Boundaries: Relationship Highway

A post on the function of healthy boundaries.

Boundaries live on a spectrum. There’s no “one size fits all” approach to their function. They can be amorphous little buggers, as they are applied differently with family members as opposed to strangers, different between a coworker and a friend, and like walls thicker in new versus familiar settings.

Take whatever messages you receive about how to move through the world, and you have a rough draft of the kind of boundaries you have. Whether your boundaries are too rigid or too porous, these imaginary lines serve a purpose. When applied in a healthy way, boundaries increase functionality in all aspects of our lives. Sounds like a seemingly straightforward concept, right? Not quite!

Humans are social creatures. We’re consistently interacting with folks in our inner and outer circles, some who have different definitions for what constitutes as appropriate boundaries. As a result, we’re constantly having to navigate how to respond to situations with only a general knowledge of why we do what we do, and often no background knowledge on why other people do what they do.

What makes boundaries so complex?

Boundaries are taught.  As an expat living in Switzerland, I’ve learned the Swiss have much more rigid boundaries about physical contact than what I’m used to. Hugs, for example, are reserved for very close relationships. This isn’t a bad thing, just different. Just as culture is taught, boundaries are also taught. We tend to stick to what we know, but it takes courage to sift through the good and bad of what we've learned about boundaries to salvage what's usable.

Boundaries are dynamic. They change ALL the time. A confidant breaks your trust, and immediately a boundary is redrawn to protect yourself. Someone gets married or a new baby arrives, and then BAM your boundary on who falls within the realm of “family” is redrawn to include in-laws, additional children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews.

Boundaries have levels.  It's no secret that a “friend” and a “best friend” have different privileges. The title isn't necessarily about how much time you've known someone, but more about a connection, shared experiences, and primarily, level of trust. Sometimes boundaries are defined by growth. Older kids in a family, for example, have fewer restrictions as they become more autonomous in their exploration of the world, as opposed to younger children who need a stronger boundary of protection to match their maturity level.

Boundaries don’t follow a formula. Figuring out the appropriate boundary level for specific people and situations is tricky. Equally difficult is learning that a boundary society has taught you should be more porous isn't the case for you. You may have a parent you can't depend on or a child who steals from you, and it's painful because those are not relationships we expect to have to redefine. We simply can't afford to ignore the concept that sometimes boundaries need to be adjusted to protect ourselves from others.

So, boundaries are complex. Cool. What’s the endgame here? Mainly to illustrate that if there’s a change you want to happen in your life, evaluate the boundary in your relationship to that thing (or person).

If you wonder if you’ll ever be finished with evaluating boundaries—the answer is no, not if you are continuously growing as a person and responding to the growth of others! It’s not easy to regularly evaluate boundaries in your life connections, but the task leads to healthier relationships and an improved quality of life.