having a rule that says “You can’t have sex with someone until I meet them,” agreeing that “We won’t have sex with someone new until the other person meets them” can frame it in a way that’s less judgmental and less punishment-based.
This is not to say that an agreement like this is necessarily the healthiest thing to have in your relationship, but the notion of two people agreeing on something is a better mentality versus one person issuing a rule. Again, it’s vital to do the necessary internal work to figure out where a need for rules or agreements is coming from, because none of these methods are a band-aid for problems.
Making your own boundaries
We’re going to walk through a quick three-step exercise about how to discover your own boundaries and enforce them, because sometimes you don’t know you have a boundary until it’s crossed:
Figure out what behavior from others runs counter to your personal values. For example: My father has a habit of always interrupting and talking over me when we disagree about something.
Write down a boundary that addresses the behavior. “I will not converse with someone who repeatedly interrupts me,” for example.
Determine how the boundary will be enforced. It doesn’t have to be harsh or extreme; it can be as simple as just removing yourself from the conversation until both you and your father are calmer. It’s important to make sure that the boundary is enforced only by your actions.
Put the boundary to the test! Can it be enforced unilaterally? Can it be enforced by yourself without anyone else having to do anything? If the person’s behavior doesn’t change, will the boundary still protect you?