51. Reality Check: Boundaries in Relationships
Let’s talk boundaries. This is episode 51: Reality Check: Boundaries in Relationships. If you’re a regular listener on this podcast, you may remember the episode from last month about the difference between rules and boundaries. Many of you have had lots of positive feedback and lots of questions about that episode. Which I always appreciate your feedback and your questions because I love to talk about boundaries. If you’ve not yet listened to the podcast episode on boundaries versus rules, I recommend you do that because getting clear about the difference between rules and boundaries has been very insightful for so many listeners that would probably be helpful for you too.
Anyway, here’s the gist. Rules are for group regulation and boundaries are for self regulation. Since that episode last month, I’ve been frequently asked this question, what about relationship boundaries? If rules are guidelines for leading groups of people and boundaries are my personal guidelines for myself, then what do we call the boundaries within our relationships? I can see how this would be confusing, and I’m so glad you asked. In this episode, we will take a deeper dive into the boundaries in relationship and what’s really going on there. Let’s go.
I recently saw a video of a woman on social media talking about her marriage to a professional athlete, and she said something like, here are the boundaries in our marriage; he is not allowed to be around other women. So is setting limits on what your partner is allowed or not allowed to do considered relationship boundaries? No, that’s a misunderstanding. In fact, there is no such thing as relationship boundaries. What you’ve heard referred to as relationship boundaries are really just relationship agreements. Let me explain. Boundaries are the personal limits and guidelines that I set for myself that determine what I will and will not participate in. Remember, boundaries are about self regulation. They help me to manage my thoughts, feelings, and experience. My boundaries are about meeting my own needs and preserving my well being. Boundaries are the way that I honor myself. We have boundaries for ourselves. We do not have boundaries for our partners.
Now, let’s learn more about agreements. We have agreements in our relationships for the purpose of managing our expectations. Relationship agreements must be mutually agreed upon. Healthy relationships depend on agreements around things like roles and responsibilities, finances, communication patterns, engaging with friends, family, or other people, conflict resolution, and more. As we make and keep the agreements of our relationship, we build trust with each other, which we must have to sustain the relationship.
Let’s take a few examples of relationships with agreements. First, my best friend and I agree to a monthly lunch date. We like to talk about our families and our professional goals. We do not see eye to eye on politics, so we don’t bring that up. We get separate checks. Second example, my sister and I have a close family relationship. We FaceTime about once a week and we talk about pretty much everything. We take a vacation together each year and we spend holidays together if possible. We are emergency contacts for each other. If we have a misunderstanding, we quickly apologize and forgive. We do not share money. Third example, my partner and I are married. We share a home, children, and finances. They take the kids to school in the morning. I pick the kids up in the afternoons. We’re intimately exclusive. We enjoy going out on double dates with other couples or socializing in groups. But we do not travel with, dine with, or socialize alone with members of the opposite sex. We greet each other with a hug and a kiss when we see each other, and we usually text throughout the day. We check in with each other before we invite friends over to the house or extended family members with us on vacations or holidays. We have had a few arguments that have gotten loud or lasted for days, so we have a code word to take a 24 hour time out.
All three of these scenarios are describing relationship agreements. These agreements help me to know what to expect and how to honor the relationship. They can be said or unsaid, verbal or written. When it comes to figuring out whether it’s a rule, an agreement, or a boundary, you can ask yourself this question. Who decides? Rules are decided by people in authority. Agreements are decided by partners in a relationship. Boundaries are decided by me, for me. Can I have agreements in my relationships and boundaries for myself? Yes. In fact, that is exactly what I recommend. I set boundaries for myself to help me show up and keep the agreements of my relationships. If I have a no yelling agreement in my relationship, then my boundary is mostly that I will not yell and also that I will not continue engaging in an argument where I am being yelled at. To uphold the no yelling agreement, I would need to follow through by disengaging in the argument.
You may be thinking, is this just semantics or why does it matter if we call a rule or agreement or a boundary? The reason it’s important is because it’s empowering. We can recognize when people are trying to control us or abuse their power. We can learn to lead by establishing rules when we do have the authority. We’re better able to show up to our relationships as equal partners when we need to negotiate relationship agreements. And we understand boundaries as an important part of our self care and how we take responsibility for our own needs. If there’s a takeaway to this episode, may it be this, we do not have relationship boundaries. We have relationship agreements. So next time you hear somebody talking about setting boundaries in their relationship, remember there ain’t no such thing.