Why Healthy Boundaries Make Better Relationships

The idea that good fences make good neighbors has been around long before Robert Frost wrote about it in his iconic poem “Mending Wall.” Just as a fence or property line can keep the peace between neighbors, so, too, can effective boundaries enhance both well-being and relationships.

If you struggle to set or maintain boundaries — or are uncertain about how to do so — here are three ways to think about them that may help.

The Fence

With geographical boundaries, a rather obvious consideration is where they are. But interpersonal boundaries have no clear demarcation lines. Susan Cadley, a licensed professional counselor in Alpharetta, Georgia, defines boundaries and frames the discussion with clients this way: Who are you letting in to, or keeping out of, your sacred space?

“You can look at sacred space as your personal space. I see it as more energetic,” she said. “Who deserves to be in that circle? If someone isn’t treating you well, you need to set a boundary. If someone is encroaching too much, you feel overwhelmed or you feel that they’re taking you over, you’ll have to set a boundary to push that back so you can have some space.”

As far as creating a boundary, she often uses the metaphor of putting up a fence by hand. “You’ve got to use a post hole digger, and that takes a lot of physical energy. You put the fence up, and somebody might come and knock it down. And then you’ve got to put it back up again,” Cadley said. Often, setting and resetting boundaries can be tiring, so we loosen them because putting them up repeatedly wears us down. Or the fence is so big, she adds, that it becomes like a wall and nobody can get in. The key is finding a sense of balance between keeping some people out and creating connection with those we allow in.

It’s a process that offer many benefits, including feeling safe or protected, being able to get perspective on a relationship or situation (whether work or personal), and enabling you to stay centered and peaceful.

The House

A house is another useful metaphor. If you are considering who to allow in the vicinity of yours, based on their behavior or how it feels to be in their presence, you may want some folks to remain outside the fence. Others you may allow inside the fence but only in the yard, and still others may be permitted on the porch. Those you allow inside your house call for another set of considerations. How far do you allow them in? Just inside the foyer? Where you bond with family over meals? Into a space you consider private or special?

The reactions and responses from your body and emotions when you think about having someone in your physical space are telling. For example, still utilizing the house as a metaphor, do you find that each step of the way, you feel comfortable as you think about this person approaching the house and entering it? Or do you feel increasingly anxious thinking about them simply stepping into the yard — and the idea of them getting any closer to the house brings on a full-blown feeling of panic? By paying attention to your thoughts, emotions and body responses, you can better gauge where your boundary lines need to be for you to feel safe in relationship.

The Call to Love

The process of discovering, setting and maintaining boundaries provides critical information. It helps us know ourselves better, identify underlying patterns that we may not be consciously aware of and be more attuned to our most sensitive places.

The same is true in relationship. As we explore our own depths and work on reframing or healing past experiences, it’s easy to become self-focused and forget that others are navigating their own internal waters, too. Their coping mechanisms may be different, their boundaries may feel more rigid or loose than our own, and sometimes two sets of boundaries can bump up against each other. But by approaching each other with the willingness to understand, and to consider a loved one’s sensitive places with as much care as we hold our own, we can engage in relationship with greater compassion, empathy and love.

Boundaries are important not only for maintaining our own sense of safety and peace of mind, but also in knowing ourselves and others better. Rather than sliding down the slippery slope of judgment, condemnation or guilt about setting and maintaining interpersonal boundaries, we can utilize them as guideposts and road signs for how to love ourselves and each other better.

To hear more about boundaries, click here to listen to the full interview with Susan Cadley on Episode 4 of the Being and Doing Now podcast.

Published in Featured Articles, Life