The need for boundaries.
One of the most important parts of interacting with other people on this earth in almost every type of relationship dynamic is the need to have boundaries. This issue comes up frequently in my therapy practice with many different types of clients, relationships, and situations.
Boundaries are those things everyone wants to have when they are needed, but many people struggle to determine what makes a good boundary, when to implement one, and how to recognize other people’s boundaries.
A good boundary recognizes the needs of all parties involved in the boundary, though at times it certainly may feel lopsided when there is a power differential in the relationship(s) between the parties involved. We hear a lot of talk about boundaries, but many individuals struggle with creating, maintaining, and even honoring boundaries.
We need to be able to recognize when boundaries are needed. We need to know what constitutes a good boundary and how to implement it. We need to know how to implement and maintain our own boundaries while recognizing boundaries others have initiated, some of which may be at cross-purposes with one another.
We need to understand the difference between a boundary and a commitment. We need to know what a flexible boundary is and how to implement it as a relationship or situation changes. We need to be able to recognize power differentials in relationship dynamics and know when to hold the line and when we must accede to someone else and their boundary or commitment.
We need to know when a boundary has been crossed and what we plan to do about it. We need to recognize when we have crossed someone else’s boundary and how to make amends or repair that relationship if it is possible.
What constitutes a good boundary?
Creating boundaries, like anything else in life, takes practice. First of all, what makes an effective boundary? It depends on the situation. Some boundaries need to be firm with little wiggle room. Some need to be flexible to accommodate multiple variables in a relationship or situational dynamic.
Some boundaries need to occur within a loving, warm environment within our personal lives, while others are more perfunctory and must accommodate a business relationship. Whichever type of boundary you are implementing, it must be carefully considered prior to its need, implemented with clear communication to all parties involved in honoring the boundary, and then maintained as time goes on. These three elements are critical parts of a boundary.
Implementing boundaries on the fly usually is not effective for any of the parties involved and creates confusion and possibly even resentment. One of the examples I often give for carefully considering a boundary prior to its need is that of a teenager who is dating but wishes to practice abstinence. The time to decide whether or not to engage in premarital sex is not when feelings are running high and when you are situated in the backseat of a vehicle.
That boundary needs to be carefully considered and ready to implement prior to dating anyone. The boundary first must be implemented with yourself (your internal will to honor this boundary of abstinence) and then clearly communicated early in the dating relationship to those you are dating.
This same concept of carefully considering boundaries prior to needing them transcends into many other relationship dynamics: church commitments, children’s school, and sports commitments, overtime at work, holidays with in-laws, etc.
Your boundary is not the commitment itself. Your boundary is first an internal compass that you use to guide yourself when making and honoring commitments. Many, if not most, people get overcommitted at some point in their life and find themselves either scrambling to keep their commitments or backpedaling to get out of them.
Flexible boundaries. A flexible boundary can be altered to accommodate changes in the relationship while still maintaining the core elements or criteria of the original boundary. One example of core elements or original criteria includes consistency over time. Another is age commensurate with responsibility.
For example, the parents of a fourteen-year-old have created a boundary in which the teen’s curfew is based on age that is commensurate with responsibility. The curfew at 14 has been set to 10 pm on Friday and Saturday nights. Two years later, the curfew is extended to midnight because the teen has good grades in school, is now driving, and has a part-time evening and weekend job.
Even though it is a flexible boundary, the core elements of the original boundary are still intact: age commensurate with responsibility. In this case, the flexible boundary has broadened to accommodate new dynamics that are still within the original criteria.
Fast-forward to age 17; the teen’s grades are dropping significantly, as their job at the fast-food restaurant demands more hours. The parents, who are in overall control of the boundary, now require that the teen quit the job and have moved the Friday and Saturday night curfew back to 11 pm from midnight.
Again, the basic components of the flexible boundary have not changed: age commensurate with responsibilities. In this example, there is a clear power differential that is constant and not subject to change: parents versus teens. While the core elements of the boundary remained the same, the boundary itself was flexible to move up or down as needed.
Fixed boundaries. A fixed boundary is one in which both the criteria and the limits remain constant; it is not flexible. One of the best examples of a fixed boundary in the workplace environment is covered under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This boundary is not flexible, nor is it meant to be.
Up until the 1964 Civil Rights Act, sexual harassment was not illegal in workplace environments in the US. Even though the law changed in 1964, it still was not heavily enforced for several more decades and remained prevalent, especially when there was a majority power differential of males to females in the workplace.
When there is a significant power differential, such as the traditional male employer to female employee power differential, it can be hard to enforce a fixed boundary unless it has been enacted by law and there is sufficient recourse to utilize that law so that all parties honor that boundary. That is, the people needing the boundary are at the mercy of those from whom they need the protection that the boundary proffers.
There was, and still is, a widespread need to have clear, fixed boundaries in the workplace in which one person cannot sexually harass an employee, coworker, or even a superior. In this case, the boundary needed to be couched within an enforceable law that prohibits sexual harassment by any party towards another.
This boundary is enforceable, though it may still have negative implications for the one enforcing it, such as loss of employment (couched within an alternative reason for termination) or a hostile work environment.
A commitment is not a boundary.
A commitment is an agreement you enter into in which one or more parties have specific responsibilities and/or privileges. There are some commitments that are unavoidable. There are some commitments that are avoidable entirely. There are some commitments that can be agreed upon with modifications. You must use your internal boundary-setting skills to determine in which of the categories a potential commitment falls.
If you have a new job and the hours are suddenly changed, you likely will have to alter other parts of your life and schedule to honor this commitment, especially if there is a contract in place that permits this change to occur. A conflict can occur if you have a previous relationship commitment in your personal life.
Nonetheless, this type of commitment may be unavoidable. The best option for this scenario is to attempt to negotiate the commitment, keeping in mind that you likely are at the lower end of the power differential in this dynamic.
The most commonly incurred commitments are actually those that are avoidable. Regrettably, the examples within Christian culture are numerous. We often are presented with commitments – and even those presumed upon us—by well-meaning church staff. We can find ourselves singing in the choir, teaching Sunday School, leading the youth group, and cleaning the church on weekends.
Of course, we all must do our part. However, it is perfectly okay to consider the commitment carefully prior to agreeing to it. Just because someone calls on the phone requesting an on-the-spot commitment, your boundary does not need to readily give in to it without consideration. It is perfectly acceptable to say, “I will need to consider your request and get back to you.”
If the person presses for an instant response, your boundary-setting skills should then kick into high gear, unless the commitment is for the next day (such as driving the children on a field trip the next day because someone called out sick). At this point, you must also use your boundary-setting skills to assess how any new commitments could interfere with previous commitments, especially unavoidable ones that are already firmly in place for the foreseeable future.
Learn how to say “no.”
But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one. – Matthew 5:37, NKJV
The Bible says to let our yes be yes and our no be no. This truly is the simplest way to handle situations that involve commitments and boundaries, such as family obligations, children’s activities, work obligations, or church/community group commitments. It’s far better not to enter into a commitment than to make a commitment and either break it later or put in a diminished effort to satisfy it.
All too often, we try to give excuses when declining a requested favor or commitment. For example, if your church choir director calls and asks if you could please sew six new choir robes and also come in early to organize sheet music, and you already know that you are unable to take on any additional commitments, just say, “No, thank you, I am unable to do that.”
You don’t need to give them your reasons, such as limited family time, a busy work schedule, or children’s extracurricular activities. It might take some practice to learn this new skill set and implement it when needed without taking on guilt—whether actual or perceived—that might be foisted upon you by the individual making the request.
This is also true when you get surprise phone calls, emails, or notes from homeroom teachers, PTA leaders, or even soccer coaches to honor additional commitments. So, practice your internal boundary-setting skills prior to taking on new commitments!
You should anticipate that the person requesting the favor might fish for reasons as to why you are unable to accommodate them so that they can figure out how to overcome your objections. Keep practicing your simple “no.” You don’t owe them reasons in most cases, and the Bible indicates that it’s not wise to proffer any. When you learn “no” as a boundary and implement it, it can be extremely liberating!
In the above scenario, the choir director might sound disappointed or might induce guilt by saying at the beginning of the conversation how they know they can always count on you to help! Well, is that a reasonable expectation? You don’t even need to be persuaded by guilt when you have already counted the cost of what you can and cannot do as far as commitments outside of family and work.
This process involves internal boundaries with yourself. If you already know what you can and cannot do, and how much time you do or do not have, then giving your no or yes will be easier, as you used your boundary to carefully count the cost of the requested commitment.
Boundaries must be clearly communicated.
The art of creating effective boundaries is a lifelong endeavor. We are constantly having to create and maintain boundaries in our life, while also honoring other people’s boundaries. An ineffective boundary is one that is not carefully considered prior to its need, is not implemented at the time it is needed without equivocation, and is not
An ineffective boundary also is one that is not clearly communicated to all parties involved in honoring the boundary. People are not mind-readers! Boundaries cannot be presumed. Boundaries cannot be in your own head. They need to be verbalized, agreed upon, negotiated, and agreed upon again.
Some boundaries are created as part of a solution to address a new problem, but they must still be effectively communicated. When many of us returned home to work during the pandemic, those of us with fur babies had to juggle the joy of constant companionship with, well, actually getting any work done! Many of us are still working with a hybrid model as we come out of the pandemic.
Right now, as I write this article, my 9-year-old dachshund, Marley is sitting beside me “nosing” me. Whenever I move the mouse, he wants to “help” by nudging my hand with his nose. His cold, wet nose—as cute as it is!—can be an irritation when I am trying to work. When he does this, it is not because he has a need that has not been met (such as a potty run).
I have created a boundary with him, and I have effectively communicated this boundary, that it is not acceptable to nose me when I am trying to work. He knows he gets plenty of affection and attention when I am not working. I have clearly communicated this boundary to him, and he is now resting comfortably about 18 inches away. He’s probably not thrilled, but he is honoring the boundary.
I quickly recognized the need to create this boundary at the beginning of the pandemic, when the situation first began to become an ongoing problem requiring a sufficient resolution. My 6-year-old tortie cat, Aslan, also needed a boundary, that it is not acceptable behavior for her to walk on the laptop keyboard.
Many boundaries are created as the result of a developing or an existing problem. Even though creating boundaries in these situations might seem after the fact, they nonetheless must be effectively communicated by the individual implementing the boundary.
In my case, I had no need for these boundaries with Marley and Aslan prior to working from home. The new dynamic created a problem in which a new boundary was the solution. Even fur babies respond to clearly communicated boundaries. How much more should we clearly communicate our boundaries to people in our lives?
In this first article of this series on boundaries, I have addressed the features of a boundary; flexible versus fixed boundaries; and commitments versus boundaries. In this ongoing series, In Part II, I will address more about what to do and how to do it when you need to create new boundaries in existing relationships, especially within the touchy area of toxic relationships.
I specifically avoided going into detail about boundaries within toxic relationships in this first article, as it truly needs its own space to cover this broad, albeit familiar, area of many people’s lives.
I will also delve more into honoring other people’s boundaries in Part II and what that looks like within the confines of existing toxic relationships. Navigating existing toxic relationships, and learning to avoid future toxic relationships entirely, frequently involves implementing both flexible and fixed boundaries, as well as honoring the boundaries of others in the relationship dynamic. Stay tuned!
“Love Respect”, Courtesy of Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Holding Hands”, Courtesy of Wilson Sanchez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Open Office”, Courtesy of LYCS Architecture, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Chainlink Fence”, Courtesy of Martin Olsen, Unsplash.com, CC0 License