Lesson 4 of 7 - optimize your relationships

Options for Resolving
Boundary Problems

by Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

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The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/relate/boundaries.htm

Updated 01-29-2015

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      This is one of the articles in Lesson 4 - optimize your relationships. The article...

  • offers perspective on interpersonal boundaries;

  • defines boundary conflicts and violations, and relationship enmeshment; and the article...

  • illustrates common surface boundary problems and the primary needs that cause them; and it…

  • suggests how to resolve boundary conflicts and violations.

      This 20" YouTube video summarizes most of what you'll read here:

      The article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this Website and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 3

  • a Personal Bill of Rights - a requisite for effective assertion;

  • steps for effective assertions; and...

  • how to analyze and resolve relationship problems effectively

      Recently a thirty-something man emailed me about dissatisfactions with his marriage. His message concluded “Don’t respond, because my wife reads my email though I asked her not to.” His wife’s insecurity and distrust was violating an important boundary of his.

      She interpreted her husband’s request for privacy as “keeping secrets,” which made her anxious. He did need to keep some secrets, because he experienced her typical responses as unsafe - i.e. over-emotional, critical, unempathic, and combative. So far, this college-educated couple was not able to use effective communication skills to unravel their web of internal and mutual conflicts. This and other dynamics were inexorably increasing distrust, hurt, resentment, and anxiety in their year-old marriage. 

  Boundaries 101

  What Are Relationship "Boundaries"?

      If someone asked you to eat a live centipede, would you? Either "yes" or "no" demonstrates a personal boundary or limit. In our context, boundaries are invisible dividing lines between what people and groups will and won't accept, tolerate, believe, or do.

      Boundaries define what's currently acceptable physically, psychologically, and spiritually, and what isn't. “Acceptable” means “I can tolerate (something) without taking some action.” For instance, "I like red meat, but I refuse to eat horsemeat or raw hamburger."

      Adults and kids hint, imply, declare, or shout their boundaries verbally ("OK," "No," "Not now,"...) and nonverbally, via face, voice, and body dynamics.

      Sometimes it’s useful to differentiate between limits and boundaries. A limit is something you can’t do, like levitate or chat with Buddha. A boundary is something you won’t tolerate without taking some action.

      Firmly-flexible boundaries are essential for persons, couples, and stable family systems. They help to define identities ("We don't eat meat on Fridays."), and they regulate the psychological distance between people and groups. When boundaries are compatible, stable, and enforced respectfully, they provide kids and adults with enough identity, safety (comfort), privacy, and order.

      Boundaries can be tangible (skin, doors, walls, fences, clothing...) and invisible (thoughts, values, preferences, emotions). Both can promote order, harmony, and security, or frustration, anxiety and stress.

      Remember the last time someone important violated (disrespected or ignored) your personal boundaries? Relationships flux dynamically as each person asserts and enforces their boundaries to balance closeness (MeYou), and separateness (Me) + (You). 

  Boundary Conflicts and Violations

      Because we're unique individuals, some personal and family boundaries will conflict internally (among personality subselves), and among people: e.g. "You're OK with eating dinner after 8 PM, and I'm not." A different stress occurs when one person ignores (“violates”) a significant boundary in another person, like "I asked you not to buy so many lottery tickets, but you did anyway."

      Typical boundary conflicts are often simpler to negotiate and resolve than violations, because violations usually require rebuilding respect and trust, and healing hurts and guilts.

      Boundary conflicts and violations can range from minor (no action required) to significant (some action or consequence is required). Each of these has two levels: surface boundary problems, and the primary problems (unmet needs) that cause them.

   Healthy and Toxic Boundaries

      When boundaries and their consequences promote everyone's personal wholistic health, safety, order, and self and mutual respect, they can be labeled healthy. Boundaries and consequences which diminish or block these and stress relationships can be called toxic. The latter usually means a false self controls one or more people involved.

      Implication -  the personal and social effects of boundaries and their consequences, and the way they are set (e.g. respectfully and empathically or not) can be just as important as the boundaries themselves.

  Enmeshment – Too Few Boundaries

      Many adults have survived significantl early-childhood abandonment, neglect, and abuse ("trauma"). A common result is inheriting psychological wounds, including excessive shame, guilts, and fears. Before hitting bottom and choosing to reduce their wounds, typical survivors tend to unconsciously choose each other as mates and associates repeatedly, despite painful results. 

      Sometimes the wounds manifest as rigid, aggressive boundaries and a high need to control relationships. Some shame-based survivors feel they don't deserve the right to assert or enforce personal boundaries, and/or they don’t know how to assert them effectively.

      When two such people choose each other, they may have few to no boundaries with each other (“Juan and Charlene are joined at the hip.”) They (their ruling subselves) become fused or enmeshed, and they have wispy personal identities.

      Symptoms of fusion are discouraging each other from having individual friends, hobbies, careers, thoughts, feelings, dreams, worship practices, and solitudes. Each partner feels high guilt and anxiety saying “no” or “not now” to their mate – or talking about this. Codependent relationships have unbalanced or too few healthy interpersonal boundaries.

      An enmeshed relationship may satisfy some wounded couples who are unaware of themselves and their primary needs. A high cost they pay is stunted personal growth and muted or no personal life goals. As such couples age, factors can combine to cause one of them to need more personal boundaries. That inevitably raises their partner’s anxiety, and causes boundary conflicts and violations.

      A variation of this occurs when a parent is enmeshed with a child. Wounded, overwhelmed custodial parents with few resources can unconsciously require their child to become a “surrogate mate” – a confidant, partner, and companion. In the worst case, this includes toxic physical intimacy (abuse).

      From unawareness, shame, and fear, the parent (i.e. their false self) discourages their child from developing an identity and other relationships, moving out, and choosing their own partner ("growing up" / "maturing"). Some clinicians call such burdened kids parentified.

       Let’s use the above to explore...

  • typical boundary conflicts and violations

  • the common unmet primary needs that promote them, and..

  • options for resolving them effectively.

Typical Boundary Conflicts

      The basic conflict is: "I will allow (something) without reacting, and you won't." Like values conflicts, basic resolution options are "You and I acknowledge our mutual conflict and negotiate a compromise we each can live with," or "we don't."

      Boundary conflicts among your active personality subselves are the same: one subself (like your Curious Kid) says "I want to experience 'x' (like spiders crawling on my hand)." Another subself, like your ever-alert Catastrophizer, says "Well I don't! Spiders will poison us and we’ll slowly die in unspeakable agony, you idiot!"

      Your other subselves may add their own mosaic of boundaries about relating to spiders (or whatever), depending on many things. Your behavior and emotions are the outcome of all your subselves’ needs, boundaries, and negotiations together. ("OK, OK, we'll collect, study, and discuss spiders, but we’ll never touch them.")

      Many topics trigger surface boundary conflicts in typical families: money ("No, I won't agree to buying a $145 parrot."); "manners;" hygiene and health; food and eating; co-parenting; spirituality and worship; holidays and vacations; sensuality and sex; time balances (work, play, or rest); privacy and solitude; socializing; TV and leisure choices; home decorating; transportation; promptness; dress and appearance;, etc., etc.

      Think of five or more things you feel intensely about. Have you experienced boundary (yes/no) conflicts with other people on any of them?

Conflict Resolution

      To resolve typical boundary conflicts...

  • make sure your true Self guides your other subselves;

  • admit the conflicts without blame, shame, or guilt; ("We have a boundary conflict.")

  • identify your respective boundaries ("You'll tolerate _____ and I won't")

  • apply the same steps you use to resolve values conflicts - as mutually-respectful teammates, not opponents.

An inability to do this usually means (a) one or both people are controlled by a false self (Lesson 1), and/or (b) they aren't fluent in effective-communication skills (Lesson 2).

Typical Boundary Violations

      The surface problem in typical boundary violations is "I need you to do (or don't do) 'x,' and you do it anyway. Then you deny doing that, justify it, or blame me for it." All violations imply "I value my needs more than yours," and send an insulting (disrespectful) 1-up R(espect) message. The relationship impact of boundary violations ranges from trivial to major over time.


      Miriam told her husband that she doesn't approve of pornographic magazines or videos, and wants none in their home. During a spring-cleaning session she discovers a box of such materials with recent publication dates hidden in their garage.

      Robert let his wife know several times that he's "uneasy" about her lunching alone with her former lover Armando. Robert doesn't say "Don't do it," but implies that's what he needs. He hasn’t said what he'll do if she chooses to continue.

      Anne enjoys friendship with Armando, and has no interest in a sexual or romantic relationship with him. She feels Robert is being "immature" and "over-controlling," and resents his attitude (implied blame and distrust). A mutual friend tells Robert she saw his wife and Armando lunching yesterday, and she had said nothing to Robert about this...

      Ned taught his younger brother Tom how to ride his motorcycle, and asked him not to use it without asking. Ned comes home from work one day to find the cycle gone from the garage. His sister says "Tommie took it."

      My client stoically implies hurt, resentment, and frustration that his wife ignores his request that she not read his email without asking. She blames  him for distrusting her, keeping secrets, and being “a bad husband;” and says those faults justify her actions.

      Other common examples of boundary violations...

  • Interrupting someone after they ask you not to;

  • Willfully intruding on someone's privacy without permission;

  • Telling others personal information that someone asked you to keep private;

  • Spending significant money without consulting your partner;

  • "Forgetting" your partner’s request that you call if you’ll be working late;

  • Behaving seductively with a child and denying that, despite observer's warnings; and…

  • Withholding or distorting information that would affect someone's perception of you and your relationship.

      Physical violations come from disrespecting another person's bodily boundaries via unwanted or painful skin contact. Others can come from ignoring someone's tolerances for noise, smell, taste, and temperature. Most aggressive (vs. assertive) behavior and all true abuse always cause significant emotional and spiritual boundary violations.

Two Primary Problems

      Premise - the roots of most (all?) boundary conflicts and violations are that one or more people  are

      Ruled by false selves and they don’t know that or what to do about it; and/or one or both people are…

      Unaware of...

  • the boundary concepts and terms above,

  • the primary needs and values causing their boundaries, and...

  • how to assert and enforce boundaries and consequences effectively....

      Let’s see how these manifest with Miriam and Craig. Neither is aware of what you've just read. Her surface (conscious) boundary is: “I want (you, Craig to bring) no pornographic materials in our home.” Her implied (unstated) boundary is “I will react (somehow) if you need to use pornography.

      A related (unspoken) boundary is “I need to trust that you’ll tell me the truth, and I’ll react if you don’t.” Wanting to trust Craig, Miriam hasn’t needed to define or state what she’ll do if he violates her boundary.

      Craig pledges that he understands, and declares earnestly that he doesn’t need pornography. One personality subself really believes this, and wants to honor Miriam's request. Other subselves remember past arousal pleasures and want to re-experience them despite his wife's request (boundary).

      Periodically, these subselves generate thoughts and urges in Craig to fill two sets of needs: (a) get pornographic pleasures, and (b) hide this from Miriam and others to avoid major conflict, guilt, and family disruption. His Magician subself causes persuasive rationalizations why this is really OK, despite other subselves’ counsel that it isn't.

       Two of Craig’s semi-conscious inner boundaries are: “I will never betray or lie to Miriam,” and “I will not be a man who needs pornography.” He doesn’t know about psychological wounds or the Lesson-2 skills of awareness and digging down. So he doesn’t admit that his periodic guilty fantasies about viewing pornographic images are signs that he has significant unfilled marital needs. Implication: pornography is not the problem; unawareness and his relentless unfilled needs are.

      Craig silently battles with an internal conflict: some subselves want to honor his and Miriam’s boundaries. Others persuasively argue that violating the boundaries “isn’t that bad,” promising harmless pleasure (to fill undefined needs). At some moment in time, he buys pornographic magazines, experiences various excitements, and guiltily hides the magazines in the garage as he did as a youth.

      Like an addict in denial, his false self now begins an elaborate inner and outer campaign to make this deception acceptable. The subselves that want sexual excitement and mental/emotional distraction from inner pain (the real problem) overcome other subselves (including his true Self) that want to be honest and “porn-free.”

      From this perspective, Craig didn’t lie to Miriam. The subselves that spoke the words “I understand, and I’ll never bring porn into our home” were telling their truth. Unawareness, fear, guilt, and shame caused the subselves that didn’t pledge that to remain silent. Because of unseen false-self control, Miriam was married to two Craigs in one body without his being crazy in the least. Neither mate knew this.

      Time passes, and Miriam discovers that her husband has broken two promises: to tell her the truth, and to stop using pornography. Her respect for and trust in him drop sharply, she feels hurt and angry, and her anxiety blooms ("What else is he hiding from me?").

      She confronts him, and – because they don’t know Lesson 1 and 2 concepts, they fight (vs. problem-solve). This can have many outcomes, but none will illuminate the real problems without mutual awareness, and Craig choosing a Self-motivated program of personal healing.

      When she discovers later that Craig is having an affair, Miriam faces her own inner boundaries...

  • I will not live with a man I don’t respect and can’t trust;

  • I will never divorce;” and...

  • I must honor and act on my own integrity to keep my self respect.

      Other boundaries involve (a) who she may confide in about this situation (e.g. her sister but not her parents), and (b) her responsibilities to their kids and to God. The degree of harmony among her subselves will determine how she resolves her web of inner boundary conflicts and whether her vigilant Guardian subselves violate any of them.

      An unseen prior problem promoted this situation. Because of their respective unawarenesses,  needs, and inner wounds, Miriam and/or Craig made several uninformed, unwise courtship decisions. They didn’t know about the inherited effects of the [wounds + unawareness] cycle, so they didn't protect themselves and future kids by working at Lessons 1-5.

      She committed to an appealing man with major hidden psychological wounds and unawareness . He committed to her without awareness of his wounds and what they meant. Both committed without knowing communication basics and skills.

      If your family adults and kids have significant boundary conflicts and/or violations, the good news is: once you acknowledge them, you can learn to avoid and reduce them together over time. The bad news is: until you all admit and reduce significant protective false-self denials and illusions (i.e. do Lesson 1), your ruling subselves will cleverly distract, resist, and deflect you from preventing violations and conflicts together, and will earnestly deny doing so.

      Pause and breathe well. Close your eyes, and notice your thoughts and feelings. Recall why you’re reading this article. What do you really need here, and who’s leading your inner family of subselves now?

Resolution Options

      The two primary causes of typical boundary violations can be mastered if both people...:

  • want to have their true Self guiding them (i.e. want to study and apply Lesson 1); and...

  • want to learn how to problem-solve effectively (e.g. to study and apply Lesson 2). Then...

  • identify the specific boundary that's been violated, and the effects of the violation (usually hurt, anger, frustration, and diminished trust in and respect for the violator);

  • If consequences were previously declared for this violation, review your personal rights and enforce the consequences firmly. Otherwise, assert specific consequences for any similar boundary violations, and ensure that the violator understands them;

  • focus on patiently intentionally rebuilding trust and respect, as appropriate.

      If Miriam and Craig were committed to the first two options above and her Self guided her personality, she might firmly say something like:

Craig, when you pledge you won’t use pornography or lie to me, and then do both of those anyway, I feel betrayed, disrespected, disappointed, distrustful, hurt, and resentful. If you do this again, I'm going to (take some specific action).”

      If Miriam’s false self were in charge, those earnest subselves might cause her to say sarcastically or angrily...

It’s obvious I can’t trust you with anything (generalizing) because you’re weak and dishonest (labeling and blaming), and you don’t care about my needs (accusing and punishing).

"You obviously have some kind of sick sex addiction (exaggerating, blaming, and avoiding her half of the problem), so don’t expect to sleep in my bed until you get fixed, Craig (punishing and guilt-tripping).”

      Predictably, "1-up" communication behavior like this will probably evoke fight or flight among Craig’s governing subselves unless (a) his Self (capital "S") was in charge, and (b) he knew the seven communication skills. If so, he would assess nonjudgmentally if her E(motion)-level was “above her ears.”

      If it was, he would realize she couldn’t hear him until her E-level dropped “below her ears,” and would calmly choose the skill of empathic listening: So you feel betrayed and really hurt that I was dishonest, and you want me to acknowledge that.”

      If that helped her regain her hearing, Craig might then say evenly “Miriam, I am really sorry that I betrayed you. I feel ashamed, and I have no excuse. I sense that your false self is making your voice sarcastic, and I feel blamed, punished, hurt, and defensive. I don’t want to fight or run away. I need you to get your Self back in charge, and join me in some win-win problem solving, not attack or punish me. Can you do that now?”

      Does this kind of communication seem alien? [ Inner voices: “No one talks like that! I (or my partner) sure wouldn’t.” ] I guarantee that thinking and talking like this becomes normal if you (a) practice the seven Lesson-2 skills and the mutual-respect attitudes underlying them, and (b) your Selves are leading your inner crews!

      A third option you have to reduce your “boundary problems" is to seek qualified professional help with Lessons 1 and 2. above. “Qualified” means trained and experienced at doing effective (a) personal trauma recovery and (b) communication skill-building work. If you’re a stepfamily, any professional helper you hire should (c) have most of this special knowledge.

      Note that these options apply to reducing "boundary problems" with adults, teens, and kids.


      This Lesson-4 article...

  • defines interpersonal boundary conflicts (my boundary clashes with yours) and violations (you disregard my boundary);

  • proposes surface and primary reasons for these stressors,

  • gives an example of boundary violations, and...

  • suggests practical options for resolving both stressors.

      The options center on both people (ideally) studying and applying Lesson 1 (free your true self to guide you) and Lesson 2 (learn and apply effective-communication basics and skills).

      Pause, breathe, and recall why you read this article. Did you get what you needed? If so, what do you need now? If not - what do you need? Is there anyone you want to discuss these ideas with? Who's answering these questions - your wise resident true Self, or ''someone else'?

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