Personal Boundaries and Healthy Relationships

A lot of difficulties and stresses in marriage and other relationships arise from underdeveloped personal boundaries. But to understand this, we need to make sure we’re on the same page as to the meaning of the term “boundaries.”

Some confuse “putting up a wall” with “maintaining good personal boundaries.” A wall is a solid structure that keeps you inside and keeps everyone else out. I’m sure you’ve seen it happen that a family member will hear nothing you have to say and will reveal nothing of their thoughts or feelings to you. They “put up a wall.” Have you ever been there yourself?

Personal boundaries are not walls. Think back to high school biology when you learned about cells and semi-permeable membranes. The semi-permeable membrane around a living cell is the cell’s way of allowing nutrients to enter and waste to exit. In other words the cell uses its semi-permeable membrane to allow in only what it wants to let in. Furthermore, it allows only certain things to move out, but keeps everything else safe inside.

Your personal boundaries work just like the cell membrane. If your boundaries are functioning effectively, you allow in only what you choose to allow in, and you allow out only what you choose to allow out. And you do it with relative ease: you don’t have to focus on rules or protocol.

How good are your boundaries when it comes to keeping out what you don’t want to let into your space? Are you able to decline someone’s request for help when you know that helping them at this time would compromise your other responsibilities and your self-care? Can you decline a request with grace and without guilt? Do you stay in charge of yourself, or do you end up feeling like a doormat? If you often feel used by others, it may indicate weak boundaries in terms of keeping out unwanted intrusions.

How well do you stay in control of what you let out, that is, what you say and do when interacting with others? A person with good boundaries can easily keep personal stuff personal and yet still be open. A person with good boundaries can become quite annoyed with another, yet never speak maliciously or get physical. A person with poor boundaries might spread malicious gossip, or discuss their sex life with their 10-year-old child, or pass on something said in confidence.

In sum, if your boundaries are serving you well, you are in control of preventing unwanted intrusions into your mental/emotional/spiritual space. You are also in control of just how much of yourself you will expose in each interpersonal situation.

There is another aspect of healthy boundaries that needs mention. You may have fairly good boundaries when interacting with others who also have good boundaries. But what happens when the other person has poor boundaries?

Suppose you have two friends, one with really good boundaries and the other with not-so-good boundaries: she is a gossip. Would you reveal some fairly intimate information equally to both? Of course not! With healthy boundaries you would be more cautious in what you share with the friend who gossips. Likewise, if you have a friend of the opposite sex with loose boundaries around sex, you become as explicit as necessary in protecting your space. In either example you adjusted your boundaries to make up for another’s weaker boundaries.

Your personal boundaries should be effective, easy and fluid, no matter what the situation. Are yours up to standard or do they need some fine-tuning? Or a major overall?  

Healthy boundaries make for a more peaceful, easier flow of life.

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Dr. Neill Neill retired his psychology practice at the end of 2013. He maintains an active coaching practice via telephone or Skype with select clients dealing with alcoholic husbands or ex-husbands. Check out his book, Living with a Functioning Alcoholic: A Woman's Survival Guide.

7 thoughts on “Personal Boundaries and Healthy Relationships

  1. Thanks a lot I was just in a similar situation and had to set healthy boundaries good for me!!!!! Never felt better!

  2. Thanks for this article! I really liked the point on receiving praise and the consequences it has when we do not have healthy boundaries. The boundary explanation was wonderful. I often wonder how our sense of smell is so clear and not confused (somethings stinks and we close our nose), while our common sense more easily ungrounds. Then narcissist interactions play their ungrounded games.

  3. Thank you for the article. When we were having this discussion, I imagined a semi-permeable membrane. It’s good to see I was on the right track!

  4. I am interested in searching about narcissism, as I have found out that my spouse has this disorder, as well as Asperger syndrome.
    To be indifferent is one solution or what else?
    thank you for giving out this information Dr Neill.

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