I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that each and every one of the relationship problems I have ever had can be traced to one single thing. Now me? I’m usually suspicious of the “silver bullet” or the “instant solution” or the “single answer” to anything. I like things to be black and white – simple. Thing is, they’re usually not, so I rarely permit myself to get excited or happy when some genuinely is, always looking for the catch.

But this time, it’s true. Every single relationship problem I have ever encountered in my life has been because of a lack of appropriate boundaries.

Okay, note the qualifier “appropriate”. We have that little shade of gray that makes it acceptable after all. <grin>.

So what is a boundary? At its simplest, it is a line that says, “This is me. This is my locus of control and where I have total say.” A big and obvious boundary that many people have is, “I will not permit myself to be hit. If I am hit, I will leave the relationship. If you pursue me, I will take legal action to protect myself.” A small and subtle one might be, “It is important to me to be on time to an event. If you are not ready in time to go to an event, we can work out an alternative –among which could include separate cars or me getting a ride with someone else who also finds it important to be on time.”

Notice in both cases you’re not telling the other person what to do. You’re saying what you will do. You’re also not telling the person how to act. You’re not judging the person for her choices, you’re not telling him he has to have the same desires or needs as you. Not that it does the least good to say these things, ’cause people are individuals and have their own needs and desires.

Boundaries improve relationships because they take the pressure off. You accknowledge that you’re completely responsible for meeting your own needs, and you get rid of any emotional investment in the other person doing so.

For your boundaries to work for you, you have to have a few tools, though.

  1. You must know what you want – This can be a subtle thing, and often you need to focus on “meta wants”. When you’re fuming that someone is late out the door, what you want isn’t necessarily for the person to stop primping at the mirror, but that you want to be on time! Make sure you are very grounded in the “meta want”. It makes step two easier.
  2. You must detach your wants from the other person’s behavior. This can be a rough one, because it often looks like your wants are dependant on what other people do. Thing is, as long as you attach your wants to another person’s behavior, you’re just asking to be frustrated. You have no control over how someone else acts! It is supremely important to separate your needs from others’ behavior.
  3. You must choose to ask for what you want – I once heard someone comment, “If you do not ask for what you want, you deny the other person the opportunity to say ‘yes’.”
  4. You must know what you want to do if the person says “no”. While the other person has the opportunity to say “yes”, they also have the right to say “no”. What do you do then? Well that seriously depends. Boundaries are not hard, fast and rigid at all times, nor should they be. Let’s say you want the dishes washed, have asked for it, and the other person says “no”. (For this example, we’re going to presume that this is an adult relationship, and you’re not enforcing parental boundaries here…) You could say, “It is one of my personal boundaries that I will only be in relationships with people who will do the dishes when I ask it of them.” After all, boundaries are individual, and that’s your right to choose. You could say, “What I want is a clean kitchen. Therefore, I shall do the dishes.” Keep very much in mind what it is that you want. Was the “meta want” a clean kitchen, or a relationship with someone who does housework on command? That will help you choose how to act.

For all of this to work, you must understand your own locus of control. You own your own life, and you own your own time. No-one else does. However, you do not own another’s life or time, and if you make claims on it, you’re impinging on someone else’s boundaries. That’s not a healthy way to have a relationship.

Like so many of these articles, they’re more relationship specific than poly specific. Notice, you could apply this to any non-romantic relationship quite as well as you could to romantic ones.

In fact, I believe you might like the results if you did try it!

18 thoughts on “Boundaries

  1. armchairshrink

    Brilliant, simple, and true.

    It’s amazing how many people do NOT get boundaries.

    I spent six years in a relationship with a verbally, emotionally, and towards the end, physically abusive substance abuser. And because I didn’t understand boundaries (refused to understand is more like it – I didn’t want to give up the idea that I could change him, i.e., control him) I gave up any power or control I had over myself.

    I listen to “Dr.” Laura for shits and giggles (hate her, hate 95% of her advice, but find her show entertaining when I’m bored at work) and the other day this woman with an alcoholic husband called up and Laura said she could either be married to a jerky alcoholic and find other ways to make herself happy through hobbies, work, volunteering, etc. or she could get a divorce. The caller was so shocked because those were not the options she wanted to hear. She actually said, really frustrated at one point, “But there’s nothing I can do to CONTROL him? NOTHING?!?” The woman was 58. It was sad because she’d never figured out she was responsible for drawing her own lines in the sand and then acting in accordance. She probably never will.

    FYI, I’m mono – you’re right. This concept applies across the board to any type of relationship you have with any other person.

  2. Monica

    Well written, and I’m with you most of the way. Each person is responsible for his or her own mental and physical health. I particularly like your description of “meta wants.” Are you familiar with the concept of “differentiated partners” articulated in the book Passionate Marriage?

    But we part ways a bit, I think, when it comes to control. I can’t directly control others’ actions. But I can set conditions for being in a relationship with me, and my partners can, in response, choose to alter their behavior to fulfill those requests–or refuse to do so. In that way, we each make choices about our own behavior that provoke responses in others, indirectly controlling one another’s actions. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing–indeed, why else do we interact with people except to influence them and be influenced in return? Perhaps we are merely using different words to describe the same thing.

  3. Cynthia Armistead

    Good fences make for good neighbors, and good boundaries make for good relationships. Doesn’t matter what kind of relationship it is, friend, partner, parental, neighbor, empployee, whatever – ya gotta have ‘em.

  4. Shasta Gibson

    You know what I love about the internet. 9.9 times out of 10, when I most need to read something, I come across it by accident.

    I am working especially hard on Number 2, because I tend to attach a lot of wants and expectations to other people, which is basically like begging for disappointment or upset.

    I appreciate this post a great deal!

  5. Julie

    I love how you condensed this down to it’s essence. I think that setting effective boundaries is the most important tool one can have in life. It’s been an area of growth for me over the past four years.

    I second the recommendation on the book Passionate Marriage – it has a monogamous slant, but it also goes into really good detail about differentiation and how it affects relationships. The author talks about how you get to that place where you can no longer be yourself in a relationship. Most relationships don’t start out emeshed, but that tends to happen over a period of time if you’re not vigilant about being totally authentic with your partner. That includes being able to communicate boundaries as well as your true needs and wants.

    Thanks for getting back on this horse!

  6. Beth

    Geez, what a complicated way to live. Such bondage for sure. It sure would be nice to live in such a way that one doesn’t have to constantly be on the watch for boundary shifting and constant rearrangement. Looks “condensed down to essence” to me. My foot.

  7. Wendy

    Well, Beth, I guess you can become an anchorite and live in a shack in the wilderness away from any people… because if you deal with people, and you want to understand what happens, then you have to watch for boundary shifting.

    It’s hardly unique to polyamory.

  8. Gene

    Of course, the more compatible you are and the more respectful you are of others’ boundaries, the less you will have to set and enforce them.

    Most things that might be considered boundaries might not have to be stated a such. “Could you please turn the light off when you leave a room” is such. So is “If you drink the last cup of coffee, can you please start a fresh pot?”. People who are in a similar mindframe and honor our requests rarely would need to have a formal boundary stated. You don’t have to set a consequence of leaving me in order to convince me to put the toilet seat down.

    Of course, if you actually have to set such boundaries as “I will not allow myself to be hit”, it may be good to get out of that relationship anyway.


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