If there is one word that is thrown around in the counseling office more than any it is the word “BOUNDARIES.” From early childhood we learn (well, some of us learn) that; “The toy is not yours!”, “Give mommy some space!”, “Be home by 11!”, “Don’t talk to me that way!”, among countless other limits and rules. Due to our tendency to prioritize what we want and need over the needs and wants of those we are in relationship with, we struggle to recognize the boundaries of others. Our families of origin shape the template with which we assert and communicate (or neglect to communicate) our boundaries. If left unchecked, unhealthy boundaries will create patterns of resentment and disconnection. Think about it. You wake up in the morning earlier than you would prefer because you have personal boundaries. Maybe that boundary is that you want to get to work on time. Or, your boundary might be that you want to get up early enough to get to the gym before you start your day. Maybe you get up early in the morning because your toddler decided to get up at 4:30 am to “keep you wam.” All of those, except the last one, are examples of personal boundaries. The last one (your toddler getting up before the sun) is an example of a violated boundary. She knows that she is not supposed to wake up mommy and daddy until it is morning time but her need/want was to be with you. Children are still learning how to negotiate and manage interpersonal boundaries. They may “get a pass” for actions like this some of the time. However, by the time we are adults we hopefully learn how to respect and nurture the boundaries of our spouse .
Take some time and think about how your childhood shaped your ability to manage boundaries. What lessons did you learn? Did you grow up in a high conflict home? If so, you may have learned that “High conflict is normal in relationships so I will tolerate it in mine.” Or, due to being exposed to high conflict in your family or origin, you may have imposed the boundary for yourself that “I will not tolerate ANY amount of conflict! I will avoid it. Conflict is bad!” In both cases, you are utilizing boundaries. Notice that in each case the family of origin was “high conflict.” But the rules created (boundary) are different. So which is the right response? Which is the “healthy” boundary?
Most of the boundaries that we utilize on a daily basis with our spouse are unspoken. They are things we do or say that come naturally to us but that can be easily misinterpreted. For example, if you grew up in a home where you did not experience constructive criticism from your parents you may interpret criticism from your spouse as being cruel. However, it is very possible that they came from a home that had minimal “sugar coated communication. Their constructive criticism may be meant to be helpful, not hurtful.
In my own marriage my wife and I continue to learn and nurture each others boundaries. My wife has very healthy eating habits. When we were first married she made delicious vegetarian meals every day. Out of love she researched recipes, bought fresh ingredients, and made fantastic dishes. I appreciated her heart but I was missing meat in my diet. Her boundary was “I want to keep him as healthy as possible”. This was very well-meaning but I was still hungry. After a few months I eventually, and not in the kindest way, communicated that I needed to “Eat some meat!” Well, a few days later she came home from the store with about 40 pounds of ground beef, turkey, bacon, and a 16 pound pork butt. She found a tasty recipe for apricot marinated pork butt. I ate that pork butt for three weeks straight and I have not eaten pork butt since (this was 12 years ago!). I communicated my need and she responded in a loving way (maybe a bit overboard).
“Boundaries” does not have to be perceived as a bad word. For some, especially those of us who don’t like following the rules, a partner who says “respect my boundaries” can be taken as a harsh demand. However, if you can reframe their request and instead choose to perceive it like this “I am letting you know my boundaries so that I can safely let you into my heart and life and let you love me more”, you will see your partners boundaries as an opportunity to communicate better and grow in love.