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 we lack a sense of our own identity and the boundaries that protect us, we tend to draw our identities from our partner. We can’t imagine who we would be without our relationship. We become willing to do anything it takes to make the relationship work, even if it means giving up our emotional security, friends, integrity, sense of self-respect, independence, or job. We may endure physical, emotional or sexual abuse just to save the relationship.
The more rational alternative is to find out who we are and what makes us 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
We may cling to the irrational belief that things are good enough in the relationship – that we feel a measure of security and that this is as good as it’s likely to get. In the process, however, we give up the chance to explore our sense of fulfillment in life. We give up our 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 we may learn to feel guilty if we fail to ensure the success and happiness of other members of the household. Thus, in adulthood, we may come to feel responsible for our partner’s failures. The guilt we feel when our partner fails may drive us to keep tearing down our personal boundaries so that we are always available to the other person. When we feel overly responsible for another person’s life experiences, we 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
A qualified couples and family therapist can help you identify unhealthy internal and relationship boundaries and develop healthy ones. The rewards can be immeasurable – for both you and your partner.
Dr. Baya Mebarek, Psy.D.,LMFT