Saturday, February 24, 2007

How to Set Appropriate Boundaries in Relationships

Setting Boundaries

The trendy newest concept in psychotherapy is the issue of setting appropriate intimate boundaries in relationship with others. Boundaries are the border of your psyche as they come up against the emotional exterior of another. This is where you begin and another ends. Boundaries are the cup or container that holds the liquid. Boundaries are the fences that determine you as opposed to them.

The problems associated with boundaries usually occur within families, or between very close friends. Boundaries are an intimacy issue. Husband and wives frequently have trouble setting boundaries. Parents and children are notoriously troubled by inadequate boundaries, according to the latest thinking in psychotherapy.

The key element in this discussion of boundaries is always the distinction that there is a good and a bad boundary. Boundaries are either right or wrong, or using psychological language, appropriate verses inappropriate. This duality between right and wrong assumes someone knows what is appropriate and what is not. Socially, culture has developed very sophisticated boundaries for people so we can live in peace. Society has established these boundaries, and defines them as law. You are not allowed to harm another and avoid social consequences. It is only when we live in harmony that we can create a peaceful and prosperous society, so social boundaries have been defined by laws. But in families or with close intimate friendships, boundaries are not easily defined and are left to individual discretion to define.

What I find troubling in the current social discussion of boundaries is that one who criticizes another for inadequate boundaries is making the assumption that they know the difference between appropriate and inappropriate in intimacy. In matters of law this is clear. Society has established the rules that define appropriate and inappropriate over thousands of years of experience. But in family relationships, the area of contention is beyond the law.

Today each family member has to negotiate these troubled waters alone. Some families are described as ‘enmeshed’ (meaning the boundaries are porous and not firm), while others are very loose and distant. Enmeshment leads to fighting, while distance in relationship leads to feelings of not being special or loved. Who is to say what is appropriate if it does not harm another. Families often have disagreements about the topic of family boundaries.

For example, I had a client who was told by numerous people including psychotherapists that he idolized his mother, and that he needed to set stronger boundaries with her. They claimed he was lost inside the relationship with his mother. He concluded from this common wisdom that he should stop visiting his mother (he would see her one night a week), and only telephone her occasionally. His mother accepted this behavior but was confused by the logic. She felt sad missing the weekly visits, but resigned herself to this new behavior.

After pursuing this new behavior, the son sank into a deep depression. He had artificially withdrew from his mother because other people had convinced him to set stronger boundaries between himself and his mother. He felt while exercising these new boundaries with his mother withdrawn from all socializing. He felt emotional pain, sadness, and despair. Finally he asked himself “why I am doing this?” Realizing it was other people who were defining what was appropriate for him, rather than trusting his own instinct, he began to change back to the way things were. He began seeing his mother one night a week again.

After a few weeks his depression began to lift. His mother who was in her eighties also began experience more vitality, seeing her son every week. In time, my client realized that he and his mother were both happier. And so he concluded that this concept that he needed to establish firm boundaries with his mother was an individual choice, not a socially acceptable decision. Finally he realized that the real issue was that his wife didn’t like his closeness to his mother, and it was to please his wife that he had set boundaries that did not work for him or his mother. His wife was attempting to control his behavior using psychotherapy talk to change his behavior with his mother.

The point to this story is that boundaries are important, but be careful whom you listen to when attempting to find the appropriate boundary level with your family members. Outsiders do not always have the magic answers. Outsiders may have alternative motivation that needs to be understood when the discussion of boundaries is on the table. The key to finding what is right for you, is looking inside yourself and finding what is best for you and your family, rather than reacting to what others define as right and wrong for you.

Boundaries need to be understood. But the topic is not easily definable; so beware of outsiders who seem to have simplistic answers to complex relationships.

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