This is a tough subject to tackle, but I’m going to go ahead and tackle it. Boundaries are such an important part of our relationships, and they are very easy to get wrong. I realize that Tuesday is “Mental Health Post” day, and this could very well wait until “Relationship Post” day, but I believe that it is applicable in such a wide variety of contexts that I’m going to just roll with it.
Basically, boundaries are how we organize our relational influences. There are three basic types: diffuse, flexible, and rigid. They are on a spectrum, so it’s not always just one or another.
The Three Types of Boundary
The boundary spectrum moves from being very open (diffuse) to very closed (rigid), and towards the middle is the flexible region. Ideally, flexible boundaries are where we want to be, but people tend to be really good at justifying being rigid or diffuse. Both of these carry with them numerous risk factors.
This is a boundary that is unset. Relationships with diffuse boundaries tend to become stressful because one or both persons in the relationship (be it a romantic, platonic, or colleague relationship) steps on the other persons toes. This creates unnecessary stress and can result in conflict. Think of a couple who does everything together, but doesn’t make plans together. If one partner wants to go to a concert Saturday night, but the other made plans to go to a party, it can become a conflict very quickly.
This type of boundary also has the ability to create relationship burnout, because when we do not set boundaries we tell other people that it is okay to do what it is that they are doing. As the relationship progresses, the person with diffuse boundaries may look up and realize that they no longer have any space of their own. This can be a very jarring and alarming thing to realize, and it can be difficult to start setting boundaries when they haven’t been set.
On the other side of the spectrum is the rigid boundary. This is a boundary that cannot be crossed on pain of death. Unlike a diffuse boundary, there are times when a rigid boundary can be appropriate: things like “don’t kill people” or “I will not tolerate physical violence” are rigid boundaries, but they are appropriate. Inappropriately rigid boundaries can lead to unnecessary conflict, much like diffuse boundaries.
These boundaries come off as highly inflexible, and can choke out a healthy relationship. If the dishes MUST be done by 8:00, or the TPS report MUST be submitted by 2:00, or we MUST be at Starbucks at 10:00, it can get exhausting, and exhaustion does not build trust.
Generally, we need to be somewhere in the middle with our boundaries. Being able to identify our own boundaries clearly, and being willing to understand another persons are vital skills for anyone. If your coworker tells you that they don’t like it when someone sneaks up on them, then you know that sneaking up on them is not okay.
A flexible boundary is marked not only by it’s clarity, though. They are also open to discussion. We live in a world where not everyone is going to have their stuff their way every time, and with flexible boundaries comes compromise. Being able to identify the principles at the core of the boundary is perhaps even more important than the boundary itself.
There is so much that can be said about boundaries that go beyond the scope of this blog. I highly recommend the book Boundaries by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend. It’s written from a religious perspective, but the information is good regardless of religiosity.
What do you all think about boundaries? What have been some of your experiences with setting them? How does it feel when one is set with you? Leave a comment, and as always, like, share, follow, and all that fun stuff!