Gray Matter: The Unwritten Rules of Relationships

As a therapist, I pay attention when certain issues come into my chair again and again—lately, many clients have been grappling with understanding healthy boundaries, what they are, and how they are violated.

Personal boundaries are the rules and limits we set for ourselves, and, by extension, the privileges we afford others in our relationships.  They are developed over time through a combination of growing self-awareness, understanding needs and building trust.  They change and shift over time and differ depending on the relationship—the boundaries we set with our friends are going to be different than the ones we set with acquaintances, work colleagues, our family or our romantic partners. As we relate to others and form our own boundaries, we’re interacting with others who are also expressing their own boundaries and needs.

Most of the time, when boundaries get crossed, it is not intentional but is part of the ‘dance of intimacy’ as two people get to know each other. This is a normal and healthy testing of trust and negotiating what is and is not acceptable within a relationship. Eventually a mutual understanding is developed between two people and the relationship grows.  Coming to a place of consensus and agreement, from a place of respecting each other, is an important part of this dynamic.

Often, however, boundaries can be crossed and the result is a loss of trust or a feeling of being violated.  Have you ever felt that a friend or partner has ignored your needs and thought only about themselves? Or had a parent assuming their wants and desires are more important than your own and expecting you to fulfill those needs?  Sometimes this is an innocent faux pas that can be rectified by dialogue and listening, but sometimes boundary violations come about due to other more serious issues.  These issues can become unhealthy patterns and dynamics that go on to affect many other relationships in one’s life.

Unhealthy boundaries can stem from different issues including a lack of awareness and trauma. When we lack self awareness, we cannot adequately understand our needs or how they can be met mutually in a relationship in healthy ways.  By understanding ourselves better, we are more capable of understanding what we can contribute, how much, and when without hurting ourselves.

Also, as we go through life, we experience situations that we are unable to process and we develop internal coping mechanisms to deal with them.  Part of those coping mechanisms for traumatic situations might be tolerating behavior from others we might not normally accept under different circumstances.

When people have weak boundaries, they may be easily taken advantage of, become resentful or insecure, or develop codependent relationships. 

 If someone is unable to adequately express their needs and affirm strong boundaries against someone else’s violations, they will continue to be taken advantage of.  For example, if someone finds themselves in similar relationship dynamics across multiple partners then they need to ask themselves what unhealthy patterns are they perpetuating or seeking out.

There are also  internal repercussions from having boundaries violated—people could develop resentment with life, low self-esteem or potentially a victim mentality. The ability to understand one’s needs and boundaries, and affirm them, goes hand and hand with confidence and fulfillment.

In codependent relationships, an individuals’ need to be taken care of is matched with another person’s need to be needed. These enmeshed relationships are caused by weak personal boundaries and a lack of self-awareness. Often in such relationships, abuse and manipulation is ignored because the core needs being serviced are seen to outweigh the unhealthy behaviour.

In order to understand and affirm your boundaries, it is important to understand your needs, trust your gut, and become aware of your core beliefs and perceptions. 

We all have needs that when fulfilled bring us back to a place of healthy centre of balance.  Understanding one’s own needs can go a long way in developing healthy dynamics with others, as we can dialogue with others about how our needs can be met while also filling their needs. 

The gut instinct is an important indicator of when our boundaries are being violated, and often is an early warning sign.  

We develop over our lifetimes based upon our experiences and traumas a series of core beliefs and perceptions that we use to decipher and relate to the world.  These core beliefs, almost like an operating system, colour how we interact with others and ourselves.  Becoming aware of these beliefs about ourselves and others, and understanding how they contribute to relationship patterns ties in with understanding needs and the relationship patterns we can fall into.

We are culturally socialized to put our needs behind those of the community, especially those who have power in our lives such as our parents or authority figures.  Many of us are conditioned therefore to ignore or put aside our experience.   Speaking your truth and affirming that whatever it is is not appropriate nor welcome can go a long way to signalling to that person that you are not okay. Along with speaking, listening is an important part of healthy negotiation of mutual boundaries involves mutually listening to one another’s experience.

Many times, what feels like a boundary violation can actually be a trigger for ignored trauma, and would not normally be seen as a violation in other areas of your life. It is necessary to also understand and take responsibility for your own shit.  As you become self aware of your needs and those deep core wounds 

Finally, sometimes there is no other option than walking away. If someone is a repeat offender and will neither listen nor respect your boundaries, continuing to engage with that person can often be just enabling the situation.  Whether walking away or forming stronger boundaries with that person, distance can be beneficial for everyone involved.

Healthy boundaries are attainable by all of us, as long as we understand our own roles in forming and maintaining them.  For more information on boundary setting, I highly recommend checking out “Set Boundaries, Find Peace” (2021) by North Carolina based therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab.