You’ve probably heard the saying: ‘good fences make good neighbors.’ And if you’ve bought property, you will see that the land deed carefully lays out the edges and angles of the surveyor’s boundary markers. If you and I know where my driveway ends and your hedge of rose bushes starts, we’re less likely to have misunderstandings about ownership issues later.
Boundary lines in life
The same concept is even more true in the realm of relationships, although the lines are rarely, if ever clearly marked. Every relationship we experience has boundary lines. There are many unwritten social and cultural rules we live by. How do we greet each other? How close should we stand while we talk? Is it OK for you to text me for no apparent reason? As relationships progress, we add in emotional entanglements or physical intimacy. Will you accept the real me for what I am? What favors can I expect from you? Do I feel safe with you? Can I trust you with my secrets? Even relationships with groups and organizations have rules that are both explicit, and implicit. Can I miss a meeting and not offend anyone? And who are the really important people in this tribe that I can’t afford to antagonize? What should I wear, or not wear to work or to a group event? Is being on time critical? And on and on it goes. With the many alliances in our lives, it’s a wonder we can keep all the related rules straight. And yes, some of the rules are silly and trivial, but we still must consider the social price we pay when we break or bend them.
What happens when the boundaries get stretched?
So, over time we develop agreements and permissions that define boundary lines between ourselves and the many others in our day to day life. Ah, but then, just when we get our ducks in a row, life changes. New responsibilities and stressors; maybe an illness, a new boss or co-worker, the arrival of a newborn or a new in-law into our inner circle, or losing a family member through death or divorce. The re-alignment of obligations and responsibilities will draw down our mental, physical and emotional resources, which do have limits, as it turns out. And when the well goes dry in any or all of these three areas, we pay a price. The price of not keeping both real and perceived social contracts is not often discussed, but it is very real.
Unfortunately, not all of us respect relationship boundary lines the same way. Some of us want to make the rules, others are content at just keeping the rules, and then there are those who aren’t happy unless they are breaking some rules. Most of us have some mix of both rule keeper and rule breaker in us, usually just enough of each to survive the complexities of life without being too obnoxious. And that’s assuming each party even knows what the ‘rules’ in the relationship are! So, it’s no surprise that most of us have experienced an emotional or physical impact when our boundary reserves are violated by another person or group.
The health costs of losing our boundary reserve
In medical practice, it is common for me to see someone when the price of losing their boundary buffers demonstrates itself in physical or mental health. Most of the time, the health care system is looking for the anatomical and physiological cause of symptoms, and provides focused treatments intended to provide relief. Unfortunately, if a root cause is not identified, the symptom it represents improves only transiently or incompletely. It’s like pouring an ounce of gasoline on a fire at regular intervals, and then wondering why we can’t quench the flames. Boundary transgressions are often a key factor in both the development and the severity of health problems. That is why it’s important to:
-understand both the obvious and unspoken boundary lines in our life and relationships.
-recognize the price we pay when these lines are blurred, stretched or violated.
-learn how to manage our boundary reserves and to reduce the impact on physical and emotional health when they undergo a serious crunch.
Taking action to restore healthy boundaries in your relationships
Reducing boundary stress requires two things from the very beginning:
1) identifying the boundary under stress. Is it an unrealistic expectation from you by a family member, or your boss? Perhaps a long-term self-image issue; you expect too much, or too little from yourself? Are you working too hard to pay for things you don’t really need or want? Or, when considered with all honesty, are you involved with commitments you have neither the time, interest or energy to continue?
2) recognizing who you may need to negotiate with to restore healthy boundaries. In the previous examples, it may be your spouse, your employer, your own self, or the self-described personal or family expectations that cause you to commit to paying for that boat or timeshare, or to babysit your grand kids 20 hours a week.
Once you understand these, you can decide on whether you are ready to redefine the boundary lines. This is almost always the hardest part. Most of us already know, at least intuitively, the first two items above. Deciding to verbalize your needs, and asking for a redefinition or renegotiation of the status quo is often painfully difficult. It is also tremendously liberating when you take action and cast off the chains of misunderstood obligations that have been crippling you emotionally or physically.
While many times you can manage this process on your own, sometimes you may need an objective third party, such as a counselor, to manage the discussions and negotiations needed to find a healthier middle ground. In either case, I encourage you to take a tour of the boundaries in your life. Become aware of what they are. Are they healthy? Do they need to be mended or redefined? What is the right course of action? You will never be younger or more capable to make it so than you are today. Seek counsel, pray, meditate and then…take action.