Couples and interpersonal boundaries

(for additional information, see "A visual guide to boundaries")

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Comfort with setting boundaries develops naturally in children who have their feelings respected by their parents. (Donaldson-Pressman, Robert Pressman, 1994, p. 90).

What are boundaries?

The easiest way to understand boundaries is to think of two countries. It is inappropriate for one country to just cross the border of another or to take it's resources or to harm it in any way. If there are disagreements over common areas, they should be resolved with respect.

Good boundaries between your relationship and people outside your relationship mean protecting the "borders." So if your partner considers some information private, you keep that inside the boundary of the relationship. It means keeping sexual contact and deep emotional intimacy within the borders of the relationship. And it means protecting some time just for each other, even if you have to refuse requests from others to do so.

Inside the relationship, it means respecting your partner's privacy and their preferences.

In practice that means that you would ask or consult with them before you:

When there is a common area of interest (money, sexuality, etc.), it means resolving differences with respect for the interests of each partner. Good boundaries then, are understanding and respecting the dividing line in two areas; between you and your partner and between you as a couple and the larger world.

Boundaries and self esteem

The ability and willingness to set boundaries is deeply connected to self esteem.

If that seems like a stretch, take a moment to think about it.

Someone who feels good about themselves will not remain quiet while someone crosses their boundaries. They will naturally speak up and set limits. This ability is the natural outcome when their boundaries were respected as children and they were raised to have a positive view of themselves.
Unfortunately, not all people were raised in this manner and many people struggle with internal conflict when they need to set boundaries. Some people feel "unworthy" or feel that they are somehow less important than others. They fear that if they set boundaries, they will be rejected and abandoned. Hence, they will be hesitant to set boundaries and this can lead to anger and resentment.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are those who cross the boundaries of others. They also feel unworthy but their coping strategy is to attempt to control others.

Boundary problems and self esteem problems are common for people who were raised in families where one or both caretakers:

How do you feel about your boundaries?

This is a big question. If you were raised in a family where the needs of the family came first and the individual family member's needs second, you probably have difficulty setting limits. If you were raised in a family where everyone had the right their own beliefs, had reasonable privacy and some input into family decisions, limit setting probably comes naturally.

Can my anger and resentment at my partner be about boundaries?

If your relationship is generally positive but you feel a vague resentment or growing emotional distance with your partner, it would good to do a check-up on your boundaries. By saying yes when you mean no or by just "going along" with things that you feel uncomfortable with, a sense resentment will gradualy build.

This is one of what I would call "submarine issues." They lurk silently beneath the surface and pose a threat to the relationship. One of the issues that frequently comes out in marriage counseling is that one or both partners has not set boundaries around an important issue. The issue could be in the areas of child care, sexuality, communication, to name a few.
By opening up a dialogue about the issue in a safe, supportive environment, new arrangements can be made and the issue can be resolved.

Some other factors that affect the ability to set boundaries

Oldest children, especially those who were given some authority over siblings, will often feel comfortable setting limits, perhaps in an authoritarian way. In families where there is a dominance hierarchy (where the father or mother is dominant), a child will often attempt to duplicate that hierarchy in their own family.

Where do you end and I begin?

When two people interact, there are competing needs and interests. On some happy occasions, both people want the same thing and there is no need to negotiate. But more often than not, some amount of compromise is required. Each person in the relationship has the right to say yes, no or a conditional yes (for example, "OK, this holiday we'll spend time with your family, but next time we'll spend it with mine").

When boundaries conflict

When individual needs differ, they can be resolved in a few different ways. The optimal way is through explicit negotiation and compromise that results in an agreed upon decision. Some less than ideal methods are through domination ("do it my way"), appeals to guilt ("you should want to drive your children to practice") and passive-aggressive agreement (the person goes along with a decision but then sabotages the implementation).


Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman and Robert Pressman (1994) The Narcissistic Family: Diagnosis and Treatment, San Francisco: Jossey Bass - a Wiley Company.