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This is one of the articles in Lesson 4 - optimize your relationships. The article...
perspective on interpersonal boundaries;
boundary conflicts and
violations, and relationship enmeshment; and the article...
problems and the primary needs
that cause them; and it…
how to resolve boundary conflicts
20" YouTube video summarizes most of what you'll read here:
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
mutual conflicts. This and other dynamics were inexorably increasing distrust,
hurt, resentment, and anxiety in their year-old marriage.
What Are Relationship
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 linesbetween
what people and groups will and won't accept, tolerate, believe, or do.
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
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).
Conflicts and Violations
we're unique individuals, some personal and family boundaries will conflict
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
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
Enmeshment – Too Few Boundaries
Many adults have
early-childhood abandonment, neglect, and abuse ("trauma"). A common result is
wounds, including excessive shame, guilts, and
hitting bottom and
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
the right to assert or enforce personal boundaries, and/or they don’t
know how to assert
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
they have wispy personal
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
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.
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
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
options for resolving them effectively.
Typical Boundary Conflicts
conflict is: "I will allow (something)
without reacting, and you won't." Like
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
your CuriousKid) 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.
of five or
you feel intensely about. Have you
experienced boundary (yes/no) conflicts with other people on any of them?
To resolve typical boundary conflicts...
make sure your true Self
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")
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
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
1-up R(espect) message.
The relationship impact of boundary violations ranges from trivial to major
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
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
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."
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.
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
Spendingsignificant 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
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…
false selves and
they don’t know that or what to do about it; and/or one or both people are…
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
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
digging down. So he doesn’t
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
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
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.
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...
honor and act on my own
integrity to keep my self respect.”
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 hersubselves 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
this situation. Because of their respective unawarenesses,
inner wounds, Miriam and/or Craig made several uninformed, unwise
decisions. They didn’t know about the inherited
effects of the [wounds + unawareness]
so they didn't protect themselves and future kids by
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
Both committed without knowing communication basics and skills.
family adults and kids
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?
primary causes of typical boundary violations can be mastered if
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);
consequences were previously declared for this violation, review your
personal rights and enforce the consequences
specific consequences for any similar boundary violations, and ensure that
the violator understands them;
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).
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.”
was, he would realize
she couldn’t hear him until her E-level dropped “below her ears,” and would
calmly choose the skill of
“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
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.
options apply to reducing "boundary problems" with adults, teens, and
defines interpersonal boundary
conflicts (my boundary clashes
with yours) and violations (you
disregard my boundary);
proposes surface and primary reasons for these
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
(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
you need? Is there anyone you want to discuss
these ideas with? Who's
answering these questions - your wise resident