Three Steps to Setting Healthy Boundaries
Relationships require negotiation and compromise. They work best when both parties take time to communicate their thoughts, needs, desires, and limits clearly so everyone is working within the same realm of expectations.
When things go awry in a relationship, communication can dissolve quickly. The thoughtful and conscientious parts of our brain take a back seat to the more primal neuro-pathways and before we know it, our blood pressure rises, thoughts race and we often say things we don’t mean or wish we could take back later. This is especially true of idle threats, the outrageous things we say in a rage, like “I’m never talking to you again!” or “I’m leaving.”
There are three things we can all do to set the stage for healthy communication with ourselves and others when a boundary is crossed or someone we love disappoints us.
- Discuss and decide upon healthy boundaries when you are both feeling calm and collected. Whether you and your teenager are deciding on a reasonable curfew, or you and your partner are working out a routine for sharing chores, it is important to have the full spectrum of what-if-this-happens-conversation before it becomes a hot issue. If your teenager knows that coming in three minutes after curfew will result in a consequence then showing up late becomes a choice. If one partner neglects to complete his/her agreed upon chores, then that too sends a strong message about respect in the relationship.
We all make choices, consciously and unconsciously. As mature adults, it is key to recognize that relationships are serious business and the most enjoyable ones are loving, balanced and differentiated. We deserve to expect others to engage with us in ways that reflect shared and mutual concern.
- It is very important to set boundaries that are realistic and reasonable. Only you know exactly what that means specifically, but expecting your teenager to never make a mistake is setting yourself and him/her up for failure. A boundary is a mutually agreed upon expectation. If one party fails to adhere to the deal, then they have crossed the boundary. Some boundaries are much bigger than others, but ALL are important in building and maintaining trust in a relationship.
Setting a boundary that you and your partner will never argue is unrealistic. Expecting the argument to be civil and without violence is very reasonable! The boundary is the tone and parameters around a breach of understanding.
- Follow through, follow through, follow through. If you are unwilling to follow through with an established boundary, then basically all you have done is made an idle threat. Often times people feel mean or want to make an excuse for a boundary breach made by someone they love or care about, but the truth is that the person chose to cross the line. S/he made the decision and chose to risk your reaction. If you decide to be exclusive in a relationship and then your partner ends up having a drink with a cute available friend of a friend without mentioning it ahead of time, then you have a decision to make. Accept that you are not really exclusive and change the boundary or move away from a relationship that does not reflect your values. This is not easy. We want to give people the benefit of the doubt, but the truth is, people are smarter then we expect them to act. We want to give them another chance because it seems like the “nice” thing to do. However, nothing about not following through is nice. For one, it’s confusing. How does someone know what you mean if you are unclear about your response? This leads to conflicting messages and questions about whether you mean what you say or not.
Boundaries are all about predictability. Predictability leads to stability. When we can predict our environment, we feel more calm and stable which makes it easier to love and live.
At the end of the day, setting reasonable boundaries and expecting to be treated well by those who claim to love and care about you is the best gift you can give to yourself. Remember, people show you exactly who they are, it is your job to believe them!