Healthy boundaries in a relationship don’t come naturally, nor do they come easily!
You can argue that the majority of dating and relationship problems are a boundary issue in one way or another.
Years ago, I was en-rapt in a relationship that felt great at times and just dirt poor other times. It was like a roller-coaster ride.
It was only years later after knowing the concept of boundaries, that I realized that my ex-girlfriend and I had piss poor boundaries in our relationship.
So other than sparring yourself from roller-coaster relationships, why are boundaries important?
Firstly, strong boundaries are the cornerstone of attractive behaviour.
Before you get into deeper details, let’s take a look if you have a boundary issue.
You may have a boundary issue if you:
- Constantly feel like people take advantage of you or use your emotions for their own gain?
- Feel like you’re constantly having to “save” people close to you and fix their problems all the time?
- Find yourself sucked into pointless fighting or debating regularly
- Find yourself far more invested or attracted to a person than you should be for how long you’ve known them
- In your relationships, you feel like things are always either amazing or horrible with no in-between. Or perhaps you even go through the break-up/reunion pattern every few months?
- You tell people how much you hate drama but seem to always be stuck in the middle of it
- You spend a lot of time defending yourself for things you believe aren’t your fault?
If you answered “yes” to even a few of the above, then you probably set and maintain poor boundaries in your relationships.
If you answered a resounding “yes” to most or all of the items above, you not only have a major boundary problem in your relationships but you also probably have some other personal problems going on in your life.
What are Relationship Boundaries?
There are many reasons why someone may lack boundaries. Psychologically speaking, people with a lack of boundaries may appear may be motivated by an unconscious need to ‘keep the peace’ because of the fear of getting hurt.
So, what are boundaries and how do they look like?
- NOT taking responsibility for OTHER people choices, actions and emotions
- Taking FULL responsibility for YOUR own choices, actions and emotions
Healthy Boundaries from the outside:
- NOT expecting others to be responsible for your choices, actions and emotions
- Other people should be responsible for their choices, actions and emotions and NOT responsible for your emotions and choices.
Examples of Poor Boundaries:
Since I’m Asian, I can use a couple examples from the Asian culture, I’ll chime in a few examples.
“If you go out with your friends tonight and not keep me accompany, I’m not going to give you allowance next month.”
“What if you don’t study the subjects as I want you to, I’m not going to pay for it.”
“What if you don’t do as I say, you’re not being filial to the family. Hence, you’re not a good child.”
This is an example of a parent’s expectation for his or her child to take responsibility for the parent’s choices and emotions.
In this scenario, the person is taking responsibility for actions or emotions that aren’t theirs or are expecting someone to take responsibility for their actions or emotions. When you set boundaries in your relationships, it can be as simple as saying no to someone and letting the chips fall where they may.
You’re NOT responsible for someone’s else emotions.
Flip that around, it’s also the willingness to take a no from someone else.
Because if you feel crappy about hearing a no, you’re are responsibility for your own mood and not expect or blame anyone else for your emotions and choices.
Ultimately, having strong boundaries does not mean that you don’t want your partners or friends to be happy. It just means that you can’t decide if your partners or friends are happy or choose to behave in a certain way.
The Breaker and Fixer Pathology
People with poor boundaries typically come in two flavors:
- Those who take too much responsibility for the emotions and actions of others
- Those who expect others to take too much responsibility for their own emotions and actions.
They are called the breaker, and the fixer. Interestingly, these two types of people often end up in relationships together.
My first relationship was like that, it felt like it was us against the world. However, in hindsight, it was soul-sucking and emotionally tiring. She and I had pathologies of both the victim and saver, oscillating between both roles at different points of time.
- The Saver
If you are someone who tends to feel a need to make their partners happy all the time, you may be playing the role of the saver in the relationship. You have a boundary issue. This is because, at the core of it, you’re attempting to decide/ control how your partner acts and feel.
The saver doesn’t save the victim because they actually care about the problem, but because they believe if they fix the problem they will feel loved.
- The Victim
The victim creates problems not because there are real problems, but because they believe it will cause them to feel loved. If you are that someone who is always creating problems, expecting others to take responsibility for your actions and emotions. You are playing the role of the victim.
The saver and victim commonly end up together in relationships and often lead to unstable roller coaster relationships. In such scenarios, the lack of boundaries leads to needy, co-dependent.
From an attachment theory perspective, victims tend to be anxious-attachment types, and savers tend to be avoidant-attachment types.
They both push away secure-attachment types. They may also grow up with parents who had poor boundaries in their relationships that led to their model of a relationship that is based on poor boundaries.
You may ask, Marcus, isn’t it cold and cruel to not care about others and fix their problems?
You see, the saver or the victim don’t ACTUALLY care about each other or the relationship, they are behaving in these ways to meet their own need for self-esteem through other people’s problems. The victim needs to create problems to feel loved whilst the saver needs to fix problems to feel loved. There isn’t any real authenticity or genuine emotional connection with these relationships.
Their behaviors are based on their OWN needs to feel loved and not actual unconditional love itself.
If the victim really cares about the saver and the relationship, he or she would say, “Look, this is my problem, you don’t have to fix it for me.” That would be actually caring about the saver.
If the saver really cared for the victim, the saver would say, “Look, you’re blaming others for your own problems, you should be responsible for it yourself.” That would be actually loving the victim.
The hardest thing for a victim to do in the world is to hold themselves accountable for their feelings and their life as opposed to blaming others.
They spent their whole life believing they must blame others in order to feel any intimacy or love.
For the saver, the hardest thing to do in the world is to stop fixing other people’s problems and trying to make them feel happy or satisfied. They may have spent their whole lives feeling valued and loved when they were fixing a problem for someone. Hence, letting go of this need is terrifying to them as well.
If you see your relationships as economical transactions, only seeing others as beneficial or economical exchanges, not only it’s a form of poor boundaries, it’s also going to tear you apart emotionally eventually.
The Boundary Problem in Modern Culture
Now, I may take some criticism for this, but I’m going to say it anyway. In Asian culture, there’s a cultural belief that children are inherently supposed to be filial to their parents or grandparents. It’s a common cultural Asian cultural narrative to love, respect and obey your parents JUST because they are your biological parents, not based upon the fact if they are good parents or not.
This often expressed in the value of filial piety.
I had a friend to said that he would give in to demanding/unreasonable requests to his parents just because they are paying for his University fees. His parents are using monetary support as a bargaining tool to get their child to conform.
I’m may piss off some of you reading here but listen to me.
That its an unhealthy and toxic relationship dynamic between him and his parents with a lack of boundaries. On one hand, his parents are using money as a means to control their child’s behaviour. Secondly, on his end, he is giving up his self-respect, his honest thoughts, and desires because he’s afraid of not getting the money from his parents.
If your parents only provide for you financially if you give in to their whims and demands. It’s a conditional relationship. The underlying meaning of the relationship would mean: I only love you if you listen to me. I will only provide for you if you listen to me.
Firstly, these are a poor form of boundaries. Secondly, there isn’t any genuine support or affection in their relationship.
From personal experience in the Singaporean culture, there are many that have this perception that if their parents provide for them financially, it’s a MUST to give in to their parents, against their genuine thoughts, desires and beliefs.
Some of the people reading this might say:
Marcus, you’re such an INGRATE for speaking out against the age-old values of filial piety. You’re Asian yourself and you SHOULD be filial to your parents.
Okay, shut up.
I am filial to my parents. However, I act on it as a gift, with no expectations of return, as opposed to an OBLIGATION. There’s a difference.
The act and value of filial piety should be something that’s given unconditionally, rather than demanded or assumed because of cultural or social reasons.
If you’re forced to visit your grandparents every weekend and you secretly hate it. Then you’re not acting out of a genuine desire to see and care for your grandparents. You’re doing it because you don’t want to piss your Mum and Dad off.
As I argued, acts of affection are only genuine if they’re performed without expectations.
Is It Okay to Sacrifice?
You may ask then, Marcus, what about making sacrifices for people you love? what if going extra mile to visit your best friends? and what if my girlfriend wants me to call her daily? What if my pet cat requires me to stroke his belly 20 times a day?
I SHOULD make that sacrifice right?
Firstly, sacrifices that are made out of obligation aren’t genuine sacrifices. They are actually your inability to say no.
True sacrifice only comes in the form of unconditionally, as a gift, with no expectations of return. One common behavior I noticed during my stint as a dating coach for men is that they compliment women in hopes of getting her attention. Needless to say, they didn’t get far.
“Sacrifice is only true and genuine when you desire to do it out of no expectations, as a gift, and not because you should feel obligated to or fear the consequences of NOT doing it.”
You can simply ask yourself this: If you stopped doing an X behavior, would it change anything about your relationship with Y? Read: I know, the algebra. I’m Asian, live with it.
- What if I stopped picking her up from her house or sending her home, will she still love me?
- If I stopped agreeing with her on everything she says, will she still love me?
- And what if I told my friend that he should be on time in the future, and being late isn’t cool at all, will we still be friends?
If your answer is NO, it wouldn’t change a damn thing in the relationship, if you stopped doing a certain behavior, then that’s a good sign.
If YES, then you probably have a boundary issue. You’re making a particular sacrifice or behaving in a certain way because you fear to lose the relationship.
How to Set Strong Boundaries
I started off a YES man. I’d say YES to events, business opportunities, introductions, trips and I was the guy that was flexible and easy to get along.
Yes, that helped a lot.
However, as I grow, I realized it’s so much better to say NO and truly evaluate how and who you spend your time and effort with.
These days, I’m always evaluating how I feel after spending time with someone. If I feel emotionally recharged, listened to or that I learned something from him or her, I’ll continue pursuing that relationship. If I feel disrespected, belittled or unjustly criticized then I’ll stop.
In my business career, I had instances where potential clients waste my time by getting me to draft out long thought out proposals for their digital marketing campaigns and I don’t hear back from them. No, no more. You need to be a good fit to work with me.
I had instances where girls waste my time and don’t show up for a date. That’s on me. That’s my fault. I didn’t qualify her properly. If I had disqualified and said: ‘You and I are probably not going to get a long because you’re always late’, she’s going to either straighten up or not waste my time by not showing up.
I hold by these standards throughout all my relationships, from friends, family, clients, business partners, and life choices. In that sense, I’m valuing my time and myself. Only by valuing your time and yourself, that you can get others to value you and your time.
Here are some of the lines you can use:
- ‘I prefer not to discuss them as these matters are private to me’
- ‘If you keep doing X behaviour, then I’m going to leave.’
- ‘I never a kiss and tell’
- ‘This are my values, and I hope you can respect that.’
- ‘I already stated my opinion and I’m not going to argue with you further.’
Setting boundaries by cutting an acquaintance out or an ever unaccountable friend is easy. It’s as simple as cutting them out from your life or seeing them lesser.
However, setting boundaries and maybe even cutting family and best friends out are a lot harder. You can dump your girlfriend, you can’t dump a bad family member.
Family relationships are the hardest to deal with. Trust me, I’ve been there.
One time, I stopped driving a couple of my friends around. I realized that if I stopped driving them around, they wouldn’t bother hanging out with me. Tough truth to face, but that’s life.
When I go out with a girl on a date and she says something offensive, I don’t just play nice and ignore, I call her out on it.
That’s a form of my boundaries. I don’t accept rude or offensive behaviours in my life.
Someone with strong boundaries isn’t afraid to say no. He or she isn’t afraid of a temper tantrum or getting into an argument. Also, they must understand that he/she may hurt someone else’s feelings at times and ultimately can’t control how someone else feels.
Understand that a genuine relationship isn’t made up of two people deciding on each other’s actions or emotions, but instead, an unconditional relationship is made up of two people supporting each other, without judgment or expectations.
About the Author
Marcus Neo is an entrepreneur and coach. Enjoys writing about dating, relationship, business, and psychology. Introvert yet extrovert. Likes martial arts and music, but never got around to the latter.