Boundaries Are Relationship Roadmaps

by Dana Boyle on May 31, 2012

I  coached someone who was struggling with being upset and obsessing over why a friend of hers was not calling, asking her about things that are important in her life, or making any effort to be a friend lately.

At first, she just kept saying she didn’t know why she cared so much, because she didn’t NEED this person anyway, she had lots of friends.

She was making up all kinds of stories about why this person wasn’t calling.  Their spouse wouldn’t allow them to talk anymore.  They didn’t care about her.  They were busy at work.  She was going over and over why it might be, and every time they didn’t call when they used to she rehashed and massaged those stories.

I pointed out that she was not in her own business.  In fact, I reminded her a few times to just forget this person while we explored her feelings and needs.

After going down several roads with her, asking her what the payoff was for being friends with this person, asking her if there was more to the friendship than I thought, etc…and then it dawned on me – I had a wild hunch.  So I put it out there.

I told her that in my late twenties I began to realize that I didn’t have to keep every person that I collected over the years.  Just because I knew people all my life or for five years or whatever story I was telling myself about the meaning behind the relationship, didn’t mean I was stuck with them and had to put up with whatever they dished out.  I had a right to choose the types of people that I would surround myself with and evaluate my relationships based on whether they contributed to my life or contaminated it.

I told her about a situation I’ve had with a friend when I had to realize that more times than not, whenever I dealt with that person the interaction made me feel bad in some way.  I would walk away feeling like I’d done something wrong, or like they were simply negative, or judgmental of me, or some other toxic feeling.

Then I asked her if she had boundaries.

She said, “What do you mean?”

I knew at that moment that I was right.  If you don’t know if you have boundaries, or if you don’t know what your boundaries are, then you don’t have any and you’ve been operating without them probably your whole life.  If you’ve been boundary-less, it’s likely that you’ve put up with a lot of inappropriate behavior from people all in the name of being a “good friend.”  I know, because I did that for the first thirty years of my life.

This person she was upset over had once told her she was “the best friend” they’d ever had.  It was her payoff.  Without boundaries, that felt good to her, even if most of the time interacting with this person made her feel awful.  What mattered, she thought, was that she was being a good friend.

What about the other person?  Did it matter that they were not being a good friend?  What did a good friend look like?  What kind of qualities do they have?  What kinds of rules would they have to follow to be a friend?  What kinds of behaviors would break the deal and end the relationship?  How would she communicate those things?

Those are boundaries in relationships.

I explained to her that in my extended family, people have done crappy things to each other for generations and then they all get together and have noodle salad, and I realized at about age 30 that I don’t have to have noodle salad with people who don’t honor my boundaries.

I don’t have to sign up to hang out with people on purpose who I know make me feel like crap, no matter how they do it.

I could tell a light bulb went on for her, and she began to turn her wheels on whether she wants to even be friends with someone who treats her the way this particular friend has treated her.  Where she was asking, “Why do I care?  I don’t know why I care so much!,” she was now wondering whether defining her boundaries might alleviate her perceived obligation to care.

What she cared about was being a good friend.  Once she realized that she doesn’t have to be a good friend to someone who is not a good friend, I could feel the relief for her.

Do you have good boundaries?  They are and important foundation for any relationship, be it dating, marriage, friendship, or even hiring employees, working for people, running your own business and working with clients, you name it.

If you don’t know what boundaries really mean,  you probably don’t have any.

I can tell you that life improves dramatically with boundaries.  It’s just like the tired adage says, “Good fences make great neighbors.”

Teaching someone how you want to be treated, drawing the line at inappropriate behaviors, and then being willing to walk away from people who either walk all over your boundaries with wild abandon or from people who routinely “inadvertently” violate your boundaries attracts the right people into your life and keeps the riff raff out.

Boundaries are a roadmap you draw that tells YOU how to keep yourself on track so that you’re routinely feeling good in your relationships, and they are a roadmap that gives those you deal with instructions on how to show you respect, love and friendship without violating you or making you feel small in any way.

You are worth it, and you deserve to make the rules in your own relationships.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Kal June 1, 2012 at 7:05 am

Hi Dana,

A really interesting article and I can only agree with everything you say.

We most definitely teach those around us how to treat us. I was with a client the other month and she was having difficulty with her ‘layabout’ children and partner.

We talked about standards and how she had lowered hers by letting them walk over her.

The thing is I said, to reimpose those standards will cost you a greater pain than it was to maintain them.

If you let people know where the boundaries are to start with then they will pretty much keep to them (the odd skirmish reminds you both about them). However if you want to put the boundaries up then you will have to deal with the initial battles as behaviour patterns are adjusted. If you go into the ‘field’ knowing this then it doesn’t knock it out of you when ‘they’ fidget.

Thanks again for the wisdom,

Kal

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Dana Boyle June 1, 2012 at 10:27 am

You’re so right, Kal! Setting them up at the outset and then maintaining them is key. Thank you for your contribution and for sharing!

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Joanna Weston June 1, 2012 at 8:38 am

I have to say, I adore this statement: “I realized at about age 30 that I don’t have to have noodle salad with people who don’t honor my boundaries.” For some reason, that noodle salad just makes the best metaphor.

I think something that often gets forgotten when we think about boundaries, is that they really do benefit other people. In fact, there are probably people in her life right now who are just waiting for her to set some boundaries and give them that road map!

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Dana Boyle June 1, 2012 at 10:30 am

Joanna,

I totally love the noodle salad line too! I kind use that all the time now from a Jack Nicholson line about happy memories and noodle salad in As Good As It Gets when he’s talking about family relationships.

You are so right. They say children want structure, but adults do too. We want to know what’s acceptable and not to others and how to interact with them best.

Thanks for visiting and making me smile!

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An June 1, 2012 at 4:25 pm

Looove the noodles line too! For some reason there’s so much playfulness and freedom in that line!

And that story sounds so familiar – getting caught up in their business and forgetting about our own, what we need and want. And what we don’t want to allow in our lives.

Great post, Dana! Definitely gonna keep the noodle salad image as a reminder to honor my boundaries.

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Dana Boyle June 1, 2012 at 4:38 pm

An,

Keeping in our own business is so hard for most of us, myself included. :) I remind myself all the time.

I’m glad you will find use for the noodle salad image every time you find yourself needing to honor your boundaries.

Much love!

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Blaze June 4, 2012 at 5:24 pm

Putting ourselves first is not selfish, it is a loving and kind boundary that we can create for ourselves first.

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Dana Boyle June 5, 2012 at 9:54 am

Yes, so important to learn to practice self-love!

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Debra Smouse June 6, 2012 at 7:52 am

The path of respect and love for others shouldn’t have to include being a doormat for others to walk that path. I love this so much, Dana. Boundaries.

Need to remember this piece when dealing with some of the folks on the fringes of my life. Thank you.

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