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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Relationships: Setting Healthy Boundaries

Being able to set healthy boundaries in your relationship is a very important part of being in a relationship.

What Are Healthy Boundaries?
Setting healthy boundaries means that you're able to set limits with your partner about how close or distant you are with each other in terms of the physical, emotional, financial and, possibly, spiritual aspects of your lives together. An example of this would be that you both understand that it is unacceptable for you or partner to hit or cheat on each other (see my prior post about infidelity). Another example is that you won't tolerate cursing or belittling comments.

Relationships: Setting Healthy Boundaries

Another example might be that when you come home from work, you might need 15 minutes to yourself to calm down from the day before you hear about everyday, non-emergency problems with your children. It could also mean that you want to keep whatever money you had before you entered into the relationship separate from any combined income that you and your partner set up when you entered into a committed relationship (see my prior posts regarding talking about money with your partner). Or, that you want your partner to respect your privacy with regard to your personal journal. There are so many other examples. The emphasis is on healthy boundaries (neither too rigid nor too loose) and that these are aspects of your relationship that are important to discuss early on and to maintain.

Why do some people have a hard time maintaining healthy boundaries?
There can be so many reasons. Often, the issue for the person who has problems setting healthy boundaries is that he or she has low self esteem (see my prior posts on low self esteem). When you have low self esteem, you might not feel that you deserve to set boundaries with your partner (or with anyone else).

You might fear that if you set boundaries with your partner, he or she might leave the relationship. But it's important, for your own self respect as well as the respect that you deserve from your partner, that you be able to say what you do and don't want. This assumes, of course, that you know what you want. For some people whose personal boundaries were violated at an early age, it's hard for them to know what they want at any given time. Sometimes, they set boundaries that keep them too distant from their partners and other times they allow their partners to encroach upon them too much because they were never allowed to set boundaries when they were younger so they don't know how to set healthy boundaries.

Relationships: Setting Healthy Boundaries

This is a more complicated problem and usually needs the help of a mental health professional. Another reason might be cultural differences between you and your partner. Maybe one of you is from a culture where personal boundaries in a relationship are not as important. If this is the case, it will take time and effort to negotiate with your partner what the personal boundaries will be in your relationship. For other people, the challenge might be that they are "people pleasers" and they have a hard time saying "no" to just about any request. This is also related to low self esteem. Another possibility is that one or both people in the relationship might be codependent with each other (more on this in future posts). And, there can be so many other reasons why someone would find it difficult to set healthy personal boundaries.

What Do You Do If Your Partner Doesn't Respect Your Boundaries?
Well, this depends on what we're talking about. It's never acceptable for your partner to hit you, take your money without permission, try to control what you wear, verbally abuse you, keep you from having friends or seeing your family or to threaten you. These are all forms of abuse. If any of these things are going on in your relationship, you and your partner need immediate help. You can call your local chapter of Safe Horizons or speak to a mental health professional.

You might also need to protect yourself by going to stay with a trusted friend or family member if your partner is physically abusive. You deserve to be safe. But assuming that we're talking about other less serious boundary infractions (like not allowing you a few minutes to relax when you come home before talking about daily problems, for instance), you might need to remind your partner. Negotiating and making changes in a relationship can be challenging and a gentle reminder from time to time might be necessary if your partner forgets or if you forget what you have agreed to regarding personal boundaries.

As we can see, this is a big topic and can be challenging for you and your partner. It might also be challenging for you in your other relationships with your family, your partner's family, your friendships and your work relationships.

Feeling entitled to set healthy boundaries and setting them with others is important to your self respect and to how much others will respect you.

Since this is such a big topic, I'll be writing more about this in future posts.

I am a NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my web site: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

Feel free to call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me at josephineolivia@aol.com to set up a consultation.