Healthy relationship boundaries

On Jan. 15, Counseling Services staff member Kate Bellingar hosted a discussion about healthy boundary setting in relationships. The talk was held in open discussion format and educational materials were distributed. While most of us have a general idea of what healthy and unhealthy boundaries look like, attendants were given the chance to dive deeper and think about common experiences involved with setting them.

Bellingar prefaced by saying, “Boundaries are different for different relationships. They may be very rigid for work and very porous for romance. They can also vary based on your family and upbringing.

“For example, leaving belongings unattended is common at Lawrence, even if I find that uncomfortable based on my background.” The significance of this, she said, is that being aware of your boundaries is the first step in being able to change them. She noted that people often don’t know that they can say no or assert a need.

These things, along with ‘excessive caretaking,’ were named as some of the most common trends in unhealthy boundaries. Were they to become aware that those are boundary related issues and thus, in their control, they could gain more autonomy and fulfillment in their relationships.

As a disclaimer, Bellingar said that her background in counseling discourages self-disclosure. But since her boundaries are different with clients and non-clients, she said, “I always like to ask myself: what parts of myself am I trying to protect with my boundaries?”

She makes an important point: that the awareness of motives for one’s boundaries is just as important as knowing what the boundaries themselves are. The question she alluded to is particularly useful for this because it naturally leads to these motives being based on sincere, personal goals for relationships.

A basic guideline for boundaries is that they should be “predictable, consistent and clear.” A few examples given illustrate how much this can vary and how important it is. One attendant, a Resident Life Advisor (RLA), noted that RLAs are obliged to forward certain things, such as Title IX related information, to the appropriate resources. In other words, confidentiality is not one of their boundaries.

They also do not provide personal support. These are official boundaries, and thus they fit the three aforementioned bullet points. Bellingar used a personal anecdote about a boundary that is less clear cut. “I was dealing with somebody talking to me about the same person incessantly, like a broken record,” she said. “I had to eventually insist that they not make them a conversation topic anymore.” This situation is poignant because it illustrates a common archetype of conflict surrounding boundaries. Often, by the time somebody wants to change a boundary, the status quo has been okay up until that point in the relationship.

After all, boundaries usually develop naturally and implicitly; we don’t tend to actively or consciously police them, and this itself can turn into an unhealthy boundary. So what if this change feels jarring to the other person? Bellingar says that one must be assertive and isn’t obliged to defend the new boundary in any way other than answering respectful inquiries into it.

One topic brought up was the comparison of self-respect versus self-esteem. The former, she said, is “recognizing your needs and boundaries and asserting them,” and the latter is “a sense of worth and confidence in who you are.” In a sense, self-esteem is what makes somebody desire and recognize healthy boundaries, making it the motive for self-respect, which is the agency to put it into action.

Textbook examples of boundaries by category are very familiar to many of us. But critical analysis of your own relationships and those of your peers is important to gaining a more practical understanding of boundaries.

It doesn’t sound right to say, “Go find unhealthy relationship patterns among your friends,” but analyzing examples that are relevant to you is much more useful than something abstract like “healthy partners don’t yell at or shame each other.” For example, how could you be vigilant against an unhealthy boundary if you aren’t aware of common excuses for them? Bellingar affirmed the importance of dealing with specific situations. She said, “Having discussions like this is a good start, but you should come to counseling and encourage your friends to if you are experiencing issues related to boundaries.”