Boundaries in relationships are how we all establish rules as to what makes each of us feel safe in interacting with other people. People use to say that “everyone” knows certain social rules to get along, that it’s just “common sense.”
If there is anything I have learned over the course of my career, it is that common sense is anything but common to everyone. Different cultures have different social expectations, different families have different expectations, and different people have expectations as to what are social rules and what are appropriate personal boundaries.
Sometimes the issues seem insignificant, except to the people involved. For example, my husband was very surprised at his first holiday meal that we hosted for my family that everyone brought a dish, and everyone left with some of the leftovers. To him, that was the height of rudeness, that his family had always left the leftovers for the hosts, as a thank you for hosting the meal. To me and my family, sharing in the leftovers is part of the communal meal. Negotiating out this boundary was an important part of my husband and I building a shared understanding how we would shape our expectations of events going forward.
Boundaries can be physical, such as how much physical space you need when you are talking to someone. This is very cultural. When I was in India, people tend to be very physically close, to the point that people were literally “in my face” without intending any disrespect. Physical boundaries can also be about how and if you like to be touched. Are you a hugger? Handshaker? Elbow bumps only? How do you communicate what your comfortable level is, in a way that maintains and manages relationships?
Boundaries can be about emotional space as well. What are you willing to talk about? What are you willing to share about yourself?
UNDERSTAND WHAT BOUNDARIES YOU NEED. In negotiating and communicating boundaries, you first need to understand your own needs, values and limits. If something is making you feel anxious, stressed or overwhelmed, chances are high that a boundary for you has been crossed. It’s hard to take a complete inventory, because we often don’t think about things until they come up. However, keeping an ongoing understanding of what you need will help you communicate and negotiate that with other people.
DEFINE WHO YOU NEED BOUNDARIES WITH. You also need to understand who to set those boundaries with. If you have an emotionally intimate relationship with someone, your boundaries are going to be very different than with someone you don’t know as well. Particularly as you are navigating through a divorce, you are in the process of transitioning from an intimate relationship to a more emotionally detached relationship, which means changing many expectations. As you are doing this, it feels odd because you remember that this is the person with whom you had children, and were vulnerable with your emotions, and now you are having a hard time communicating without shouting or with kindness.
COMMUNICATE THOSE BOUNDARIES. Once you have identified what boundary needs that you have, and who you need to set boundaries with, it is key that you communicate those boundaries clearly. Be clear, transparent and courteous. Don’t assume that the other person knows what you are thinking or that “everyone knows”. This is especially true if your boundaries are transitioning. It can be as simple as “I’m not comfortable talking about that with you. I would like our communication to be limited to issues involving our children.” It may be about the method of communication. You may ask that communication be only in writing, or that it only be through specific parenting applications.
Don’t accept suggestions of guilt, shame or self-doubt from others if they disagree with your personal boundaries. It is enough that this is a boundary that is important to you.
RECOGNIZE YOU ARE NOT ALWAYS IN CONTROL. It is also important to accept that there are times when you cannot control all of the boundaries. This is the essence of court orders and judgments. Someone else tells you what boundaries you are going to have, what your defined parenting time is going to be, how you are going to communicate respectfully, and defining new rules for interaction. You also don’t control the boundaries for other people. If others cannot accept your boundaries, you need to identify when you can choose to withdraw from contact to protect your personal boundaries, and when you need to adjust your boundaries to match another goal, such as a relationship with your ex-spouse.
RESPECT: Respect your own boundaries and your right to have boundaries. If you find yourself always deferring to what other people want to “get along”, soon you begin to feel angry that you are not being respected. Your boundaries, if appropriate for the circumstances, should be respected.
Respect the boundaries of others. Setting boundaries is not about demanding that other people accommodate you, but recognizing what you need in order to function in a healthy manner. Wanting your own boundaries to be respected means recognizing that your boundaries are important to you, but may not be important to someone else. You need to understand that, so that you understand that when someone rejects your boundaries, they are not rejecting you or your values, but communicating their own boundaries.
Particularly as part of a divorce process, redefining your boundaries and understanding the boundaries of the other person is the most important work that you do. Everything else - parenting plans, parenting decisions, money, property, support – all fit within redefining boundaries and changing the type of relationship you have. If you understand your own boundaries, you are in a good position to communicate and negotiate your need for those boundaries are part of the divorce process, whether it ends up being part of a court order, or just establishing what you are willing to do and accept going forward.