Here are some ways in which unhealthy boundaries may show themselves in our relationships, along with some remedies:
– Lack of a Sense of Identity
When someone lacks a sense of his own identity and the boundaries that protect him/her, that person tends to draw their identity from their partner. He/She becomes willing to do anything it takes to make the relationship work, even if it means giving up their emotional security, friends, integrity, sense of self-respect, independence, or job. He/She may endure physical, emotional or sexual abuse just to save the relationship.
The more rational alternative is to find out who you are and what makes you unique, and to rejoice in this discovery. Realize that your value and worth as a person are not necessarily dependent on having a significant other in your life, that you can function well as an independent person in your own right. When you move into accepting yourself, your relationships will actually have a chance to grow and flourish. This journey of self-discovery can be challenging – but highly rewarding. Working with a trained therapist can provide the structure and support we needed to take on this task.
– Settling for Second Best
You may cling to the irrational belief that things are good enough in the relationship – that you feel a measure of security and that this is as good as it’s likely to get. In the process, however, you give up the chance to explore your sense of fulfillment in life. You give up your own life dreams in order to maintain the security of a relationship. There is a feeling that if one of the partners grows and finds personal life fulfillment, the relationship would be damaged.
A healthy relationship is one in which our boundaries are strong enough, yet flexible enough, to allow us to flourish with our own uniqueness. There is a sense of respect on the part of both partners that allows each to live as full a life as possible and to explore their own personal potential. We don’t have to give up ourselves for a relationship. Healthy boundaries allow trust and security to develop in a relationship.
– Over-Responsibility and Guilt
One characteristic of growing up in a dysfunctional household is that you may learn to feel guilty if one fail to ensure the success and happiness of other members of the household. Thus, in adulthood, you may come to feel responsible for your partner’s failures. The guilt you feel when your partner fails may drive you to keep tearing down your personal boundaries so that you are always available to the other person. When you feel overly responsible for another person’s life experiences, you deprive them of one of the most important features of an independent, healthy and mature life – the ability to make their own life choices and accept the consequences of their decisions.
A healthier response is to show our partners respect by allowing them to succeed or fail on their own terms. You, of course, can be there to comfort your partner when times become difficult, and you can rejoice together when success is the outcome. When boundaries are healthy, you are able to say, “I trust and respect you to make your own life choices. As my equal partner, I will not try to control you by taking away your choices in life.”
– The Difference Between Love and Rescue
People who grow up in a dysfunctional family may fail to learn the difference between love and sympathy. Children growing up in these conditions may learn to have sympathy for the emotional crippling in their parents’ lives and feel that the only time they get attention is when they show compassion for the parent. They feel that when they forgive, they are showing love. Actually, they are rescuing the parent and enabling abusive behavior to continue. They learn to give up their own protective boundaries in order to take care of the dysfunctioning parent. In adulthood, they carry these learned behaviors into their relationships. If they can rescue their partner, they feel that they are showing love. They get a warm, caring, sharing feeling from helping their partner – a feeling they call love. But this may actually encourage their partner to become needy and helpless. An imbalance can then occur in the relationship in which one partner becomes the rescuer and the other plays the role of the helpless victim. In this case, healthy boundaries which allow both partners to live complete lives are absent. Mature love requires the presence of healthy and flexible boundaries.
Sympathy and compassion are worthy qualities, but they are not to be confused with love, especially when boundaries have become distorted. Healthy boundaries lead to respect for the other and equality in a relationship, an appreciation for the aliveness and strength of the other person, and a mutual flow of feelings between the two partners – all features of mature love. When one partner is in control and the other is needy and helpless, there is no room for the normal give-and-take of a healthy relationship.
– Fantasy vs. Reality
Children from dysfunctional households often feel that things will get better someday, that a normal life may lie in the future. Indeed, some days things are fairly normal, but then the bad times return again. It’s the normal days that encourage the fantasy that all problems in the family might someday be solved. When they grow up, these adults carry the same types of fantasy into their relationships. They may portray to others the myth that they have the perfect relationship – and they may believe, to themselves, that someday all of their relationship problems will somehow be solved. They ignore the abuse, manipulation, imbalance and control in the relationship. By ignoring the problems, they are unable to confront them – and the fantasy of a happier future never comes to pass. Unhealthy boundaries, where we collude with our partner in believing the myth that everything is fine, make it difficult to come to terms with the troubles of the relationship.
Healthy boundaries allow us to test reality rather than rely on fantasy. When problems are present, good boundaries allow us to define the problems and to communicate with our partner in finding solutions. They encourage a healthy self-image, trust, consistency, stability and productive communication
It means coming to know ourselves and increasing our awareness of what we stand for. It also means self-acceptance and knowing that we are OK as we are and worthy of the good things in life. When two people with healthy boundaries enter into a relationship, they encourage wholeness, independence, and a zest for life in their partner. They know that trust is possible and that the normal expected difficulties found in all relationships can be worked on constructively. They can find true intimacy as whole, complete and equal people. The journey to a sense of healthy identity is not always easy – but it need not be all that difficult. It often means letting go of some of our old misconceptions about the nature of the world. It means treating ourselves with respect and appreciating ourselves for what we really are. When we can do this for ourselves, we can take the same approach toward our partner – and then the true happiness and love that our relationship deserves can become a reality.
Good fences make good neighbors – Robert Frost
Baya Mebarek, Psy.D., LMFT
San Diego Couples and Family Therapy serves the surrounding areas of Sorrento Valley Road as La Jolla, UTC San Diego, Del Mar, Rancho Santa Fe, Rancho Bernardo, Rancho Penasquitos, Poway, University City and Escondido.