Boundaries are a tricky subject for many couples, and often the most loving ones. For some of us, boundaries kind of earned a bad reputation, being equivocated with selfishness, or a lack of love. I get asked: If we love each other, why do we need constraints at the heart of our relationship?
There’s a lot to say about this, but for now, I just want to leave you with this important piece of truth about relationships: The closer you are, the more you have to benefit from clear boundaries. And often, the closer you are — the more challenging it becomes.
Boundaries are a way to remember who I am while still being present and generous in my relationship. A relationship is created between two different people, with different needs, histories, fears, and sensitivities. That’s part of what drew us to each other in the first place, and if we give it space in a safe way, it can strengthen our connection, increase our confidence, and allow us to collaborate freely without having to constantly defend our borders or struggle with resentment.
So why is it so hard? Well, a crossed boundary can feel like an emergency. It could take a moment to find the shared space where both our needs can be met, and that moment can be painful.
Take Sarah and Aubrey, for example. They recently got into an argument on their way home from a bar. What could have been just a small disagreement turned into a source of enormous distress and anger. Sarah felt ignored, Aubrey felt humiliated and attacked. Now it feels like they are fighting over scarce resources.
The truth is, resources are usually abundant, but we don’t have a clear idea of what our partner needs, so we assume they require crossing our own boundaries to satisfy them. Practicing clarity would have allowed Aubrey and Sarah to collaborate and most importantly, stop feeling personally attacked. When the anger and suspicion cleared away, they had the following conversation:
A: I am a private person. I am uncomfortable having an argument or heated conversation with you in front of other people.
S: Well, I am less private and feel comfortable being more authentic in person, so it has not occurred to me that you may have a different style around this.
A: I would feel better if we discussed our feelings in a setting where it's just us. I also want to be authentic, and I don't think other people need to be involved in what I am feeling or something that involves only the two of us. I understand you operate differently and aren't as sensitive to the privacy piece.
S: I understand that, and am unsure how to do it when we are out in public or in front of others.
A: I wonder if we could try to find a quiet spot to discuss next time?
S: Yeah. We can even let one another know that we need to discuss something and then do it later when we are alone.
A: That would feel much better for me. How would it feel to you?
S: I’d be cool with that, as long as we discuss it at some point. It's ok if it's not immediately.
For some of us, that framework means shifting the way we think about our needs, and that takes practice. Don’t give yourself a hard time, just remember this is not a war. You are on the same side, boundaries are healthy, and they are allowed.