I’m noticing a trend of concern when it comes to the concept of boundaries. It seems that the word “boundary” is being misunderstood as being synonymous with the word “rule,” and I worry that in many cases this misunderstanding leads to disconnection and alienation in relationships.
In the literal sense, boundary means the designation of the end of an area, or a space to which one is bound. In the social-emotional realm, however, few relationships thrive when “boundaries” are set like chain link fence to tell others to stay out. There are exceptions, of course. When you must maintain a relationship with someone who has a personality disorder, is abusive, or is perhaps in the throes of addiction, it is necessary to have those fences and clear rules of engagement. Sometimes those sorts of fences even need to be reinforced with barbed wire. But I think those same fences can be really damaging to other relationships.
There is a connotation in the common usage of “boundaries” that implies that we alone set the expectations for the relationship. That we call the shots. Unless you are stranded on an island with only “Wilson” as a companion, you alone do not set the expectations for a relationship. There is always another person in the equation.
In relationships, you decide what is okay with you and what is not okay with you, while the other person makes the same decisions for themself. Often, these decisions may be dynamic and contextual, changing from situation to situation. You’re not trying to keep someone out in relationships; you’re trying to let them in. So instead of imagining this chain-link fence around your heart, imagine a little gate. Each time someone approaches the gate with a request, a demand, a behavior or some unsolicited advice, you decide: Do I let them in with this today?
If the use of the word “boundary” in a given situation is synonymous with the word “rule,” it is missing the mark. Unfortunately, with the exception of parenting or management, we don’t get to tell other people what to do. We do get to decide how to respond to them, though. If someone continually rattles your gate, insisting that you let them in with something you don’t want, you get to decide how to respond. You might let them in, you might turn them away, or you might call the cops. But you won’t get far if you set a “rule” for them; my guess is that if they are someone who rattles gates, your rule is not something they will willingly abide. You don’t have to concede to their demands; you maintain that boundary by keeping the gate closed at that time. If they are persistently intrusive, you may never open the gate to them and that is okay.
Over time and with practice, you’ll begin to see that the people who don’t rattle your gate when it’s closed are the people you’ll most want to let in.
There is always value in recognizing where I end and where you begin, but do we want to further the gap between us by constructing fences made of rules and mandates? Life is complicated enough. Rather than fences, I see boundaries as gates to which we are always our own gate keeper.