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Boundaries and Barriers
by Mark Sichel, LCSW and Alicia L. Cervini

Many people have difficulty creating and respecting healthy boundaries. More often than not, an individual's ability or inability to create/respect healthy boundaries is a product of their upbringing. Dysfunctional and alcoholic families in particular usually provide severely distorted messages about boundaries and, as such, are exceptionally poor models for children learning about the following boundary related issues:

  • Privacy
  • Sensitivity
  • Personal Respect
  • Obligations
  • Rights

    Why do so many people have difficulty defining and respecting boundaries?
    Unfortunately, a snowball effect comes into play here. Dysfunctional families that struggle with boundaries tend to raise children that struggle with boundaries, who tend to raise children that struggle with boundaries and so on. In dysfunctional families, boundary violations can range from the erection of impenetrable barriers between family members to a complete disregard for privacy or respect of personal space. Having no boundaries whatsoever is as bad as having boundaries so formidable that they become barriers. Complicating matters even further for the child of a dysfunctional family, these extremes can fluctuate rapidly within the same family, the rules changing frequently and arbitrarily. For the child in such a family, confusion and mixed messages prevail. As a result, the child learns neither how to effectively create boundaries, nor how to ask others to respect boundaries they've made.

    Why is it so important to learn how to create boundaries?
    Healthy boundaries are integral to how we find privacy, personal respect and our sense of what we as individuals are entitled to. We all need boundaries for our own peace of mind.

    Why is it so important to learn how to respect someone else's boundaries?
    If we do not learn to see and respect the boundaries of others, we may be guilty of intruding, acting inappropriately, or violating the human rights of another individual. Boundaries are what enable us to live together civilly.

    What are ways in which boundaries come into play in real-life? Many conflicts with loved ones can be traced back to boundary issues. The following real-life examples illustrate situations in which the questioner is struggling with defining their boundaries, while the source of the problem is struggling with respecting the boundaries of others:

    • Dan*: My sister-in-law wants to move in with my wife and me. I love her, but this will definitely not work for me. How do I handle it?

    • Carrie: My ex-husband believes we should still celebrate birthdays together with our son. How do I explain to him that I do not want him around anymore?

    • Emily: I'm 24 years old, and my parents, who are divorced for many years, keep bugging me about when I'm going to marry my boyfriend. They even bring it up in front of him, and we've only been together for 3 months. How do I stop them from embarrassing me in this way?

    • Sarah: A friend of mine invited herself to the beach house I share with my boyfriend. I don't want her to come. How do I explain it without getting her angry?

    • Rich: A co-worker of mine keeps asking me inappropriate questions about my family. Is there a diplomatic way to get some space from her?

    Have you ever been on either end of a conflict like these? They are all related to boundary issues. How does a person define their boundaries without insulting their friend or family member? How does a person learn to recognize someone else's boundary so that they do not intrude upon or hurt their friend or family member? Without the answers to these questions, friendships can be broken, work relationships may suffer, and family relationships may become strained.

    So, the central dilemma in regards to the boundary issue becomes:

    How do I create boundaries that are not barriers, and how do I learn others' boundaries without construing them as barriers.
    Honest communication is the key to creating a healthy boundary. In Dan's example above, he loves his sister-in-law, but is uncomfortable with the idea of her moving in. If Dan doesn't communicate with her openly about his discomfort from the outset, the situation will likely get significantly worse. She will unknowingly move in, his discomfort will turn into resentment and their relationship will either become antagonistic or icily distant. What should have been a simple healthy boundary became a barrier instead.

    Boundaries become barriers when communication closes down. If Dan decides not to simply state his boundary upfront ("I'm just not 100% comfortable with you moving in"), then he's opted instead to stew and seethe in steely silence. The longer she stays, the more impossible it will seem to be for Dan to broach the topic and the angrier he will get inside. Dan's sister-in-law will have no idea what's wrong with him, but she'll get the non-verbal messages he's sending her; she will sense the barrier he's constructed, and the relationship will suffer -- if not end entirely -- as a result.

    If you're still not comfortable with the idea of openly stating your boundaries, in some instances compromise may soften the blow. For example, Dan can say to his sister-in-law, "You know I love you dearly, but I am just not comfortable with the idea of you moving in. Why don't you plan on staying for a week or two and I will help you find a place to stay that's nearby?" Dan would be stating his boundary simply and honestly while reassuring his sister-in-law of his affection and offering an alternative solution to her problem. It doesn't get much better than that.

    How should the sister-in-law react to Dan's assertion of his boundary? While at first the idea that she is not indefinitely welcome in her sister's house may sting, she should realize that it is Dan's right to define his own space, as well as the degree to which he is willing to share that space. Dan still loves and supports her and wants to help her find a solution to her immediate housing problem. If she puts herself in Dan's shoes, she realizes that Dan is not only being reasonable, but also honest and is showing her a great deal of respect in being so.

    To prevent yourself from seeing a boundary as a barrier, try to put yourself in the other person's shoes: how would you react to your own request? Finally, don't be afraid to communicate. Communication works on both ends of this equation. If you're afraid that the boundary means you're not liked or wanted as a friend, rather than assume that your fears are true and act offended, why not ask? Have an open dialogue. The chances are you'll find that your fears will be unwarranted.

    Do you want to learn more about boundaries and barriers? Click here to read on.

    *The names of all clients have been changed to protect their identities.

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