Building Healthy Boundaries
By William DeFoore, Ph.D.
How To Create Lasting, Fulfilling Relationships
When we are clear and focused within ourselves, boundaries automatically emerge and begin to move into place in our marriage or other type of relationship.
In other words, boundaries are to some extent established subconsciously, as a result of mature self-love. Another dimension of boundaries requires our consciously focused attention and effort. We will look at these two levels in terms of our commitment to ourselves and to our relationships.
Picture three concentric circles. The inner circle represents commitment to self, the next ring represents the role we play in the relationship and the outer ring represents our commitment to the relationship itself. You will notice there is no mention of commitment to the other person—that’s their job.
1. COMMITMENT TO SELF
Our first priority in a relationship with another is our commitment to ourselves. This is not selfish, it's merely practical.
Your best friend has just been in a car wreck and needs your help. You want to get there as fast as you can, but it's a few miles away and your car's gas tank is on empty. Do you ignore this and zoom off to the rescue? Of course not. You get some gas before making the trip. By the same token, we each need to take care of our own needs to some extent before we go about trying to give to others.
It's really very simple. You are the center of your universe. Everything you see, hear, feel and experience goes out in concentric spheres from your point of awareness there in the center of your world. This is not some weird idea, it's pure rational fact.
Your self, your universe as you perceive it, is what you carry into any relationship you enter. All of your cumulative life experience, your “family baggage”, your emotional and behavioral patterns are part of what you bring.
You are responsible for what you contribute to the relationship. The other person is responsible for his or her own contribution. This means simply that you have the job of maintaining your own physical, emotional mental and spiritual health. That way you bring a healthy person into the relationship, which is a true gift to your partner.
Let's look at some of the inner dimensions to your relationship with yourself. The physical self is closer to the surface and more observable than any of the other aspects. We share our thoughts and ideas more easily and readily than we do our emotions, so the mental self would be next.
Our emotional self goes very deep into our being and much of it is subconscious. Our emotions are more private than many of our thoughts, so we may see them as closer to the core of our being.
You might say that the spiritual self or the spiritual aspects of love are at the heart of who we are. Our spiritual feelings, experiences and beliefs are deeper and more private than perhaps any other aspect of who we are. The spiritual dimension naturally expands to include the emotional, mental and physical self as focus and development occur at this deepest level of relationship.
This is our first work in creating a healthy relationship with another. It takes two basically healthy, growing people to make a healthy relationship.
2. COMMITMENT TO ROLE
We are each responsible for the role we play in our relationships. It is a mistake to make our role totally dependent on the behavior of the other. For example, "I would be a better husband if she would only . . .” The truth is that you are responsible for the kind of husband or wife you are, no matter what your spouse may or may not do. Your role is your creation and responsibility."
By taking charge of defining your role as husband, wife, lover, friend, mother, father, son, daughter, boss or employee, you are empowering yourself in the relationship and removing yourself from the victim position. The tricky part about this is that our basic training for these roles was in our family of origin and early childhood experience. This is one of the reasons that family-of-origin work is so important as a part of any couples or relationship counseling process.
Here are some ideas to help you clarify and take charge of the roles you play in your significant relationships:
a. Write down what you learned about the roles of wife and mother from your mother, and husband and father roles from your father. (Add any other roles you are interested in exploring, the source being your primary role model in that area.) This will give you an idea of your subconscious mind-set regarding these roles.
b. Write new definitions of these roles for yourself, using your own knowledge and goals as guidelines.
c. Next write about all the reasons you feel you cannot fulfill the ideal roles you have defined for yourself. Consider these to be some of your barriers to intimacy, and use the skills you gain in this book to overcome them.
d. Create affirmations in first person, present tense to form new attitudes and beliefs about yourself and your ability to fulfill your own ideal role in your relationships. Use your negative and self-limiting beliefs as a springboard for arriving at these new beliefs.
e. Plan specific behaviors that will help you to actualize your ideal role fulfillment.
This is a further extension of what you offer in your relationship. Your commitment is to bring into the relationship a healthy, growing individual who is further committed to being the best spouse, lover, parent or friend possible. All of this happens before even considering the influence of the other person.
3. COMMITMENT TO THE RELATIONSHIP
This is where we really begin to give consideration to the thoughts, feelings and needs of the other person. We each have individual responsibility for ourselves and our roles, and we share mutual responsibility for our relationships. When our commitment follows this priority, we bring a healthy person with well-defined functional roles into the relationship. Therefore, our contribution to the relationship is the best we have to offer and we are responsible for our contribution.
There is a tremendous amount of material that could be covered under the heading of boundaries and this covers only a small part of that subject matter. The point here is that emotional, mental, physical and spiritual health automatically create a powerful basis for functional boundaries. In making your health your responsibility and your first priority of commitment in your relationship, you are taking an important step toward creating healthy boundaries.
With these steps taken, we are ready to invest all that we choose in our relationship, making healthy intimacy a very real possibility.
Imagine your relationship as a third entity in your marriage, friendship, etc. Together with your partner, invite a loving spirit (God, your higher power or the loving deity of your choice) into the relationship. Decide that your behavior toward each other is always going to be governed as if you were in the presence of a divine, loving being. Bring only the best of yourself to this sacred space of your relationship, and when bringing other aspects than your best, do so with the utmost respect and sensitivity. Treat your partner as an honored guest at all times, and together invite the honored guest of a loving spiritual presence into your relationship. This can become an ongoing meditation and/or prayer for the health and success of any relationship.
Without at some point claiming our anger and its sense of empowerment, we do not feel the strength and courage necessary to risk true intimacy, sharing our deepest feelings, thoughts and dreams. Without healthy anger, we certainly will not have healthy boundaries.
With healthy anger, you can expect better boundaries, healthier marriages, and more fulfilling relationships. Make up your mind to heal your anger and create the life you choose.