personal space

Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries; sometimes it feels like the only topic I am ever asked about is boundaries. The question takes many forms, but usually it’s something like this: “What kinds of boundaries should I have in my personal relationships?” Like all simple questions, this one deserves a very complicated, highly-nuanced answer. Just kidding… sort of. The short answer is: the best boundaries for you really depend on you. What I’m going to try to do is set forth a few tips that will make discovering those boundaries easier for you. But remember, as Captain Barbosa from Pirates of the Caribbean once remarked, “They’re really more guidelines, than rules.” Take these tips with the same grain of salt.

First, let’s establish what personal boundaries are. I like Mark Manson’s definition that having healthy personal boundaries is taking responsibility for your own actions and emotions, while NOT taking responsibility for the actions or emotions of others.

Manson writes: “People with poor boundaries typically come in two flavors: those who take too much responsibility for the emotions/actions of others, and those who expect others to take too much responsibility for their own emotions/actions. Interestingly, these two types of people often end up in relationships together.”

How right you are, Mr. Manson! So how can we avoid becoming one of these two types of people, and thus avoid entering into these types of relationships?

1. Establish your boundaries before you even start relationships

Something I talked about in my podcast episode about boundaries is that, before you even meet your next boyfriend/girlfriend/boss/friend, establish to yourself what your boundaries are and plan on sticking to them. This does not mean that you never compromise with these people. It does mean that it’s best you take the time before entering a relationship to determine what kinds of things you are willing to compromise on before you are put in the position to make the compromise.

Let’s take something innocuous: what movie you two will watch tonight. Perhaps she’s into campy action films, but romantic comedies are more your cup of tea. Do you hardline your way through this negotiation, or bend to her preferences? The honest answer is, I don’t know. That’s sort of up to you. You’ll have to ask yourself: “How important do I anticipate picking the film will be to me and my sense of identity in this relationship when it comes time to make this decision?”

If it were me (and my bet is that, at least when it comes to picking movies, you’ll feel similar), I think I’d come to the realization that it’s really not all that important to me, in the grand scheme of things, what kind of movie I watch for the evening. After contemplating it further, you may even find that you’d prefer to forego watching your romantic comedy because the sheer pleasure of deferring to your partner’s preferences is simply greater than her deferring to yours. After all, taking happiness in your partner’s happiness (and vice-versa) is one of the great pleasures of having relationships with other human beings.

The important takeaway, though, is to be honest when your preferences are more important than your partner’s happiness. If you aren’t, you won’t assert your needs and desires, and you’ll grow to resent your partner for it.

Let’s take a less innocuous example: you’re married and have two children. Your partner wants a third child, but you don’t. You believe the self-sacrificial lie that the only pleasure in life is other people’s happiness, and you decide to go along with it anyway. What do you think will come of this? I might even wonder what lead you two to marry in the first place? How did this not get talked about beforehand? It is in these kinds of situations that ultimatums (win/lost transactions) are inevitable, and while there’s nothing wrong with ultimatums per se, they really are something you want to avoid using. After all, ultimatums are really just the ultimate form of boundary enforcement, which means that if you are using one, then you’ve failed to do you job up until this point.

This leads me to my second tip:

2. Constantly be talking about your boundaries with your partner, friends, and family

As helpful as tip #1 may be, let’s live in the real world: things change — emotions change, circumstances change, and minds change. The more you can communicate with your partner, family, and friends about all these moving parts, the better. This is a crucial part of communicating boundaries.

However, following this tip safely requires immense self-knowledge (I, myself, can really suck at it). It’s very easy to use this line of thinking as a justification to abandon maintaining your heart-felt boundaries when they rub up against someone you love (or think you love). Maintaining boundaries may be the ultimate test of courage, so walking that line of knowing when they no longer apply can be very confusing.

Which is why you have tip #3.

3. Keep a Close Circle of Friends

Constantly be bouncing your thoughts and feelings off of friends you trust and who know you well. Often, it is your friends who will see the situation objectively where you cannot. Your friends will be invaluable to you as you seek to maintain and change your boundaries with new information.