Boundaries Part II: Boundaries with Individuals, Couples, and Families

BoundaryThis article is a continuation of the material we covered in the previous blog post called “Next Level Boundary Setting”. In that article, we discussed the most common narratives for boundaries on social media and, often enough, in therapy. By the end of the article, we had addressed some new and more nuanced ways of conceptualizing our boundaries and how to experiment with setting new boundaries. We concluded by talking about the high dream of boundary work being a kind of mastery, and this article moves from there.

Good Individual Boundaries

My previous article began by rooting down in the dominant ways that we talk about boundaries. That grounded us in a conversation about individuals. And that makes sense because most therapy is with individuals, and so the most common way we talk about it is to imagine some sort of sphere around that one person. Boundaries then are all about exploring the qualities of that sphere.

But something strange happens when we use too much of an individualistic lens. The highest form of boundary work can seem to be all about maximally protecting and nurturing the only person we are looking at: the self. When we study boundaries in isolation of relational values, our analysis can be skewed, and we can make mistakes. This is a simple mistake for therapists to make in particular.

Therapists have what’s called a “fiduciary relationship” to their client. This means that they promise to put the interests of their client above all other interests. One of the impacts of this is that, for example, when I’m talking to my individual client about some relationship in their life, I am committed to concerning myself only with my clients well-being, and I can feel professionally distanced from the well-being of the greater relational system (including the wellness of that other person). Owing to this funny consequence of a very strong and necessary ethical commitment, therapists are liable to over-promote the kinds of interventions that put the self over the system.

HammerThis is another factor in the construction of the dominant narrative around boundaries pushing us towards firmness, rigidity, and non-porosity. Again, as I wrote in the preceding article, it is true that in a great many situations things will be better with that intervention. But there is a major issue with the absolutism and dominance of this viewpoint. We all know the old parable: “To a man with a hammer everything is a nail”. The same is true about the Person-Firming-Their-Boundaries.

  • What do we do when there is a conflict with our boundaries inside an essential relationship in our life?
  • What do we do when our partner needs something, and yet it feels like a transgression of our boundaries to give it to them?
  • Is it a betrayal of self to loosen boundaries? Is it a betrayal of the other to firm our boundaries?

Amelia Earhart, the famous flyer, wrote this famous letter to her husband:

Please let us not interfere with the other’s work or play, nor let the world see our private joys or disagreements. In this connection I may have to keep some place where I can go to be myself, now and then, for I cannot guarantee to ensure at all times the confinement of even an attractive cage.

Boundaries in Systems

Each of us, except perhaps for a most unfortunate few, live our lives among chosen intimates. We have our family and our friends and our lovers and these people take on a special place in our lives. We are better off for them. We are better when they are better. And we are better when these relationships are better.

The overall health of me is improved by the overall health of us.

That is both an obvious and a radical thing to say in the world of individual therapy. It implies that there is not such a simple relationship between protecting and honouring the self and living our best life. In the short term, in hedonistic terms, and in terms of personal empowerment, the correct direction for boundary setting is almost always “more rigid”: do less for others, expend less energy on them, get more from them than you give, and count the reciprocal transactions for fairness. Collect what is owed. Don’t be a fool, and don’t let them walk all over you.

The description above is true for a lot of people, a lot of the time! If you are the kind of person who has too often let themselves be taken advantage of or has experienced coercive relationships in the past, you know all too well the dehumanizing and disenfranchising feeling of these corrosive patterns. And in relationships that don’t matter all that much, it probably isn’t worth giving up much of the self to support the system. 

But what about those relationships that do really matter? What do we do then? And as therapists, what do we advise our clients in those relationships? And perhaps most tricky, how do we handle situations that call our clients to be more open, when their own personal histories ask them to be more closed?

Complex Boundaries

ComplexityIn the simplest context, we enter into our serious relationships with relatively healthy boundary capacities. We are primed and ready to negotiate, to find the middle. We are flexible enough to give you as much as you need without taking too much away from me. Sometime middle doesn’t sit quite right for one or both of us, but we persevere with respect and some pushing and tugging and over time we settle into a new equilibrium.

But complex boundaries are not always so easy. There is a common case where there is a seeming contradiction in what is needed.

Consider a woman who has been in a coercive relationship and now recognizes that for her own sense of self there is a pathway to change and healing where she firms her boundaries up, not only experiencing a life in which she gets more freedom from relational responsibility, but also wherein she teaches herself this particular form of self control, self respect, and self compassion. This is a common story in individual therapy, and many therapists are familiar with how to support someone on such a journey. In the early months of this work, there is often a “too-far-swing” in that direction, as the novice boundary-setter learns how to play this new game. And this can be fine if the person is free from serious interactions in relationships that really matter.

But what happens when there is this work going on but in, say, a marriage, or a marriage with children? Our client has presumably declared through her life choices that this is very important to her and worth preserving. And what if the needs of that family don’t allow her to play this new boundary game that would benefit her sense of self? How ought she proceed? How ought therapists help her proceed?

These complex boundary situations must be considered systemically. If, as therapists or as clients, we put our blinders on and do only the individual work, we risk jeopardizing the very system that holds them. Simply put, it is unlikely that a busy family full of valuable relationships that must hang together can sustain the same boundary game that a single person can experiment with. Therapists and clients should practice their navigation of boundaries with an eye to complexity, observing together the impacts these experiments are having, and how this work is expanding overall betterness. This is always the goal: feeling better. Maximizing one type of betterness (say, boundary rigidity and sense of self empowerment) must, in complex systems, be done with consideration of complexity.

The Responsible Self

We absolutely need to expand our sense of boundary work to include both the letting in and the keeping out, to represent not the stalwart protection of self, but the fluid capacity to define for oneself in any given moment what is most important and how to proceed.

Boundaries at their most basic help to protect the self. But at their most advanced they express the self. Many of us choose to allow others to transgress upon us, or encroach upon us, or to have an impact of some sort upon us because that is what we believe is right and good. 

People pleasing is so-defined not as acts of kindness, but as compulsive, fear-based choices to manage the emotions of others lest they do something bad to us. People pleasing is not typically an expression of values so much as it expresses self-protection. (Kind people can also be people pleasers, and it is not easy to parse out when actions and behaviours are value driven or fear driven, but such is the fun of therapy.) People-pleasing is often pinpointed among those who have had loose boundaries and now feel the need to firm them. But it is not the acts of kindness themselves that are betrayals of self: it is the compulsive nature of them. We feel the absence of choice: that is, no option to consider the self in her values or her fears.

Boundaries become an expression of the self when we can choose what to do with them. When we have learned sufficient mastery, we can put up firm boundaries, and we can soften them to nothing in moments of quiet intimacy. With mastery, we can navigate imperfection—when we can let others impose or even hurt us.

Much is asked of us in this world. The gentle movement of therapeutic change and growth is one lovely and perhaps even noble task. But we must be sensitive to our whole world as we go about it, and therapists can and should be there to help with navigating that complexity. Boundaries can be an absolutely crucial place to explore our own ethics and values, of which protecting and honouring the self should absolutely be included. But the self is not the only thing that matters.

What Really MattersWhat Really Matters is the title of a book by one of my favourite authors, the medical anthropologist Arthur Kleinman. I often ask my clients this question as we move through difficult tradeoffs and uncertainties about how to proceed. Our goal is not to do “what’s best,” because the only question that comes from that is “Who’s best?” Instead, our goal is to hone in on what matters most in any situation, i.e. what matters most to you, and to learn ways of experimenting in the real world that allow me to express that thing that most matters to me. We artfully navigate complexity not by pretending I am a developing-self-in-a-vacuum, but by engaging square on with it and learning about how even counterproductive or contradictory behaviours can be expressions of higher values.