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Relationships and Boundaries

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

By Dr. Allen Novian

Have you ever seen a brother and sister sharing the back seat of a car? It seems inevitable that one will begin to pester the other by pushing boundaries. One of them crosses the invisible “middle line” and the other immediately complains about it. The same thing happens between spouses as invisible boundaries and expectations are not respected. Arguments between parents and children also often come from the breaking of unspoken or unseen boundaries.

One of the best ways to reduce arguments is to make sure that our boundaries are clearly expressed and understood by others in our lives. To some people, the idea that we set boundaries in relationships seems odd or even wrong. When we are caught up in Hollywood’s view of romance and relationship, we are looking at a stage of life when we don’t need or want boundaries, but while that works in the short term, it does not work in the long run. It is not wrong or hurtful to set boundaries, instead it is loving, because when we know what our spouse, child, parent, coworker, friend, etc. needs and expects from us, then the guess work of the relationship is removed from the equation. By letting your spouse know that it upsets you when they forget to use a coaster on your mother’s coffee table, you are setting a boundary that the other person doesn’t need to guess at. You may need to remind them, but the expectation will not be new.

It is a good idea to set aside time periodically to review your boundaries and expectations with your spouse, because your needs may change over time. It is also a good idea to make a written account of your expectations of each other and yourselves so that you can reference them as needed. At the same time that you sit down to discuss what you need from your spouse, you can also spend some time practicing your communication skills with each other. If you are seeing a therapist regularly, this time can also be used to work on the tools and strategies they have taught you. This time should not be surrounded in crisis, so make sure that no one is entering into the conversation upset.

When you tell your children, “You may not use the phone, video games, or computer after 8:00pm.” you are not being cruel to them. You are expressing your expectation of their behavior in such a way that they can not misunderstand them. From that point forward, you will have to discipline them for not respecting that boundary, but the need to argue and complain is removed from the situation. Children and teens will naturally push their boundaries, and you should also periodically review your expectations for them so that you know they are appropriate for the children’s ages and responsibilities. At the same time, once you have identified a boundary that you believe to be important, you need to hold firm when they push. Letting your children know what they can and can not do, and letting them know you are serious when you set the boundary, may seem unfair. But, ultimately, it is what children need from their parents.

Image courtesy of and David Castillo Dominici, published on 27 October 2012

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