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AFTER THE LINE IS DRAWN: RESPECTING THE BOUNDARIES YOU SET

I’ve been thinking a lot about boundaries lately. In actuality, I’ve spent a good part of the last seven years thinking about boundaries—on a personal and professional level.

Professionally, I hear the same concern from my clients, which typically sounds like this: “I set boundaries with *** (insert the name of your spouse, boss, friend, mother, etc.) but they keep doing the same thing. I just can’t figure out why they won’t respect my boundaries.” The boundaries they set look like this: “I don’t appreciate it when you call me names when you’re angry. Please stop doing that.” Or, “It really hurts my feelings when you joke about my family in front of our friends. I’d like you to stop.” Then they repeat this over and over, wondering why the other person isn’t responding the way that they want them to. For most of my adult life I was doing the same thing—expressing unhappiness about the way I was treated and asking my partner to treat me with more respect.

This demonstrates a common misperception about boundaries. We typically struggle with “Why doesn’t the person respect the boundaries that I set?  In reality, our concern should be a much more personal one:  Why don’t we respect our own boundaries?

You see, there are two parts to boundaries. The first part consists of the request that we make of another person (“Please don’t yell at me when we have a conversation on the phone”). The second part consists of what we will do if/when that individual doesn’t respect our boundary (“Please don’t yell at me when we have a conversation on the phone. If you continue to yell at me I will hang up”). The second sentence is much more important than the first. We can’t control another person.

We can’t control another person. But we can teach them how to treat us. By leaving out the consequence, we are indicating that the boundary is our preference not a requirement.

We must anticipate and assume that the person we are setting a boundary with is not going to like it. Otherwise, they would not be doing the very thing that we are asking them to change. If someone is yelling at you on the phone, this is probably because they get some satisfaction out of yelling at you. It may make them feel powerful or may relieve some tension that they are feeling. Clearly, they are motivated by some desire that is met.

If the transgression is the result of a simple misunderstanding, then we will only need to ask the person once and it will stop (i.e. “I assumed that you couldn’t hear me when we are on the phone so I was yelling. Now that I know differently, I don’t need to yell”). But, if the individual does not respond to the first request for change, that means their needs that are met by the behavior are more important than your needs that would be met if the behavior stopped.

The real boundary is when we state the second part of the equation—what we will do if they don’t stop the behavior. This is where our power is. If we don’t follow up the request with some sort of change in our behavior, we disrespect the very boundaries that we set.

Those of us who are parents seem to understand this concept quite clearly when it comes to our children. It’s fairly easy to understand that if you don’t follow up “Please don’t throw balls in the house” with something like “…or else I will remove the balls from the playroom,” you won’t likely see much change. But we seem to struggle with this much more in our adult relationships. Perhaps we assume that children are not rational and thus need to be taught how to behave. In reality I have met many, many adults who do not treat adults rationally, even their loved ones.

The change in our behavior must have an impact on the other person.  It must interfere with the other person’s needs that are being met. In the telephone example—if we hang up the phone immediately when the other person starts yelling at us—and if we hang up the phone every single time—that person will learn very quickly that he/she gets no audience with us unless they lower their voice.

I have seen this play out in my own life. Recently my relationships are much more respectful. However, there are still times when I have to say “Stop treating me like that.” If it doesn’t work the first time (or second, third or fourth—I, too, take take my time in learning this lesson) then finally I do something different: “Since you seem unable to stop treating me like that, I’m going to leave whenever you do so in the future.” It works.

But much more importantly, we are communicating to them and to ourselves, that the boundary is valid and important. We are the only ones who can make that point. When I follow through with setting and maintaining a boundary, the feeling of empowerment and self-respect is indescribable. From first-hand experience, I am convinced that the person who draws the line is the one responsible for enforcing it.

Dr. Chris Lawrence
Dr. Chris Lawrence
Dr. Chris Lawrence is a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Missouri-Columbia and Stephens College. She is co-owner of Lawrence, Oliver and Associates, a private practice clinic in Columbia, Missouri. To learn more go to www.loacounselingandcoaching.com
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