For many, the word “boundaries” carries negative associations. Maybe you grew up in a home where there weren’t enough boundaries, so when you hear the word, you think of a lack of them and immediately feel suffocated or smothered. Maybe you had an emotionally withholding family member or partner at some point in your life who set a lot of rigid boundaries that only benefited them and were ultimately to your detriment. The truth is, by the time the word “boundary,” comes up, it’s often because a line has been crossed, or an incident has occurred that has prompted the creation of a new boundary. With that being said, it’s no wonder we can have negative associations with the word. It’s also a shame though since boundaries can be healthy tools that actually improve relationships and can make everyone involved feel respected and safe.
Setting boundaries, however, can feel in direct conflict of another desire many of us have: to be agreeable. We have to remember though that being agreeable and being a doormat are not one and the same, even though they’re often mistaken for each other. You can still be kind, thoughtful, and gracious, all while upholding boundaries that are important for your wellbeing. We spoke to an expert on this topic. Relationship therapist and eharmony expert Nedra Tawwab recently released a book all about this subject and imparted some of her wisdom with us here.
How the pandemic improved boundaries
Our friends may joke about their spouses and partners driving them crazy in this pandemic while they’re quarantined together, but research shows they’re probably just teasing. An eharmony poll found that 71 percent of people in relationships said they were glad to have somebody to share the pandemic with. One thing that may have contributed to their happiness, says Tawwab, is the ability to create boundaries – something the pandemic spurred on. Having to share a (possibly small) space with a partner may have encouraged couples to finally get comfortable speaking about their needs.
“To be happier in relationships, we have to get more comfortable with expressing our needs,” Tawwab says. Suddenly having to work, eat, relax, and socialize (on Zoom) all in the same place, with our partners, prompted us to get good at asserting our needs. It was the only way to get through this thing. The pandemic has provided an opportunity for “increasing the communication in our relationships,” according to her.
What are common boundary issues?
“The majority of boundary questions are about mother in-laws,” Tawwab says about her work with clients as a relationship therapist. But in general, Tawwab says boundary issues can often come up regarding how relationships with those outside of the romantic partnership are handled. This can mean relationships with friends, or even people outside of the relationship that someone in the relationship is attracted to. One key thing is identifying whose responsibility it is to set the boundary, like in the case with the mother-in-law. The partner who is the child of that in-law child should be setting that boundary. “It’s important for our partners to manage those relationships and when they do not, it falls back on us,” she says.
Be proactive instead of reactive
The best way to set a boundary is before it’s even been crossed. Don’t wait for an incident to occur before setting it. Be proactive instead of reactive. “In my book I have a section on questions to ask early on in dating. Those include things like finances, how you deal with extended family, your relationships with people you may be attracted to, what do you consider infidelity, what is your boundary style,” Tawaab says. “Sometimes when couples show up in therapy they haven’t talked about these things yet.” She says you should take opportunities early on to bring these things up.
How do you bring it up?
If you don’t want to wait until someone crosses a line to draw it, how do you find a natural way to bring up boundaries, early on? Tawwab says that sometimes something you see on TV, or hear from a friend, creates an opening for the conversation. “You can bring it up, like, ‘Hey I saw this thing on TV…someone DMing someone…and I’m just letting you know, my idea of a boundary is not DMing people personal information or pictures.’ The best time to do it is in advance. A lot of times we wait for a violation of a boundary to occur before we say something,” she says.
Why are we afraid to set boundaries?
Setting a boundary typically means building circumstances that are healthier for yourself, so why are people so hesitant to set them? We asked Tawwab this and she said it’s about the reaction of the other party.
“They are afraid other people will be mad at them. We want to be liked and loved and positively regarded by other people,” she says. “It’s true, sometimes setting a boundary can irritate someone. It can make them mad at you. But it can also be healthy for your relationship. It should not really be a big deal. Our fear is really an assumption of what will happen. It’s our worst-case scenario. ‘They won’t talk to me…they won’t invite me to their next thing.’ But it’s important to make sure you are setting the boundary for the health of the relationship.”
What happens when we don’t set boundaries?
“Lots of resentment. Frustration. Anxiety. Depression. Burnout,” Tawwab says in regards to the consequences of not setting boundaries. “Sometimes with anxiety in particular we get really worried about future interactions with people because we don’t want to say anything to them about the problematic interactions we’ve had in the past.” She says that the holidays are some of her busiest times because of this. “A large piece of that is people have to start thinking of how they’ll navigate the holidays. The anxiety and depression start to soar because they’re so worried about the family engagement over that period.”
How to get unstuck
Going more off of the example of spending the holidays with family, Tawwab says “the anxiety comes from feeling stuck in those interactions.” There is this idea that the anxiety-inducing event will be recurring, and that you don’t have a way to prevent it or control it. She explains that she works with clients to find solutions that will help them feel a bit more at ease at those times, like perhaps shortening their visit to family, or staying in a hotel rather than in the family home. Those are forms of boundaries. It’s perfectly okay to set those, even if there is pushback from family.
Boundaries aren’t up for discussion
When setting a boundary – especially if you’re new to it – Tawwab recommends keeping it brief and concise. Don’t leave it up for discussion. “A good way to think about this is, one, we can’t control a person’s reactions to our boundaries. Be as clear and concise as possible,” she says. “Sometimes we say too much and we still haven’t set a boundary. Reduce the conversation to one or two sentences by really stating your boundaries. ‘I want you to do this. It would be helpful if this happened.’ The boundaries are clear and to the point. Don’t bring a lot of context and storylines. Sometimes when you aren’t comfortable setting a boundary, people can talk you out of a boundary because people can give you so much information…because you didn’t sound secure in what you were saying.”
Think of the job interview example
It’s common to feel we must over-explain ourselves and provide reasons and examples when setting a boundary. But we really don’t. We don’t need an excuse to set boundaries that are healthy for us. Tawwab used the example of letting someone go from a job.
“I learned as a business owner when you let someone go from a job, you don’t give them a ton of information. One, you don’t have to legally and two, it’s not helpful for the situation,” she says. “They just need to know, ‘You don’t work here anymore. You’ve been let go.’” You can extend that example to setting boundaries. Make it clear that what you need without feeling the need to say a lot. Express your boundary and if you stand firm on it, the other party has no other choice but to accept it.
What about when the boundary is set on you?
When someone sets a boundary on us, it’s easy to feel anxious, rejected, or sad. Tawwab says to ask yourself, “is the boundary reasonable? And is it healthy for this person? If those two things are true, try not to personalize boundaries people have. It’s about their preferences and what makes them feel healthy. I can think of so many boundaries people have set with me that had nothing to do with anything personal. I had an aunt with the boundary, young ladies can’t chew gum. It had nothing to do with me. I didn’t feel like less of a young lady. Just because one person in your life has a boundary with you doesn’t mean it’s about you. It’s likely about them and what they need.”
Boundaries show they care
Tawwab reminds us of one important truth: if someone didn’t want you in their life anymore, then they’d just sever ties. Creating boundaries is for relationships that are meant to last, so it’s a good thing if someone sets one.
“Reassure yourself that the relationship is okay because they’re setting the boundary. People don’t typically set boundaries in relationships they don’t want to have anymore,” she says. “We have boundaries in relationships we care about. If they didn’t want a relationship with you, they’d leave the relationship. This isn’t the sign of an ending. It’s the sign of someone creating a healthier space.”