boundaries--the good the bad the ugly

Family, the most important relationships we can have, right?  Mom, Dad, Gram, sister, or brother our first experience to the world of negotiating human beings.  Whatever our experience during those first years we learn how to cope, negotiate, love, and navigate all the emotions we will experience in life.  We also learn how to develop healthy boundaries, and unhealthy ones.   Think of a healthy boundary as a chain link fence where you can engage with the other person but still maintain your own separate identity.  
      There are three types of boundaries with varying degrees along the spectrum, enmeshed, balanced, and disengaged.  The toughest relationship to find that balance is undoubtedly in the nuclear family, and marriage mainly because we move in and out of our physical and mental space all the time.  I know it's not rocket science to see this but it's pretty tricky sometimes to get into the "balanced" zone of a healthy boundary.  Let me give you a simple example, My husband and I used to put the mail on the island in the old kitchen.  It annoyed me.  I know it might seem kinda silly because seriously is he going to use my Bed Bath & Beyond coupon or read my alum magazine?  But we crossed momentarily over into enmeshment every so often.  It's a respectful thing to honor personal space, and for us, separate some personal business.  So when we redid the kitchen we each get a big drawer.  One of us separates mail and it goes into a bin in each drawer.  It's so much smoother and honors our own identities.  That's a great example that is easy to see is healthy we know there are so many more that are not that easy to identify. 
       One place where people cross over into enmeshment and over to disengagement is with children.  Children are not meant to be emotional support systems, confidants, or frankly know your intimate details of the stress happening in your life (ie: financial, emotional, legal, or mental).  I know we all know this, but crossing over the line is incredibly easy, especially if you are a single parent or in a marriage that is already having difficulties.  For example: You seek your child out for a hug after an argument with a spouse; you want to be your child's friend so you don't discipline your child after they have _____________ (failed a test, broke a rule, etc), you use them to speak to the other parent, or you disengage from them because you are angry with the other parent.  All of these examples teach your child how to set boundaries, and not healthy ones.  
        Undoubtedly we experienced some of these growing up because 1) your parents were human and made mistakes 2) their parents were human and made mistakes and taught them how to parent 3) we are only just learning how to really create healthy boundaries with those around us that aren't as rigid.   When we build healthy boundaries with others we end up feeling better all around.  The best way to start looking at your own boundaries with friends and family is to look at how you identify with yourself.  I bet you went "huh"?  What the heck is this lady talking about?  When we know who we are and what we need we are better equipped to ask what we need in a relationship.  
         For instance the mail drawers.  I bet there were readers out there who could care less if their mail is mixed in with their partners or family mail.  So maybe your sense of personal space is different.  But if I said do you share a phone, computer, toothbrush, towel, or drinking glass we might all have different responses.  (but probably not about the toothbrush...that's gross ;) What if I said do you open your partners emails, read their journal, read or answer text messages, or go through their purse, wallet, receipts, etc.  I bet we all agree those are big red flags to personal privacy violations.  Personal privacy is not only healthy in a relationship when we cross over some of those lines it can even be violating the rights of the person.  We need to know what we need in a relationship & for ourself and communicate that in a specific detailed way.  For example a friend gives advice about a sensitive topic freely & frequently.  That friend needs to know it's happening and what is needed specifically.  Balanced Boundary: "I can't hear about _________ because it's very personal please instead listen non-judgementally."  vs. disengaged boundary:  not communicate your feelings, talk to other people about it, and lie about what is going on.  Part of the balanced boundary might actually be not talking about the topic if you talk to your friend and you come to an agreement about it.   Knowing what you need will help make it easier to set those boundaries. 
            It seems Americans are really much better at maintaining boundaries at work than with friends and family.  It also is a place where we can easily drift to the disengaged zone.  We have been trained to see work as a place entirely separate from the other parts of our life, which in some sense is true, but we cannot be an island.  When your child is sick and you need to go home, or your wife or parent is gravely ill you have to have a chain link not a stockade fence.  We must be able to be human, real, and not rigid in any part of our life.  This however is not the case if you are dealing with someone with a lack of boundaries.  If you have someone in your life who is manipulative or abusive it's completely healthy to disengage if that feels right.  
        When we can set up balanced boundaries a wonderful thing happens!  Our relationships improve, our homes & work place feel safe secure & warmer, and most importantly we give ourself a space to be the unique awesome & amazing person we are.  I have a feeling when you were reading this article you thought of someone in your life.  Take whatever you can from this and apply it.  I would love to hear back from you the results or your thoughts.  We can all learn from each other.  

1 comment

  • This message could not have come at a better time… two days before Thanksgiving. I’m starting to be honest with some of my siblings about what I’m willing to subject myself to. I do love my family, but I don’t always like their behavior. Balancing what is “tradition” with personal boundaries is difficult, but I’m getting there. Thank you, Marcia.


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