In addition to balance, healthy relationships also need boundaries. Identifying and enforcing boundaries can be difficult, especially with adults. In contrast, identifying and enforcing boundaries with kids and pets seems pretty evident: don’t break things, eat your dinner, go potty in the right place, etc. With adults, appropriate boundaries are more difficult to name, establish and enforce, yet critical for creating positive relationships.
What is meant by boundaries? Boundaries have to do with knowing what behavior is and is not OK with you. Communicating and enforcing those boundaries is what Dr. Phil means when he advises us “teach others how to treat you”. For example, violence and abuse of any kind should not be tolerated, and a clear boundary should be conveyed and enforced as necessary. On the other hand, verbal abuse may be subjective, subtle and insidious. If someone makes you feel bad about yourself, diminishes your value or worth through words or gestures, or tries to control you, it may be verbal abuse.
It’s not just verbal or physical abuse that may require establishment of boundaries. Failing to respect one’s feelings, property and requests may also cross a boundary. What’s tricky here is that it’s easy to assume that others should know your boundaries. Some are probably no brainers: if I loan you my car, don’t damage it in any way; if I give you a gift or do you a favor, say thank you. A relationship that has balance would also require some reciprocation.
However, the appropriateness of most interactions and dynamics are subjective. I may not care if you return a book I loan you unless it’s my favorite book, or expensive. Sarcastic comments may not bother me in general, but comments about my kids may upset me. This is why communicating your boundaries is important. It’s not fair to assume the other can read your mind or understand the nuances of your preferences, no matter how well you think they may know you.
If you’ve communicated your boundaries and they still insist on crossing them, then you have new information about the level of trust and safety in your relationship. You can then use that data to determine how you wish to enforce your boundaries. With someone who does not return my property in a timely manner and in good condition, I may decide to no longer loan them my things. With someone who always arrives late, I may choose to let them know that next time I will start without them. With someone who is always negative, I may choose to limit the length of our visit. With someone who continues to be verbally abusive or critical, I may choose to end the relationship or interact only by email.
In the end, its up to you to decide how important that boundary is to you, and what is an appropriate response. Failing to enforce a boundary tells the other that your boundaries are not important to you, and thus that boundary should not be important to them. Consider your kids and pets. Inconsistent enforcement is ineffective. For them to really learn to respect a boundary, that boundary has to be enforced every time, and preferably with patience and love. Communicating with patience and love is more likely to create a spirit of cooperation and deepen the intimacy with the other.