“The purpose of having boundaries is to protect and take care of ourselves. We need to be able to tell other people when they are acting in ways that are not acceptable to us. A first step is starting to know that we have a right to protect and defend ourselves; that we have not only the right, but the duty to take responsibility for how we allow others to treat us.” – Robert Burney
Some of you know that setting boundaries is an important issue for you. You know you don’t honor your own space and your own feelings, and you know it’s because of other people’s reactions. You may not use the term “boundaries”, but you’re already talking to yourself (or yelling at yourself) about saying no when what you feel is no and yes when what you feel is yes. Being clear about what feels right for you, even when other people protest, is what it means to Set Your Boundaries.
Boundaries are not universal — they vary according to each individual’s needs and preferences. You have a right to set them for yourself, and you must also make sure that if living with someone, even married to them, you both maintain your own. In fact, rather than being a barrier to healthy intimacy, each having their own boundaries actually fosters it. You seek to protect your boundaries while respecting your partner’s.
The purpose of setting boundaries is to show honor and respect for your personal space – physically, emotionally, and sexually. When you set boundaries, you assert the right to keep out what you don’t want and to let in what you do want. They are like permeable cellular membranes, keeping out toxins and letting in nutrients. Naturally, everyone in your life seems to press into where your boundaries are, just like you press in on theirs. You may be unaware of your boundaries and of their boundaries, yet setting them is strictly a personal matter. It may be necessary to do a little self-awareness work to tune in to your own boundary signals, since boundaries are nothing more, or less, than what feels right to you. By the way, don’t expect your partner to sort this out for you. You are involved in the dance of intimacy with them, but the boundaries you set are your responsibility alone.
If you struggle with setting or keeping boundaries, your childhood experiences might have something to do with it. For most of us, our boundaries as children got us in trouble with the family, and made us feel unlovable or “wrong”.
Examples of normal boundary-setting – which kids try to do naturally – could be drawing a line in the sand, not kissing a certain relative, trying to pick your own clothes, closing your bedroom door, or refusing to share your toys. These attempts aren’t always too popular with grown-ups, so early on you picked some kind of protective strategy to get by, and decades later you’re still living a version of it.
The thing about protective strategies is that they do the trick to some extent. They may not be the healthiest choices, but you had to find something that worked then, and you did. So now your strategy might be choosing partners who do all the boundary-setting for the relationship; all you have to do is smile and nod. On the other hand, you might be the one setting every limit for both of you – sure, it’s a lot of work, but at least you get to be in total control. Or you might choose to live alone so you never have to deal with the issue at all.
In your early years, you probably developed protective strategies that helped to maintain your boundaries, but now that you’re grown, it may be time for a change into a more adult mode. Just look at your most recent intimate relationships – can you see what your boundaries, or lack of them, have been?
Here’s an example of a boundary upset scenario that a lot of people experience. Let’s say you’re hanging out with your lover, going with the flow, everything’s good, no real problems on the horizon. Then, because it’s human nature (and because you don’t learn anything without problems to solve), your honey does something to violate one of your boundaries. All of a sudden you’re not having much fun anymore. You’re not sure what exactly set you off. Since you don’t know what to do, you immediately go to everyone’s favorite defense – acting cool. On the surface you appear calm. At the most you withdraw a bit or get irritable. Then, if the event continues or happens again, suddenly, without warning, you snap. Yowza! Red alert! Watch out!
Many people never set a boundary until the moment they’re ending a relationship, furious and destructive because your unstated and frequently unknown boundaries were violated. It’s a funny thing, but your boundaries feel obvious to you. This is true even if you never defined them and never talked about them. Trust me on this: most of the time, your partner has no idea he or she has crossed the line of your personal space. Other people are worried about themselves and their feelings; you’re worried about yourself and your own feelings. Nonetheless, you often feel like the other person violated your boundaries “on purpose”, when in reality, they didn’t even know they were there. And most likely neither did you.
Explaining simply and calmly, in a non-blaming way, exactly what your boundaries are, especially when you’re feeling angry or hurt, is the best way to communicate with your partner. Instead what you probably do is tell yourself to get over it. First you try to push your feelings down. Then you tell yourself why you’re a big loser for being upset about something that other people would blow off. Next you dwell for a while on what a big loser your friend is for even doing that to you and not noticing your feelings. Finally you tell yourself, “Oh, saying anything isn’t worth it. Nothing will change and I’ll look stupid and everyone will be upset. I just need to keep my mouth shut or get different friends.” That’s how, day after day, you fail to respect your own boundaries. Essentially, you betray yourself in order to keep the peace.
Externally, at least. Inwardly, you rage, fume, and steam. Or withdraw into yourself still further. The fall-out from betraying yourself over and over again accumulates. You begin to guard yourself against possible hurts. You become suspicious of other people’s motives. Rather than simple boundaries, you may discover you have barriers instead. This is hardly conducive to intimacy. While boundaries can function to facilitate communication and relationships, barriers function like blockades. Nothing can get in or out of a barrier, not even the good stuff you desire, and letting go of the toxins becomes almost impossible. Barriers keep you feeling distant from others, even if you’re living in the same house. Interestingly, you might not be aware that you’ve erected barriers, and you wonder why you’ve spent your life emotionally distant and far away from intimacy.
With so much anger and betrayal in relationships stemming from long-overlooked boundary violations, laying those feelings on your partner is almost irresistible. “I’ve told him again and again not to open the bathroom door but he never listens.” Uh-huh. My response to that is, “Explain what you want, give him one chance, and then lock the bathroom door.” You don’t have to be mean about it. Do it with a kiss and a smile, but make your word your law. It’s as simple as that, and also as hard as that. Remember, it’s your job to mind your boundaries. Your lover’s job is to respect your boundaries. And you get to respect his or hers in return.
Here are some of the boundary issues I’ve come across in my life. You may have others to add to this list:
• Borrowing my things without returning them.
• Not asking if I have time to talk on the phone now, or not asking when would be a good time.
• Interrupting before I finish what I’m saying.
• Standing too close to me or standing too far away.
• Not looking at me when I’m talking.
• Being late.
• Not respecting my alone time or need for privacy.
• Having sex when I don’t want to.
• Reading my journal without permission.
• Going through my possessions, wallet, pockets, drawers without
• Giving me advice or coaching without asking if I want it.
Stay tuned for part II next month!
This is an edited excerpt from Laurie’s latest book, SEX HAPPINESS & The Tantric Laws of Intimacy. To find out more, see www.lauriehandlers.com.
Art by @koketit
Laurie Handlers is a Tantra Teacher, an intimacy coach and a Spiritual Leader. She is the host of Sex & Happiness Podcast and the internet radio show Tantra Café.
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