True story: While I was in college, I dated a guy for three years and we were never exclusive. Well, I didn’t date anyone else. He did. When we finally broke it off I saw it for what it was. I was there when he wanted me, and disposable when he didn’t. I realized I needed boundaries in my next relationship, but it turns out I also needed a lesson in boundaries versus barriers.
The next guy who came my way, I scared off because I was not willing to be anything but exclusive from the moment he asked for my number. How do you think that turned out? How do we set boundaries without creating barriers? Here are 3 common barriers and better boundaries to use to replace them.
Boundaries Versus Barriers
A boundary is a limit we set for ourselves and others in a relationship. A barrier is an attempt at blocking intimacy or growth in a relationship. When we’ve been hurt or used, we tell ourselves, “Never again!” Then we overcorrect. We think our lack of firmness got us hurt the first time, so the answer is to be tougher. But tough or unreasonable boundaries might actually be barriers in disguise.
Common Barrier #1: Unreasonable Expectations
My response to my three-year uncommitted relationship is a perfect example of unreasonable expectations leading to confusion with boundaries versus barriers. But here’s another. Michelle’s husband Jim had no regard for their budget and overspent month after month. Finally, when he bought a new set of golf clubs, she lost it. She said she’d had enough and things had to change or she was done. Michelle required Jim to report every penny he spent. Even after months of staying on track, she would threaten to leave any time he failed to mention a quick trip to the grocery store or a coffee. Jim felt like he was being treated like a child.
A Better Boundary: Unreasonable expectations stymie growth. A better option is to talk about why you are tempted to go to an extreme and find a middle ground. Maybe Jim and Michelle could agree that anything over $25 needs to be reported. And since boundaries can be fluid, you can always adjust as trust is being restored.
Common Barrier #2: Ghosting or Ignoring
Allison volunteered to be the homeroom helper for her fourth-grade daughter. She did a great job and was asked to be on the fundraising committee. She reluctantly said yes. Then she was asked to chair the teacher appreciation luncheon. By the end of fourth grade, Allison was burned out. When the volunteer coordinator called at the start of the new school year, Allison sent her to voicemail every time. This left the coordinator wondering what went wrong, whether Allison was angry, and if Allison was interested in helping at all.
A Better Boundary: When we are overworked in a volunteer capacity, it’s tempting to do all or nothing. Instead, we can gently say, “What I did last year was more than I could handle. This year I’m only able to fill one role. I’m telling you now so you have time to figure out where I could fit best and where you need me most.”
Common Barrier #3: Picking a Fight
In Nicole’s first marriage, her husband was abusive. He made her feel worthless and unloved and forced her to have sex. Now, she’s remarried and when her husband initiates sex, she picks a fight to push him away. She doesn’t want to hurt him by turning him down, and starting a fight just feels easier. It also completely kills any emotional intimacy.
A Better Boundary: Boundaries are not meant to keep people out. They’re tools to communicate needs and ultimately grow in intimacy. When there is trauma or a history of abuse, counseling is the way to go. But a healthy boundary would also be for Nicole to talk to her husband about the past abuse and why she’s pushing him away. By using words to express ourselves, we can share what we need from the other person in order to feel comfortable giving them what they want.
Boundaries are not meant to keep people out. They’re tools to communicate needs and ultimately grow in intimacy.
How are you at setting boundaries? What barriers do you see yourself putting up?