What are relationship boundaries?
Relationship boundaries are a set rules we can put in place to protect ourselves from being abused or taken advantage of by others. They are like an imaginary wall around us. These boundaries will determine how physically or emotionally close we will allow others to be with us, and what sort of treatment we would accept and not accept from them. The boundaries that we set will be different depending on the person and our relationship with them. If we’re shouted at and hit by our lively 2-year-old, this behaviour is not likely to violate us in the same way that similar treatment by our intimate partner might. We may be happy for close family to come physically very close to us, however if a stranger came this close, we may feel our physical boundary or personal body space had been invaded. Boundaries should be flexible and adjusted as circumstances change and relationships develop. There is a strong association between having strong boundaries and high self-esteem, and conversely low boundaries and poor self-esteem. Having strong boundaries in place demonstrates that we’re protecting ourselves because we feel we are worthy and deserving of such protection.
Relationship boundaries are very often damaged by domestic abuse. When the perpetrator insults, humiliates and belittles us, he has likely ‘trampled over’ our emotional boundaries. If he assaults and rapes us, this behaviour will break down our physical boundaries. If we had strong boundaries at the start of the relationship, repeated attacks on those boundaries will weaken and ultimately dismantle them. We may have started the relationship feeling certain we’d refuse to be controlled by a partner. However countless small incidents of controlling behaviour may creep up on us, repeatedly breaching our boundaries, causing further weakening on each occasion until they are effectively destroyed and we accept the controlling behaviour we are being subjected to because we have no defences left. We become not only accepting of abuse from the perpetrator, but because we have weak or non-existent boundaries, we are more likely to accept abusive behaviour from others, too. Other people will often detect week or absent boundaries and home in to attack and abuse.
Does everyone naturally have relationship boundaries?
Most of us have relationship boundaries, some have strong boundaries, others will have weaker boundaries. Without them we would be very vulnerable to serious abuse on a habitual basis. Women who have been treated very badly over a protracted period of time, especially if this bad treatment or abuse started in childhood, may have few boundaries and often have a feeling that they deserve to be treated badly by others. They may find saying ‘no’ difficult or impossible. They may have a feeling that others, especially their intimate partner has a right to treat them as he wishes. These women will be highly vulnerable to further abuse. Some people may have a natural feeling of where their boundaries lie and have no issues in protecting themselves from abuse. For others, there is a need to consider this issue and work to deliberately build boundaries. This is true especially for women who have suffered domestic abuse and found that over time, their boundaries have been dismantled by their abuser.
Relationship boundaries can fall into two main categories:
Emotional boundaries are the rules we set on our emotional treatment by others. We may choose not to tolerate someone who undermines, belittles and invalidates our feelings and we may protect our boundaries by spelling out to this person that we will not tolerate being treated like this. If they continue to treat us badly, we may choose to withdraw from such a person. This might mean choosing to end a relationship at the first signs of emotional abuse. When we have strong emotional boundaries we will feel free to have our own feelings, know that they are our choice and we won’t feel responsible for or burdened by the feelings of others. If we lack emotional boundaries we will be more tolerant of abuse and may feel guilty for wanting an abusive relationship to end. We might feel responsible when our partner loses his temper and shouts at us. We may believe his threats of suicide are our responsibility or that his depression is our fault.
Physical boundaries refer to the rules we set to determine how others are allowed to respond to us physically, or the physical demands they may make of us. This may include our own rules regarding body space and uninvited touching by colleagues. We may also impose physical boundaries depending on vulnerabilities we feel we may have – refusing to carry heavy objects in both the workplace and our personal lives may be necessary to protect a back injury. Physical boundaries could encompass boundaries we set ourselves in relation to new romantic relationships, how intimate we’re prepared to get on a first date for instance. As an intimate relationship develops, we may set boundaries regarding sexual behaviour that are designed to keep us both physically and emotionally safe. Women with weak physical boundaries may tolerate sexual behaviour from others that they don’t feel ready for or comfortable with.
Boundaries and co-dependency
As adults, we should take responsibility for our own emotions, decisions and behaviour. If we do something wrong, it’s not helpful or appropriate to blame someone else, we need to own what we’ve done and be accountable for it. When we have high self-esteem and strong boundaries, we are more likely to take responsibility for our behaviour without the need to blame others for it.
Just as we are responsible for our own emotions and behaviour, we are not responsible for the emotions and behaviour of other adults in our lives, unless there is an issue with vulnerability/caring roles. Their moods, anger, sensitivities and mistakes are not our fault. Ideally other adults should take responsibility for their behaviour and not blame us for it.
Understanding that we are responsible for ourselves, and others are responsible for themselves is important. We need to be clear about where our responsibility ends and another person’s begin. When we have a clear understanding of this we will be aware of our personal boundaries and not feel the need to encroach of the boundaries of others.
There are various traits of domestic abusers that can blur boundaries and this can cause major difficulties in relationships. Abusive men very often fail to accept responsibility for their actions and will blame their intimate partner for their abusive behaviour. They sometimes seem incapable of apology even when it’s completely obvious they’re at fault. They are often hypersensitive to personal attack and will accuse their partner of upsetting them when they perceive an attack. They will regularly blame others for their feelings and emotions. Women will often accept this blame and believe they are at fault for their partner’s poor choices and behaviour. She may do what she thinks is necessary to help manage her partner’s behaviour and emotions. If he has an angry outburst, she might think it’s her fault for triggering this response in him and she may be motivated to try to calm him. If he threatens suicide, she may mistakenly feel some responsibility for this.
When women take responsibility for the poor behaviour of their partner and accept blame for his actions and emotions, they are also accepting abuse. When this happens, not only are they having their boundaries breached by their partner who is abusing them, but they are also breaching his boundaries by accepting responsibility for his behaviour. Women suffering domestic abuse almost always self-blame on some level for the abuse they are suffering. They often struggle to accept that his abuse is within his responsibility and control. The longer abuse goes on and the more deep rooted it becomes, the more blurred emotional boundaries will become.
Women in abusive relationships often develop high levels of neediness and develop an unhealthy co-dependency with their abuser. They may feel a desperate need for love, validation and affection from their partner who will often cruelly withhold this from them thereby increasing their levels of neediness. They may also believe they can fix their partner by giving him the love and validation he needs. They may hope that being loving and giving will change him. They may take responsibility for their partner’s abuse and poor behaviour, blaming themselves for his actions. Women in this situation will often give up on what’s important to them and will neglect their needs with an increasing focus on the needs of their perpetrator. They will lose their identity and self-esteem in the process. Their boundaries will have been damaged or destroyed in this process. Their concept of where their responsibility, or boundaries end and their partner’s begins will be blurred.
When you are abused in your relationship, others may abuse you too
When we’ve suffered abuse in an intimate relationship, we are more susceptible to abuse from others too. When boundaries have been dismantled by our abusive partner, who has violated us and damaged our self-esteem, others, like sharks smelling blood, may sense our vulnerability and move in to abuse us too.
Not everyone around us is likely to be kind and validating. Family members might negatively judge us for not leaving the abusive relationship sooner and they may sympathise or side with our abuser. ‘Friends’ may like us to be vulnerable because it makes them feel better in their own lives or relationships. These ‘friends’ may also ask lots of favours with no thought of returning the favour. They may ‘bad mouth’ us behind our backs or talk with the perpetrator about us. Women in this situation may go into people pleasing overdrive to try to win back some support, however this is the worst thing they can do. An over focus on people pleasing demonstrates weakness because it betrays lack of confidence and self-esteem. When in this vulnerable position, it’s important to re-establish boundaries to protect ourselves from this abusive behaviour. It’s normal to give too much without expecting anything back when we’ve been abused, but this behaviour must stop if we are to protect ourselves and recover good self-esteem.
It’s very common when recovering from domestic abuse for those surrounding us not to want us to recover. When we are intent on recovery, this often threatens how others feel about themselves, they may not want to feel left behind. Other people around us may simply enjoy the drama of our difficult lives. They may purport to care for us but actively work against us to undermine our efforts. Like the ‘friend’ who will offer donuts when we say we want to lose weight. It’s important to impose strong boundaries so we’re not abused by these ‘friends’. It may be that we need to distance ourselves from them altogether.
How to re-establish or build boundaries
When boundaries have been dismantled due to domestic abuse, re-building them is an important part of the recovery process. You may not have had sturdy boundaries in the first place, but whatever your situation, spending time considering your personal boundaries is an important way of protecting yourself from further abuse and building self-esteem.
- Consider the person or group of people the boundary relates to. For example: partner/children/close friends/colleagues/strangers. The appropriate boundary will be very different for different groups of contacts. You may feel happy for your elderly mother to telephone you at any time, day or night; however this behaviour is not likely to be acceptable from your manager.
- Consider what you’re comfortable/uncomfortable with, consider where your priorities lie and what’s important to you. You may have strong views around not being physically intimate on a first date. If you acknowledge this to yourself, you are more likely to communicate it to someone you date and to make sure you enforce this boundary.
- Communicate when you feel your boundaries are being breached. Decide what your action will be if someone treads on your boundaries – you need to be clear and assertive but not confrontational. You may have told your date that you don’t want another drink. When he buys you another cocktail, you might decide to simply leave it and remind him you’d said you didn’t want it.
- Build boundaries slowly so as not to overwhelm yourself.
- There can be flexibility but try to be consistent with your boundaries.
- Practice self-care and self-compassion. When you demonstrate that you value yourself, you are more likely to insist that others treat you well, too.
- Be aware of and recognise that others have boundaries too, notice them and learn to respect them.
Examples of physical boundaries you may choose to impose
“I don’t feel comfortable being intimate on a first date, so I won’t be, I will make this clear to the person I am dating.”
“I refuse to be pestered into having sex.”
“I will not be intimate with someone who calls me names and disregards my feelings.”
“My mother-in-law loves feeding me when I visit but I will no longer over-eat just to keep her happy. I will politely decline more food when I’ve had enough.”
“My colleague invades my body space when talking with me and makes suggestive comments. When this happens in future, I will step back to create space and remind him I have a partner.”
Examples of emotional boundaries you may want to impose
“I’ve done too much for certain friends who haven’t wanted to help me when I’ve needed it. I won’t do this anymore and I’ll say no to friends who aren’t happy to reciprocate.”
“My sister Mary is very critical and won’t validate my feelings. I’m not prepared to express my vulnerabilities to her anymore because of this.”
“A new boyfriend told me I was stupid for spending so much time with my elderly mother. He thought she was the responsibility of the care home staff. I didn’t believe he respected my needs to see my mother, I felt his comments were cruel so I finished with him.”
Some people around you may feel threatened when you start to prioritise your needs, impose boundaries and improve your life. Friends may decide to undermine your efforts because seeing you improve your life and develop strengths might make them feel insecure. Not every one of your relationships will survive when you re-set your boundaries, there will be casualties along the way. However, when you set stronger boundaries and become less tolerant of abuse, you will become more attractive to people who want to treat you well, and the sharks on the lookout for blood will detect your strength and swim away.
Published 15 October 2022