How Healthy Are Your Boundaries? Understanding Personal Boundary Styles to Build Better Relationships

Friday, January 24, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Sexuality/Relationships

When children are small, it's almost as if you're one person, the lines between you and them blurring as you spend your day tending to another's needs. A few years later, when you find them rummaging through your purse for the car keys, those boundaries are far more defined.

Boundaries are something we actively do and adjust. Because of this, it may be hard to decide when your boundaries are being breached.

Except with that car keys thing. 

"Get out of my shit, punk!"

Do you feel victimized? Guilty? Overwhelmed? It may be time to check out your personal boundaries and decide how well they are working for you.

The Definition of Boundaries

The way we define our boundaries is a function of many different factors, but they are essentially a dividing line between ourselves and others. Our current boundaries reflect what we needed to function in our early environments. Somewhere between modeling and self-protection, individuals decide how much of themselves is safe to show the world. 

In dysfunctional or codependent families, these boundaries tend to get blurred and lead to additional issues. In contrast, healthy boundaries exist primarily to expand relationships by promoting the security of people within them, according to clinical psychologist, and Boundary Issues author, Dr. Jane Adams1. By setting limits, boundaries help us to maintain autonomy, which allows increased closeness because we don't have to worry about being engulfed by someone else's feelings. Boundary similarity may also help predict relationship success. 

So, the good news is that boundaries can be used to bring us closer. But, this may only be true if we know how to use them and understand the boundaries of those around us.

Boundary Styles

We have two main types of boundaries: internal and external.

Internal boundaries exist within our heads, a link between logic and emotion. Women may have evolved to have naturally thinner internal boundaries than men because our social model demanded more connection to others, though this is by no means a universal truth. If someone has thin internal (or interpersonal) boundaries, they may take things more personally and respond more emotionally to things that aren't necessarily emotion-provoking events for someone with thicker interpersonal boundaries. (Keep in mind that neither is right or wrong.)

Thinner boundaries:
"I feel hurt, betrayed and very sad that you don't like my______" (potato salad, hair, gift, etc.)

Thicker boundaries:
"So what if she doesn't like me? I've got better shit to do."

External boundaries provide a filter between us and the outside world through physical proximity. American society assumes that women have thinner boundaries in this arena as well, with thicker external boundaries often being seen as unfeminine.   

Pregnancy is one example when people seem to believe that a bulging abdomen means that external boundaries have completely vanished. Responses fall on a continuum from:
I'll just smile and nod until they go away.
"The day it's okay for me to walk up and grab someone's beer gut is the day you get to touch my abdomen like it's a fucking touchy-feely free-for-all!"

Then there are people (like me) who respond this way:
(Stranger at grocery store puts hands on my stomach): "Oh, how wonderful! When are you due?"
Me: "I'm not pregnant."
Not only am I amused by sudden hasty departures, but I also assume that next time, Captain Touchy-Feely will think twice before putting his hands all over someone's belly. It's a public service really.

"Hey, you aren't used to us trampling all over your personal space? How unladylike."

From protecting pregnant stomachs to crying over a comment about your hair (sometimes at the same time) external and internal boundaries have three main qualities, according to Adams. 

Three Types of Boundary Qualities:

Permeability: How much we are affected by the feelings of others, on a scale from:

"I define myself by my relationships, and feel deeply connected to those around me," to, "Fuck all y'all."

2. Complexity: How able we are to break relationships down and accept pieces of individuals as opposed to accepting things "all-or-nothing" style. Adams notes that the more complex boundaries are, the more you may be able to find in common with others because you're not wrapped up in the acceptance of everything at once. 

Low complexity:
"I love my sister's cornbread and her sense of humor, and love talking about our children. However, I cannot allow her to be in my life because she's a liberal idiot and I cannot accept any part of her because of this."

High complexity:
"I think that guy's a douhcebag and have no interest in his asinine opinions. However, I would totally screw him, because he does an awesome job cleaning my pool and he has abs for days."

3. Flexibility: How well we respond to elements of permeability, or our ability to switch between open and closed models to protect and even enhance our mental health. 

Low flexibility:
"I feel upset no matter who is criticizing me."

High flexibility:
"I feel upset and cry when my best friend is sad about something I did, but when my mother-in-law cries for the thousandth time about what a terrible person I am, I ignore it."

So, with this understanding in place, you should be ready to tackle your relationship by dissecting it with brutal honesty until you both understand what makes the other tick. 


Hold up. You might want to make a cup of coffee and wait a minute before you go in there all balls-out style. 

Boundaries, Honesty and Redefining Lying

Holding information back may be yet another type of boundary.

Despite our societal view that honesty is the best policy, Adams argues that full disclosure can be a hindrance to otherwise healthy relationships. Your husband's tendency to be closed-off about certain subjects may not be withdrawal, or reflective of a lack of relationship commitment. Adams believes that "constructive privacy" is the foundation of intimacy, a way to maintain safety, autonomy and the I of Us.

I have to agree, with emphasis on the healthy relationship part; we aren't talking about the dudes on Jerry Springer. 

While there are obviously limits to the withholding, healthy, happy relationships often don't require, or even thrive on, complete transparency. As one example, normal thoughts and fantasies could be misconstrued as a threat to the relationship when they really aren't. Women are all kinds of sexual, despite the fact that we aren't supposed to be. Honesty isn't all closeness, wine and roses. Sometimes it's unnecessary hurt, distrust and a three week argument about whether you really want to leave him for the pool boy. 

No matter how you try, there will always be things you don't share with your partner, or them with you. And that's cool, because as much as we think we want to know about what goes on inside their heads, trust me, most really don't. Just the things they want to do to us sexually is enough to turn many women off way before we get into bed. If he lies and tells you he's happy with the hole you're already using for sexual satisfaction, and your reaction to anything else would be complete revulsion, it's in the best interest of the relationship for him to keep his mouth shut, and his hands where you can see them (or at least open the discussion in phases outside the bedroom). Don't label it as concealment. Call it necessary so you can look each other in the eye until you decide there's a boundary there you want to break.  

Then bring on the Vaseline. 

Obviously, a breech of this physical boundary would not be hard to spot. But what if you aren't sure? When a psychological boundary is crossed, individuals may feel distressed well before they recognize what is causing the distress to begin with.

Boundaries and Anxiety

A breech of interpersonal boundaries is one reason for heightened anxiety. Many have increased heart rates or general nervousness before they even recognize exactly what it is they are responding to. 

Then you end up in therapy saying things like:

"I don't want to tell him any more about my fantasies since he fired the pool boy because of them. Even though I really don't care who cleans the pool, it just feels....wrong."

"I get nervous every time I'm around my brother ever since he told his friends about my membership in the New Kids on the Block fan club. I feel like I can't tell him anything now, but it shouldn't be this big of a deal."

"I tried to tell my husband what I was feeling and he laughed it off. Since then, I get anxious just thinking about the fact that I really can't discuss what is going on inside my head with him."

Feeling controlled or exposed to others is a very big deal. It isn't just the outcome that bothers us; it's that when someone shares something personal about us or disregards our feelings, we feel the need to pull back and hide pieces of ourselves. The implications for the future of the relationship matters just as much as the fact that we're pissed off now, even if it isn't something we think we should logically be bothered by. 

Boundary breaks, or emotional trespasses per Adams, happen in all relationships, at least sometimes. It's how you deal with it that will determine whether it helps the relationships grow stronger--through reaffirming positives and setting up new goals and limits--or hurts the relationship through withdrawal. Luckily, there are ways to embrace the positives while working through the negatives. 

Building Better Boundaries

Adam's Four Elements of Boundary Intelligence:

1. Awareness that a line is being crossed
2. Insight, or analyzing the situation
3. Intention, or making decisions about what you want now and in the future within the relationship
4. Action, or using your boundaries to manage the current situation effectively

So, if you are aware that a line is being crossed, you have insight into why and have decided to keep the relationship, how do you act on it to improve the situation? 

Using Boundaries to Improve Relationships

1. Find levels to interact or communicate on, where both parties can be happy and secure. Most people can find at least one element of common ground with another, even when the person is your mother-in-law.

 "We can enjoy talking about food and trading recipes on the holidays."

2. Treat others like you want them to treat you. If you don't want other people all up in your biz, you can't decide to call them out on the same stuff either.

"I don't like it when my husband publicly teases me about the way I do the dishes, so I won't do the same to him. That way, when I tell him to shut the fuck up about my plate cleaning ability, I won't be a goddamn hypocrite."

3. Clear messages about distance:

  • Name invasions when they happen:

"I didn't like it when you told your friends about my membership in the New Kids on the Block fan club."

Because Adams notes that reaffirming the importance of the relationship may assist in mending it, you could also say something like:

"I love talking about music with you and really enjoy your ability to pick out great songs. I also like your friends and have a great time with them as well. However, I didn't really like it when you told them about my membership in the New Kids on the Block fan club."

  • Describe how the boundary invasion made you feel:

"When you tell people about my love for New Kids on the Block, it makes me feel like you don't agree that they are the best band of all time...and that makes me embarrassed for liking them so much as well as sad that you may be missing out on their genius."

  • Describe what you want to happen:

"I would like you to respect my need to be a closet New Kids on the Block fan, and keep that shit to yourself."

  • Set a consequence for breaking the boundary again:

"If you discuss it again, I am going to tell everyone about your obsession with Brittany Spears...and I'll start with your poker buddies." You could also threaten to leave him home for the New Kid's reunion concert, though this may be more or less effective based on the musical preferences of the person in question. While another boundary violation of the Brittany Spears variety may not be the best idea, you get the gist. 

Self in Relationships

Whether your boundaries are thin or thick, barely permeable or highly flexible, they can work for you provided you can identify when your boundaries are being disregarded so that you can respond accordingly.

Those working towards more harmonious relationships may also benefit from exploring who they are within the relationship, as well as the relationship itself. Relationships with anyone from siblings to lovers to friends are the result of the two people who function within them. If you can identify who you are within the relationship as well as who you are outside of it, you may be one step closer to figuring out if the relationship is one that is working for you. If you decide the relationship's worth keeping, you can adjust your boundaries in a way that leads to personal growth and mental health, as well as better connections with others. 

After all, connection is what boundaries are all ultimately all about. 

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Topic-Relevant Resources

Boundary Issues
Everything you ever wanted to know about boundaries.

Psychopath Free: Recovering from Emotionally Abusive Relationships With Narcissists, Sociopaths, & Other Toxic People
A guide to overcoming abusive relationships with narcissistic or psychopathic individuals

Should You Leave?: A Psychiatrist Explores Intimacy and Autonomy--and the Nature of Advice
Psychiatrist Peter Kramer on the complex relationships between two people and how personal assessments of situations may lead to better overall functioning within couples...or the drive to separate.

Slow Sex: The Art and Craft of the Female Orgasm (Paperback) - Common
Sex and increasing the capacity for orgasm. You know you want to read it.

Conviction: An Ash Park Novel (#2)
Conviction runs deep. Courage runs deeper.