Boundaries often receive a bad rap because people feel establishing them is selfish, but that’s far from the truth. In fact, proper boundaries help us become better dates, partners, and people. This is because by setting them, we make it easier for ourselves to meet our emotional needs. And once we take care of our needs, it’s only human nature to begin taking better care of the needs of others.
Having healthy boundaries also helps us build and maintain mutual respect, attraction, and appreciation in all our relationships — platonic, romantic, and business. They even increase our self-esteem and lower feelings of neediness. In fact, healthy boundaries are a recurring side effect of having higher self-esteem and lower neediness in general.
Now I know what you’re thinking, “Okay, Max. So that’s cool and all, but what on earth are boundaries?”
Well, boundaries are guidelines that dictate what behaviors you will tolerate and which you won’t. They are as simple as, “I will tolerate XYZ, but I will not tolerate ABC.” For example: I will tolerate my girlfriend calling me in the middle of the night if she really needs something, but I will not tolerate her pissing into my butthole for shit’s and giggles.
It’s also worth noting that boundaries are interwoven with responsibility. The stronger your boundaries, the more responsibility you take for your behavior and emotions, and the less responsibility you take for the behaviors and emotions of others. The whole point of boundaries is to use them to eventually arrive at a place where you take full responsibility for your own behaviors and emotions while NOT taking responsibility for the behaviors or emotions of others.
Now, on the surface this may sound selfish but in reality it’s probably one of the most healthy and mature things you can do in your life. Don’t believe me? Well, consider the alternative.
Two Types Of Boundaries Issues
People with poor boundaries often come in two flavors: Pleasers and Breakers. The Pleasers take too much responsibility for the emotions and behaviors of others. And the Breakers take no responsibility for their emotions/behavior and often expect others to take too much responsibility for theirs.
Pleasers, or in psych terms, codependents, hold themselves responsible for other people’s emotions and behaviors, often to the point where they want to fix all of them, hence the name. They believe that if they can fix their partner, they will receive the validation and affection that they’ve always craved.
Pleasers lie and hold things in to avoid rejection, conflict, and disapproval instead of expressing their honest opinion. They are more concerned with how other people perceive them than how they perceive themselves. They feel unworthy or at least less worthy than your average person, which, as you would expect, leads to some pretty nasty overcompensation and validation seeking.
When it comes to romantic relationships, Pleasers believe that the only way they’re going to keep their partner is by doing everything in their power to make them happy. Some of them will butcher their entire identity for this. Some will try to fix every issue and challenge their partner stumbles on, even when it’s inappropriate. Some will send a litany of “I love you’s” throughout the days. And others will try to manipulate their partner into feeling good.
Some examples of a Pleaser’s poor boundaries:
- Sorry, I can’t come out today. I have my boyfriend staying over, and you know how he gets when I hang out with other guys.
- My girlfriend cheated on me then dumped me. I must make it up to her. I better get her back by showing how much I’ve changed.
- I would love to go study abroad, but my girlfriend would go crazy without me here. She would probably never forgive me for it.
- I really want to order steak, but my boyfriend always gets angry when I’m eating meat. He says it’s immoral and that I should change. So I better listen to him.
Breakers, or in psych terms, narcissists, hold everyone else responsible for their fuckups and shortcomings but them. They often even go as far as to blame others for their emotions and behaviors.
This is because they believe that if they put the responsibility on those around them, they’ll receive the love they’ve always wanted. Put it differently, if they keep playing the victim, they’ll eventually find someone who will save them.
Breakers are the raging assholes who never admit that they’re wrong. They never admit to faults and imperfections. They are the person they wish everyone else should be.
When it comes to romantic relationships, breakers often manipulate their partners to deflect blame. They are often frequent abusers of gaslighting and chronic liars. And they’re the masters of making their partner — and everyone around them, for that matter — feel as though they’re an unworthy sack of shit who should be fucking grateful to be grazed by the Breaker’s glorious presence.
Some examples of a Breaker’s poor boundaries:
- No, you can’t go out with Cindy because I’ll get jealous again.
- I know your mother just died, but you never tried the homemade lemon cakes I made this morning. I’m offended.
- Block all the men you talked to or dated if you want to continue being my girlfriend. You know how insecure I get.
- Order a salad. You know how I get when you begin eating poor animals in front of me.”
- My girlfriend is so stupid. She takes too long to make me coffee and I’m always late for work because of her.
- It’s my family’s fault that my relationship isn’t working. I always need to correct them on their opinions and advice.
How Poor Boundaries Look Like (The Breaker-Pleaser Spiral)
The most notable aspect of relationships where both people possess some kind of boundary issue is the constant struggle to keep things stable. Unstable and boundaryless relationships constantly fluctuate in intensity. You could be on cloud nine for the first two weeks, then in hell for the next two. Rinse, recycle, repeat. Think of them as a rollercoaster; at some points, you’re up, and at others, you’re down. There is not much “in between.”
In other words, the Breaker never takes responsibility for their actions or behaviors and keeps blaming the Pleaser for everything. Conversely, the Pleaser thinks the Breaker’s failures and bad feelings are all their fault. And so they shower them with validation and affection and solutions to their problems to make them feel better.
The Breaker shields themselves from any responsibility; the Pleaser makes themselves exceedingly responsible. The Breaker keeps blaming the Pleaser; the Pleaser keeps blaming themselves for the Breakers’ problems — ad infinitum.
As you might guess, the Breaker/Pleaser dynamic is equivalent to the Avoidant/Anxious dynamic in the realm of attachment theory. The Breaker is often an Avoidant, while the Pleaser Anxious.
For a Pleaser to stop fucking up their relationships, they have to realize that making themselves fully responsible for the feelings and behaviors of others and forcing their help upon them will only end in misery and frustration. And probably a lot of profanity, too.
For a Breaker to stop fucking up their romantic relationships, they have to realize that they’re not special or flawless or whatever dumb arbitrary definition they’ve invented for themselves. They should also realize that since they’re human, they make mistakes, which they should take responsibility for, not deflect.
How Healthy Boundaries Look Like
Figuring out what healthy boundaries look like is often a challenge. It’s a confusing topic. Hopefully, the example below clears some of the confusion you may have. It outlines situations between two partners. One is secure. The other is codependent. One has sturdy and healthy boundaries. The other has no sense of boundaries whatsoever.
The Codependent: You know I love you, but I need you to spend more time with me. You didn’t respond to my message for over 3 hours, nor have you answered any of my calls.
The Secure: I told you, I was staying at my grandma’s — and you know where she lives. In the bloody mountains, where there’s virtually no cellular network, let alone a stable internet connection. Geez. I told you this already last week.
The Codependent: Fine, whatever. I just wanted you to know that I’ve gone ahead and finished editing your master thesis and have already sent it to your school faculty. I felt generous that day.
The Secure: Um, thanks, but you didn’t have to do that. I didn’t even ask you to edit my papers.
The Codependent: It’s okay. I wanted to do it. I want you to be done with school and find a great-paying job. That’s why I even went and looked for some new job openings for you today.
The Secure: As lovely as that sounds, you really don’t have to do these things for me. I can do them myself. Plus, I’m not even sure I want a full-time job yet. I’m thinking of adding another major to my CV. Maybe psychology or something.
The Codependent: Oh, I know that. I just figured it makes sense to help you out as much as possible. I also went ahead and discussed how to rent an apartment with my father, so we’ll be ready when we do it.
The Secure: Look, I’m not ready for that yet. We’ve only been dating for a few months. It’s way too soon for even thinking of moving in together.
The Codependent: But I love you, I want to take care of you.
The Secure: I love you too, but you have to let me do things my own way and at my pace. What you’re doing is not healthy. You’re rushing things. I mean, you haven’t even consulted me on what I want — whether it’s regarding living arrangements, my college work, or my future career.
The Codependent: I can’t believe how selfish you are! I do everything for you, and now you’re blaming me for it and tell me how you’re not ready?!
The Secure: If you really cared about me, you would stop trying to control my life and let me live it independently.
Boundaries Vs. Threats
Establishing boundaries is healthy, mature, and self-empowering. They imply self-respect, non-neediness, and high value. Establishing threats is toxic, immature, and self-defeating. They imply desperation, weakness, and low value.
The main difference between the two is that a boundary never entails physical harm if someone crosses it. For example, you won’t choke your partner until there’s blood drizzling down beneath their eyeballs if they call you names one too many times. Preferably, you will communicate how you don’t appreciate it, and/or remove yourself from their presence.
Below are a few examples of the not-so-subtle differences between threats and boundaries. Remember: they are not necessarily things you would say to someone, but rather only things you would think first and execute second.
Boundary: If you keep shouting, I will hang up the phone.
Threat: If you keep shouting, I will punch you in the face when I see you.
Boundary: If you don’t let me pick my own music in the car, I will bring headphones next time.
Threat: If you don’t let me pick my own music in the car, I’m going to delete all the songs you have saved on your iPod.
Boundary: If you don’t respond to my text in the next two hours, I’m going to go to the theatre alone.
Threat: If you don’t respond to my text in the next two hours, I won’t respond to you for a whole day, even if it’s an emergency. Fuck you, by the way.
Boundary: If you keep arguing with me, I’m going to end our date and go home.
Threat: If you keep on arguing with me, I’ll start strip myself naked and start yelling, “BLOODY MURDER!”
Boundaries Vs. Compromises
There’s one common question around boundaries that keeps popping up in my inbox: “how to strike a balance between having solid boundaries and making healthy compromises?
My readers would go on and ask me what to do in cases when their partner asks them to do something that they’re not crazy about, but it wouldn’t hurt doing it from time to time.
My answer is this: If your partner simply wants a “good night” text every other weekend when you don’t see each other, or if they want you to call a bit more often, just shut up and do it. It’s a small sacrifice to make, and it’s probably worth it even if you don’t feel like doing it every time.
That being said, always keep in mind intentions.
If you’re doing something for someone because you feel you’re obligated to do it and would otherwise cause friction and you fear that, then don’t do it. However, if you’re doing something for someone because you want to — out of unconditional love — then do it.
Whenever you’re not sure if what you’re doing is a result of shitty boundaries or healthy sacrifice, ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” That should clear up a lot of things.
How to set boundaries
Setting boundaries is different for everyone, but at its core, it always comes down to deciding on three things:
- What behaviors you’re willing to tolerate and what behaviors you’re not willing to tolerate.
- How you’ll respond to people not respecting your limits.
- How you will respond to situations where someone crosses your limits.
Below are four examples of firmly established boundaries in practice.
Your Date: I don’t want you to meet Luke. You know how jealous I get when you see other men, even if they’re just friends from childhood.
You: I understand but, Luke was there for me when I was going through a really tough time in my life, and I was there for him. He means a lot to me. I have no interest in putting my friendship on hold because you’re jealous. That’s just something you’ll have to get used to, or this relationship will not work between us.
Your Partner: From now on, finish work at least 3 hours earlier than usual. I’m disappointed you’re not spending so much time with me. I miss you.
You: Well, we can have Sundays off to enjoy each other’s company, but other days, I prefer to work. Look. I love what I do, and It gives me a lot of fulfilment and meaning, please be so kind as to respect that. Plus, it’s a difficult season, and it requires me to be fully involved in my operations.
Your Partner: (Yelling) Why haven’t you taken out the garbage? Why isn’t the grass mowed? Why are you not ready yet? We’re about to be late for lunch with my friends.
You: Okay, you know I care for you and will get the chores done after lunch as I promised, but you have to stop with the yelling because it’s making me feel like shit. If you keep screaming, I’m going to spend the night at uncle Jim’s house.
Your Partner: Yeah, I thought you’re still going to meet with Tamara. You always liked her more than me. You probably don’t even care about me anymore. Go, have a great time with your friend. I’ll be fine.
You: Okay, let’s not resort to guilt tripping. I love you and you know I would never cheat or do anything shady. But you’ll have to get used to me having other female friends. Please respect and not limit my social life like I respect and never limit yours.
While you might think setting boundaries is hard work, that’s actually the easy part. The real struggle is keeping your boundaries intact when someone doesn’t respect or reacts negatively to them — which is bound to happen at some point.
A couple of pro tips:
- Define your boundaries and the consequences when someone crosses them before any backlash. It will be difficult to think of the consequences for them once you’re in the middle of a heated argument or disagreement.
- When you encounter anger as someone’s reaction to your boundaries, avoid mirroring their attitude. Getting angry yourself will only magnify the conflict. Instead of being vicious, keep your composure and calmly state or re-affirm your boundaries and what you’ll do if they are not respected.
- When you encounter guilt-tripping as someone’s reaction to your boundaries, immediately call them out on their bullshit with a calm yet earnest and sober tone. And don’t explain yourself, get defensive or angry. Keep your composure throughout the conversation. At its core, guilt-tripping is just a way for someone to cloak their negative feelings and pain subtle passive-aggressiveness instead of owning up to those things and expressing what’s actually bothering them.
Whenever you assert your boundaries and whatever reaction you get from your partner — negative or positive, they will always ultimately respond in one of three ways:
- By threatening/warning to end the relationship if you don’t sheath your boundaries.
- By actually ending the relationship.
- By respecting your boundaries and learning to live alongside them.
When it comes to the first two responses, if you let go of your boundaries while not wanting to, you’ll lose most, if not all, respect your partner has for you. That will eventually cause their trust and affection to dissipate as well. And then you’ll end up in a toxic relationship which is bound to end at some point anyways.
So whenever your partner responds negatively to your boundaries, chances are, you’re just going to break up regardless of how you handle the situation.
Life sucks, right?
Rejection and heartbreak are good. They are life’s filtering mechanisms. They slaughter relationships that don’t work and lead you closer to finding one that does. Sure, the transition feels like someone’s dragging you through broken glass and razor wire, but a meaningful and fulfilling relationship with someone who respects and loves the authentic you is worth all those bitchin’ cuts — and probably a few broken bones, too.
So go get your cuts and break an ankle or something, fuckface.
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