If you grew up in a family where one or more family members repeatedly violated boundaries and wasn’t held accountable for their bad behavior, you may believe there are certain people with whom you don’t have a right to establish boundaries. This is simply not true.
Often, people think about boundaries as attempts to keep others at arm’s length, or as punishment carried out by rigid, uptight, selfish, or frightened people. As such, boundaries are often thought of as harsh, cold, and uncaring. Because boundaries set limits, they can also be thought of as controlling, repressive, or restrictive of personal freedom.
Healthy boundaries are none of these.
One of the biggest misconceptions about boundaries is that they allow us to tell another person what he or she can or cannot do. In a parent-child relationship, that may actually be the case. However, in adult-adult relationships, we don’t have a right to tell another person what to do, or not do.
You can make a request for an action or a change of behavior from another person, but you can’t demand or force that action or change. The other person is going to do whatever he or she wants to do, and that’s all there is to it.
Nevertheless, you do have a right to act for your own self-care and protection when the other person either can’t or won’t agree to an important request, or agrees to your request but later breaks the agreement. Your boundary-driven actions can be as simple as taking a brief time-out from the other person, or as significant as leaving a relationship.
Another misconception about boundaries is that when you decide to protect yourself, you are doing so to punish the other person. If your partner has repeatedly been irresponsible with money and has broken numerous financial agreements with you, you might decide to get a separate bank account. This choice is not made to punish your partner, even if he or she perceives it that way. Your boundary is an act of self-care that became necessary after repeated boundary violations.
Implementing and maintaining healthy boundaries is a complex, challenging, and rewarding endeavor. If you’ve struggled to set healthy boundaries, start small and work your way up—incrementally creating and maintaining boundaries that generate safety and define the quality of your relationships. As you do this, remember that healthy boundaries are not about keeping people out, punishing people, or controlling people; instead, they’re about practicing good self-care individually and in relationships.