I often talk with couples who are struggling to find healthy boundaries in their relationship. They don’t always know that boundaries are the problem, and instead they often state they’re having “communication issues”. However, when we start to explore the issues, we find they have very different ideas about boundaries and how things should play out.
In the first part of this series, I used the metaphor of backyard fences to illustrate relational boundaries. If we continue to speak in fences (please indulge me) I would have to say that the most ideal type of fence in a romantic relationship is the 1-foot decorative wire fence that I discussed in the last post. It draws a clear line and differentiates who’s who, but it allows for a great deal of connection, communication, and openness.
Some people think there should be no boundaries in a romantic relationship and that a couple is closer when there are no lines between them. This is a nice idea, but honestly, it doesn’t usually work out well. Without any fence at all, we can lose ourself in a relationship and forget where one person ends and the other begins. We might feel frustrated when our “neighbor" (partner) seems to show little regard for the fact that they’re treating our backyard as their own, or we might feel resentment from them, because we’re coming over without an invitation and spending too much time in their yard.
In other situations, one or both partners build a brick wall. In some ways, we may find comfort and security in knowing that we’re completely protected inside our cozy little yard. However, it gets pretty lonely when we realize that our brick wall prevents us from having any type of connection.
We choose these fences for all different reasons. Sometimes, we choose our fence (or lack thereof) based on the fences we’ve had in past relationships with family members, friends, or partners. Sometimes, we make our choices in response to discomfort with a certain type of boundary (i.e. "you have a brick wall and I don’t like it, so I’m going to try to level it to the ground" or “there’s nothing that separates my yard from yours and it’s stressing me out, so I’m building a brick wall”). Whatever the reason, we can feel it when our boundary choices aren’t working. We may not know that boundaries are the issue - but something just isn’t right.
Here’s an example of how boundaries appear in daily life. Let’s say my husband comes home from work after having a really crappy day. He’s tense, sullen, and not his typical warm and cheerful self.
Below are 3 different scenarios for how our evening might play out:
- Brick Wall - If we have a brick wall between us, I’m barely going to notice that he’s upset, because I’m focusing on my own stuff. Chances are, we’re probably not communicating about a whole lot. I might notice his sullen tone and decide that if he’s going to be a jackass, then I’m not going to engage him. I might just keep my distance but ultimately we both spend the night feeling frustrated, disconnected and lonely.
- No Fence - If there’s no fence between us, I’m definitely going to notice right away that he’s not right, and it’s going to immediately rile me up. Before I even know what’s going on with him, my stress level skyrockets as my brain is aflutter with questions - “What’s wrong?”, “What does this mean”, “Are we okay?" Ah!!! Now, we’re both stressed out. I don’t have the capacity to try to be there for him because my brain is completely flooded by my own stress and panic. Our night goes downhill pretty fast, and we end up in a petty argument about something stupid.
- Garden Fence - I notice pretty quickly that he’s not his normal self and I’m concerned but still calm. I care about him, and I don’t like to see him upset. However, I also have confidence in him, myself, and our relationship, so I don’t feel stressed. I know that we are fully capable of dealing with whatever’s wrong. I give it a little time. Then, I warmly let him know that he seems a little off, and I ask him about his day. He vents a little about his day while I listen, support, and empathize. The act of just talking about it helps him decompress and let go of his frustration, and he’s quickly coming back to his warm and cheerful self. We have a nice night together and feel happy and connected.
If you’re not feeling great about the boundaries in your relationships, try thinking in fences. Take a look at the fences that you’re using and decide if they’re working for you. If they’re not, consider making a change.
If you need a little help - we’re here for you.
Be sure to check our next post where we'll discuss healthy boundaries for work-life balance.
Hope you’re having a good day and check in if you need me!