With many countries around the world going on lockdown, jobs being lost, and a general sense of uncertainty and unease hanging in the air (as well as infection respiratory droplets), many relationships are being tested in ways they haven’t before. For some, that takes the form of a relationship becoming more digital as freedom of movement is restricted, and for others that means working from home and potentially being trapped in the same space as their significant other without a break for unprecedented amounts of time.
These pressures might work in the favour of some, but for many the changes might cause discomfort and conflict. In order to prevent a lot of this conflict, or resolve the conflict that DOES occur in a productive and healing way, strong personal boundaries may need to be set and maintained.
Boundaries are an essential part of any healthy relationship, and yet for some of us they can be hard to establish and even harder to adhere to. They involve taking responsibility for your own actions and emotions (and not those of others), and sticking to your core values (and not those of others, which do not serve you), and they are crucial in all relationships, romantic or otherwise. In the words of marriage and family therapist, Jenn Kennedy, “boundaries give a sense of agency over one’s physical space, body, and feelings”.
Jennifer Chesak at Healthline.com says that the word boundary can be somewhat misleading because it “conveys the idea of keeping yourself separate. But boundaries are actually connecting points since they provide healthy rules for navigating relationships, intimate or professional.”
If you’re one of these people, you may also benefit from reading our article “No” is the Magic Word, as often these difficulties are related.
According to Mark Manson, author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, personal boundaries are often related to self-esteem. Those with healthy self-esteem are better at setting boundaries, and the practice of setting and maintaining strong personal boundaries might even improve self-esteem.
Manson writes that “when you have… murky areas of responsibility for your emotions and actions — areas where it’s unclear who is responsible for what, whose fault is what, why you’re doing what you’re doing — you never develop a solid identity for yourself,” and that can put a lot of strain on a relationship. In fact, when two people who are incapable of strong boundaries come together in a romantic relationship, it can be a recipe for co-dependence (read: disaster).
“People who are needy or codependent have a desperate need for love and affection from others. To receive this love and affection, they sacrifice their identity and remove their boundaries,” writes Manson.
When you really enjoy something, a sport for example, but you feel guilty about it because your partner doesn’t like you spending so much time on it (instead of on them), or you blame your coach for your lack of progress in it, you lose not only the enjoyment of that sport, but the authentic and meaningful reason you took it up in the first place. in the words of Manson, you’re no longer “owning that aspect of your identity”.
This is tragic because being unable to advocate for yourself, or denying parts of your own identity, is a sure-fire way to ensure that your needs in any kind of relationship don’t get met. It may also prevent you from being your best self and performing at full capacity to ensure that you’re meeting the emotional needs of the people around you. In short, nobody wins.
How do we determine boundaries?
Chesak writes that when trying to figure out where your personal values lie, it’s important to do the following:
- know your rights.
- trust your gut.
- identify your core values.
Once these boundaries have been determined, it’s important to protect and enforce them by being assertive, saying no when the situation calls for it, safeguarding your physical and emotional space, and expressing when you feel your boundaries have been crossed.
Our boundaries need to be clearly enforced through thorough communication because they aren’t neon signs that are clearly seen and understood. Even when we have done the work and gone through the thought processes necessary in order clearly determine what they are, they’re still invisible fences that the people around us might have trouble navigating.
Here’s the kicker though. Even with the strongest boundaries being enforced to protect our own needs and authentic selves, no relationship can thrive if we’re not meeting the core needs of our partners, friends, or family members. Compromise, too, is essential, and it can be a delicate balancing act. It also requires clear and thorough communication from both parties about what they want and need from the relationship.
- Communicate that you understand your partner’s need and why it’s important to them.
- Reiterate why tending to this is important to you.
- Be clear on your own boundaries and limits in meeting the need.
- Communicate what your partner can expect from you going forward.
- Check back with your partner that they understand your limits and are ok with them.
Relationships are messy and complicated, and come in hundreds of shades of grey. Often compromise will be necessary. It is, however, important to evaluate situations on a case by case basis in order to decide whether to make compromises or sacrifices to strengthen your relationships, or to stick to your guns and enforce those boundaries (And don’t forget to hold yourself accountable for the decision you make). Manson states that when you do compromise or sacrifice in order to make a partner, family member or friend happy, it’s vital that you do so because YOU want to. Acting on account of a sense of obligation or fear of consequences will only breed resentment, which is likely to fester and harm the relationship at a later stage.
Gray adds that taking your partner’s needs into account when you express yours is key. “If you don’t communicate this,” she writes, “you run the risk of your partner thinking that you stopped caring, that their needs are only a priority when it’s convenient for you, or some other unintended message”.
Yes, sometimes your needs will conflict and your boundaries will clash, but nobody said relationships were easy. Having good boundaries means understanding that even in times of crisis, such as a nation-wide lockdown, people cannot accommodate entirely for the needs and desires of another person, no matter their relationship. It also means not expecting another person to accommodate entirely for your own desires.
Remember that just as you’d like your boundaries to be heard and respected, your friends, family, or partner would too. The easiest way to respect the boundaries of others is to know where those boundaries lie, and the easiest way to do that is to ask.
Chesak quotes professional counsellor, Melissa Coats: “Ask people in your life to be honest with you about if you are pushing any boundaries. This may feel scary, but it will most likely be met with appreciation and will mark you as a safe person to set boundaries with.”
Laying down and adhering to boundaries may not be an easy task, but it’s certainly not a task that should be neglected or taken lightly especially when a pandemic is already changing the way we live and relate, and increasing the pressure on all our relationships.