What Does “Good Boundaries” Mean Anyway?
It is almost cliché to say that mature people have “good boundaries”. But what does that even mean? Some people with “poor” boundaries let others take advantage of them, while other “poor” boundaried people take advantage of others. Yet having “good” boundaries doesn’t just mean the opposite of those behaviors. I thought that I would take this opportunity to describe what I think we mean by good boundaries.
In a moment I’m going to describe behaviors that come with good boundaries. But first, I’d like to offer a frame for translating “boundaries” into “relationship ethics”. I think that what we’re really talking about when we mention boundaries is that the person is able to treat BOTH themselves and others ethically and fairly. When a person with poor boundaries let’s others take advantage of them, they are not treating themselves ethically. They are subjugating or demeaning themselves in a way that we would recognize as abusive if person A were doing it to person B. When a person with poor boundaries is taking advantage of others we identify that they aren’t treating others fairly or ethically. They may for example be treating others as means to satisfying their own ends and not as ends in themselves.
The term boundaries is to me an encoded cultural term for ethical behavior. So, what does a person with good boundaries do?
Control and Choices
I propose that a person with good boundaries is able to make a core and fundamental discernment about relationships that can be hard. The person with boundaries can figure out accurately what they do and do not have control over, and therefore which of the possible outcomes they can actually influence. I’m going to go out on a little bit of a limb here to make my point firmly. I don’t think that the question of control and choices is subjective or arbitrary at all. There is really only one answer. The only behavior that we can control is our own. Yet, in the intertwined web of our relationships it is easy to get pulled away from focusing on this reality. Because we are able to anticipate our partner’s responses, we accept the illusion that we control their behavior or that we have choices about how they will behave. The person with good boundaries is able to shed that illusion even in times of stress or tensions, and to make decisions about their own behavior. The person with good boundaries recognizes the potential impact it may have on others, without taking responsibility for the behavior that others actually manifest. An example may be helpful to illustrate the point.
Imagine Tony and Amalia. They have been dating for 2 years. Tony proposed to her twice but she said, “not yet” fearing that marriage might derail her career. When she receives an offer for a promotion if she transfers to a different city, she wants to accept but realizes at the same time that the idea of separating from Tony is not something she wants. She suddenly realizes her desire to marry him. She wants to propose but she is afraid that he won’t agree to move to the other city and/or that he will think that she is only marrying him to not lose him, not because she actually wants to marry him. Amalia can recognize the potential responses that Tony may exhibit because she knows him well. However, if she decides not to propose because she fears his responses, and despite her own clear desire, then she would be letting her fear of his choices change her behavior before the fact. If she has good boundaries, she will be able to say clearly that she knows what she wants, in this case both the job and to deepen her relationship, and that therefore her choice for her behavior is to both move and propose.
As this example illustrates, fear is often the enemy of good boundaries. Fear signals to us that something we care about is in jeopardy. Our choices may put the relationship, the feelings of those we love, or our stability at risk. Yet the very same choice often opens up the possibility for something better than we have now. In the example above, Amalia’s proposal to Tony opens the possibility that the relationship development he has wanted and she now wants would take place. Boundaries ask us, “Will I act with courage and confidence so that the other person may help us build the best possible outcome? Will I give my partner the chance to try?”
A person with good boundaries asks what they can control and concludes that only their own behavior is in their control.
A person with good boundaries asks which outcomes they can choose and accepts the limitation that their outcome preference may only come about if other people join them in choosing it.
Good Boundaries = Willing to Receive
Amalia and Tony’s experience can illustrate this point. Amalia may feel cautious about asking Tony to move with her to another city because she was the one that held back on deepening the relationship in the past. Amalia might ask herself whether or not it is fair for her to ask Tony to move, when he waited so patiently in the past. But a person with good boundaries allows room for the generosity of their partner. They allow room in the relationship for their partner(s) to respond in ways that will increase joy. A person with good boundaries will acknowledge that sometimes they will be on the receiving end of the emotional, relational, physical generosity in the relationship and allow that to happen. Sometimes that means taking the risks that the partner won’t respond as desired but those kinds of risks are normal for relationships.
A person with good boundaries is willing to ask to be the recipient of goodness in relationships.
Behaviors are Aligned to Desired Outcomes
One of the ways that people get tangled in relationships is when they try to maximize outcomes. They try to change the behavioral responses or emotions other people will feel when they act by changing their own behavior. After anticipating how others will respond, then anticipate their own countermoves and contingencies ad nauseum. But changing your behaviors to try to manipulate the behaviors of others has a lot of problems.
First, it assumes that you have responsibility for the behavior of others; that it is your responsibility to figure out in advance how to behave to improve the behavior of others.
Let’s imagine that in Amalia and Tony’s example, Amalia is afraid that if she proposes, that Tony will say, “no” to her proposal because she said “no” to him before. She could strategize, that instead of proposing to him she could go around her anticipated response by “getting him” to propose to her again. This might lead her into contorted indirect communications or behaviors designed to entice him into proposing again. But he might not. Maybe Tony (in this example) has better boundaries. He has heard her objections to marriage and decided not to ask again because he respects Amalia enough to acknowledge and honor her past boundaries. Amalia has tried to out think him only to find herself feeling rejected anyway. Moreover, her behavior is not directly in line with the desired outcome she expresses. So, in the process of trying to anticipate and change Tony’s behavior, Amalia had to change her own behavior into a less authentic expression of her needs and feelings.
If Amalia exhibited good boundaries instead, she might acknowledge the risk that Tony would say, “No” to her proposal but decide that she would like to give him the chance to say, “Yes” anyway. Because she knows Tony, she might try to acknowledge that she has said “No” in the past and that her proposal now might be a surprise. This acknowledgement would introduce empathy and compassion into the application of her boundary.
The second challenge with anticipating other people’s reactions and changing our behavior is that this process takes responsibility for other people’s emotions. Being aware of the ways that our actions might affect others is definitely a prosocial skill, but there is a slippery slope between that awareness and taking responsibility for another person’s emotions. Amalia and Tony can help me illustrate.
If Amalia knows that she wants to propose to Tony but she is afraid that Tony will be upset that she has said “no” to him before in the past, then she might try to contort her desires and intentions in a way that will be more comfortable for him. In doing so, she robs him of the opportunity to face the fact that instead of obsessing about the past, he could be excited that she is ready to get married now. The pain or the discomfort that Tony may experience by her being authentic is not actually her “fault”. If Tony is in pain or uncomfortable, it is a consequence of his own challenge in joining her in the present moment. If she takes responsibility for that pain, then she has exhibited poor boundaries. If she doesn’t take responsibility for his pain and discomfort, she gives him the opportunity to grow and change with her in the present moment.
This is why sometimes people fear that having better boundaries will cause others pain. Frankly, it may. But if the pain caused by a relationship is the pain that comes with existence, the pain of growth, or the pain of development, then this is actually a gift.
A person with good boundaries recognizes that other people’s behavior belongs to them.
A person with good boundaries recognizes that, though they can choose kindness, they cannot stop other people from feeling bad.
Who do you want to be?
There is a simple way to summarize what good boundaries are. A person with good boundaries asks the question, “Who do I want to be?” Do I want to be a person who takes care of others at my own expense when actually my martyrdom is generating resentment? Do I want to be a person who indirectly communicates my needs and then cultivates resentment when those needs aren’t met? Do I want to be a person who tries to control others to make myself feel better?
Do I want to be a person who takes care of their own needs, so that care given to others comes out of abundance? Do I want to be a person who can state my feelings and needs clearly, trusting that the people who love me will respond with kindness? Do I want to be a person who focuses on controlling my own behavior and allowing others to control theirs?
Once you have decided who you want to be, good boundaries only require you to act that way. Once you have decided what kind of relationship you want to be in, good boundaries help you to act in ways that directly invite your partner to help you co-create that relationship. My job as a couples therapist is to help people find and follow their own boundaries.