When we think of boundaries, most of us don’t think that they bring us closer together with our loved ones. When you consider the definition of boundary – a line that marks the limits of an area; a dividing line – it’s easy to see why it’s common to see boundaries as a way of separating us from one another. This can reinforce our independence and individualism, rather than an act of connection.
Yet, Terrence Real, therapist and founder of Relational Life Therapy, very much proves that the effective use of boundaries in relationships can, in fact, bring us closer together.
As a recent discoverer of Terry’s work, it has made a significant impact on my own life and how I participate in my relationships. The importance of boundaries is clearly important for all humans, but I see it as especially true for both our clients and their families in our gender-specific men’s and women’s programs.
If you’ve done any self-reflection or growth work that’s included boundaries, it’s most likely been about outer boundaries. Outer boundaries refer to what is going on in your external world: work expectations, family obligations, persuasion into going out for drinks by friends when you’re trying to live healthier, save money, and so on. These are areas where we work toward building better walls around ourselves in order to not let external issues outside of us dictate our decisions.
How we choose to spend – or honour – our time is also an issue in the topic of boundaries. Joshua Becker, on becomingminimalist.com, notes that busyness is a decision we make. Similarly, boundaries can be seen as decisions we make on how we want to live and exist in all areas of our lives.
Inner boundaries may not be as familiar to you. It certainly wasn’t to me until listening to Terry’’s book, Fierce Intimacy. Opposite from outer boundaries, Real explains that inner boundaries are about controlling what you “put out” into the world.
Consider an argument with your friend, partner, or co-worker. Do you tend to react and give that person a “piece of your mind” or “tell them what’s what”? This may indicate a lack of inner boundaries necessary for meaningful and intimate connection in relationships. In fact, two of Real’s Five Losing Strategies are retaliation and unbridled self-expression – both behaviour which Real recommended practicing Relational Mindfulness and inner boundaries to counteract.
What does Relational Mindfulness look like? If you are in a tense conversation with your spouse, it could look like asking yourself “How will this affect my partner?” or “How will this affect them?” before speaking out loud. It may also be practicing how to limit what you say to your partner to what’s absolutely necessary to get to a resolution and repair. Reminding yourself that you love this person is also another good way of halting reactive patterns you may have become accustomed to in your relationship over time.
At SCHC and GSWC, we also may refer to this as individual self-regulation. Self-regulation is a common struggle for clients in our programs, which is why we offer therapies such as Dialectical Behaviour Therapy and more to help in creating self-regulation and internal boundaries.
How Boundaries Help Us in Intimate Relationships
A marriage, union, or relationship is not simply two (or more) selves together. When couples (or polyamorous) come together, seeing the relationship as “us” rather than “you and me” is essential. Yet, it’s a fine delicate balance managing unity with each’s individual autonomy, self-esteem, and identity. Paul David discusses this beautifully in his article:
Partners are able to function optimally [together] when they possess secure self-esteem and set firm boundaries. When partners function in this capacity, they are able to set their boundaries so that they maintain both their self-worth and intimacy without sacrificing one for the other. When their functioning becomes impaired, partners tend to be insecure in their self-esteem and they function with either to diffuse or closed boundaries.
While it may seem contradictory, outer and inner boundaries, in fact, help bring and keep us closer together rather than push us apart.
Cautions During Boundary Work
Boundary work is an important skill among our clients, but also our staff. Managers and staff at SCHC and GSWC participate in regular self-awareness workshops and training to help them with many things, including boundaries. I often notice when someone is newly working on their – outer – boundaries. They will come to meetings with a new sense of firm resolve around their opinions or become impenetrable to valuable feedback from their peers.
Real refers to this behaviour as “toxic individualism”. An everpresent artifact of patriarchal society, individualism as we commonly know it in Western cultures cannot exist within a united, connected, and intimate relationship. You cannot maintain rigid boundaries while also fostering connection in your relationship. In other words, you cannot create intimacy and build a life together while also distancing yourself and disconnecting from the relationship. As Real puts it, there’s no such thing as the “individual” outside of the relational context/frame.
So if you’re practicing boundaries in your relationships, or plan to, try to keep an awareness of whether you’ve strayed too far to the individualist side of the spectrum and need to adjust to let connection flourish.
If you’re interested in hearing more about Real’s “toxic individualism”, you can find many podcasts online. Here’s one with Rick Hanson.
More resources and readings:
Fierce Intimacy By Terrence Real
Us by Terrence Real
The New Rules of Marriage by Terrence Real