You can argue that the majority of dating and relationship problems are a boundary issue in one way or another. Years ago, I was enrapt in a relationship that felt great at times and just dirt shit other times. It was like a rollercoaster ride. It was only years later after chancing upon the concept of boundaries, that I realized that my ex-girlfriend and I had piss poor boundaries in our relationship.
So other than saving yourself from rollercoaster relationships, why are boundaries important?
Firstly, strong boundaries are the cornerstone of attractive behaviour. If you need a benefit to get good at this, yes, strong boundaries might actually get you laid. Secondly, strong boundaries are create emotional health and are created by people with emotional health. They lead to emotional stability, self-esteem and confidence. This is one of the core fundamental concepts I get my clients to iron out as a dating coach. Boundaries are also something that can be worked on right away.
Okay, before you get into deeper details, let’s take a look if you have a boundary issue.
Do You Have a Boundary Issue?
- Do you ever feel like people take advantage of you or use your emotions for their own gain?
- Do you ever feel like you’re constantly having to “save” people close to you and fix their problems all the time?
- Do you find yourself sucked into pointless fighting or debating regularly?
- Do you find yourself far more invested or attracted to a person than you should be for how long you’ve known them?
- In your relationships, does it feel like things are always either amazing or horrible with no in-between? Or perhaps you even go through the break-up/reunion pattern every few months?
- Do you tell people how much you hate drama but seem to always be stuck in the middle of it?
- Do you spend a lot of time defending yourself for things you believe aren’t your fault?
If you answered “yes” to even a few of the above, then you probably set and maintain poor boundaries in your relationships.
If you answered a resounding “yes” to most or all of the items above, you not only have a major boundary problem in your relationships but you also probably have some other personal problems going on in your life.
There are many reasons why someone may lack boundaries. From my experience they can be psychological or cultural. Psychologically speaking, people with a lack of boundaries may appear may be motivated by an unconscious need to ‘keep the peace’ because of the fear of getting hurt. Culturally, especially in the Asian/Singaporean setting that I grew up with, relationships are sometimes forced upon or traded.
So, what are boundaries and how do they look like?
How to Set Boundaries: What are Boundaries?
- NOT taking responsibility for OTHER people choices, actions and emotions
- Taking FULL responsibility for YOUR own choices, actions and emotions
Healthy Boundaries from the outside:
- NOT expecting others to be responsible for your choices, actions and emotions
- Other people should be responsible for THEIR choices, actions and emotions and NOT responsible for YOUR emotions and choices.
It’s really a simple concept that can solve a lot of relationship issues.
Examples of Poor Boundaries:
“You can’t go out with your friends without me. You know how jealous I get. You have to stay home with me.”
“I can date you, but can you not tell my friend Sarah? She gets really jealous when I have a boyfriend and she doesn’t.”
“Sorry guys, I can’t stay out late with you guys tonight, my mother gets really angry when I come home late.”
This is an example of someone taking responsibility for someone else’s emotions.
“My boss is an idiot and I am always late to work because he sets ridiculous rules.”
“If you’re my good friend, you’re supposed to take my sides!’
This is an example of someone expecting others to take responsibility for his/her own emotions.
The Usual Asian Culture Examples:
Since I’m Asian, and I personally been through and know a lot of examples from the Asian culture, I’ll chime in a few examples.
“If you go out with your friends tonight and not keep me accompany, I’m not going to give you allowance next month.”
“If you don’t study the subjects as I want you to, I’m not going to pay for it.”
“If you don’t do as I say, you’re not being filial to the family. Hence, you’re not a good child.”
This is an example of a parent’s expectation for his or her child to take responsibility for the parent’s choices, beliefs and emotions.
In each scenario, the person is taking responsibility for actions or emotions that aren’t theirs or are expecting someone to take responsibility for their actions or emotions.
When you set boundaries in your relationships, it can be as simple as saying no to someone and letting the chips fall where they may.
Remember, you’re NOT responsible for someone’s else emotions.
Flip that around, it’s also the willingness to take a no from someone else. That’s because if you feel crappy about hearing a no, you’re are responsibility for your own mood and not expect or blame anyone else for your emotions and choices.
Ultimately, having strong boundaries does not mean that you don’t want your partners or friends to be happy. It just means that you can’t decide if your partners or friends are happy or choose to behave in a certain way.
How to Set Boundaries – Step by Step Scripts
So, Marcus, how can you set boundaries in your relationships? These can be applied across from romantic relationships to business relationships.
If you can’t come up with your own lines, I’ll include some that I use in my own life, time and time again:
- ‘I prefer not to discuss them as these matters are private to me’
- ‘I never kiss and tell’ (I use this when people pry into my dating life)
- ‘I already stated my opinion and I’m not going to argue with you further.’
- ‘If you keep doing X behaviour, then I’m going to leave.’
- ‘This is are my values, and I hope you can respect that.’
The Breaker and Fixer Pathology
People with poor boundaries typically come in two flavours:
- Those who take too much responsibility for the emotions/actions of others
- Those who expect others to take too much responsibility for their own emotions/actions.
They are called the breaker, and the fixer. Interestingly, these two types of people often end up in relationships together.
My first serious relationship was like that, some times, it felt like it was us against the world. However, in hindsight, it was soul sucking and emotionally tiring. She and I had pathologies of both the victim and saver, oscillating between both roles at different point of times.
- The Saver
If you are someone who tend to feel a need to make their partners happy all the time, you may be playing the role of the saver in the relationship. You have a boundary issue. This is because, at the core of it, you’re attempting to decide/ control how your partner act and feel.
The saver doesn’t save the victim because they actually care about the problem, but because they believe if they fix the problem they will feel loved.
- The Victim
If you are that someone who is always creating problems, expecting others to take responsibility for your actions and emotions. You are playing the role of the victim.
The victim creates problems not because there are real problems, but because they believe it will cause them to feel loved.
The saver and victim commonly end up together in relationships and often lead unstable roller coaster relationships.
In both scenarios, the lack of boundaries leads to needy, co-dependent behaviour that are toxic in the long run.
From an attachment theory perspective, victims tend to be anxious-attachment types, and savers tend to be avoidant-attachment types. They both push away secure-attachment types. They may also grow up with parents who had poor boundaries in their relationships that led to their model of a relationship that is based on poor boundaries.
You may ask, Marcus, isn’t it cold and cruel to not care about others and fix their problems?
You see, the saver or the victim don’t ACTUALLY care about each other or the relationship, they are behaving in these ways because they gnawing at their own emotional needs. The victim needs to create problems to feel loved whilst the saver needs to be fix problems to feel loved.
Their behaviours are based on their OWN needs to feel loved and not actual unconditional love itself.
You’ll never build any authenticity or genuine emotional connection in your relationships. Not to mention the drama and toxicity of the relationship.
If the victim really cares about the saver and the relationship, he or she would say, “Look, this is my problem, you don’t have to fix it for me.” That would be actually caring about the saver.
If the saver really cared for the victim, the saver would say, “Look, you’re blaming others for your own problems, you should be responsible for it yourself.” That would be actually loving the victim.
The hardest thing for a victim to do in the world is to hold themselves accountable for their feelings and their life as opposed to blaming others. They spent their whole life believing they must blame others in order to feel any intimacy or love.
For the saver, the hardest thing to do in the world is to stop fixing other people’s problems and trying to make them feel happy or satisfied. They may have spent their whole lives feeling valued and loved when they were fixing a problem or providing a benefit to someone. Hence, letting go of this need is terrifying to them as well.
If you see your relationships as economical transactions, only seeing others as beneficial or economical exchanges, not only it’s a form of poor boundaries, it’s also going to tear you apart emotionally eventually.
The Boundary Problem in Modern Culture
Now, I may take some criticism for this, but I’m going to make my point anyway.
In Asian culture, there’s a cultural belief that children are inherently SUPPOSED to be filial to their parents or grandparents. It’s a common cultural Asian cultural ‘invisible script’ to love, respect and obey your parents JUST because they are your biological parents, whether or not they are good parents or not.
This often expressed in the value of filial piety.
I had a friend to said that he would give in to demanding/unreasonable requests to his parents just because they are paying for his University fees. His parents are using monetary support as a bargaining tool to get their child to conform.
I’m may piss off some you reading here but listen to me.
That is an unhealthy and toxic relationship dynamic between him and his parents with a lack of boundaries. On one hand, his parents are using money as a means to control their child’s behaviour. Secondly, on his end, he is giving up his self-respect, his honest thoughts, and desires because he’s afraid of not getting the money from his parents.
If your parents only provide for you financially if you give in to their whims and demands. It’s a conditional relationship. The underlying meaning of the relationship would mean: I only love you if you listen to me. I will only provide for you if you listen to me.
Firstly, these are shit poor form of boundaries. Secondly, there isn’t any genuine support or affection in their relationship.
From personal experience in the Singaporean culture, there are many that have this perception that if their parents provide for them financially, it’s a MUST to give in to their parents, against their genuine thoughts, desires and beliefs.
Some of the people reading this might say: Marcus, you’re such an INGRATE for speaking out against the age old values of filial piety. You’re Asian yourself and you SHOULD be filial to your parents.
Okay, shut up.
I AM filial to my parents. However, I act on it as a gift, with no expectations of return, as opposed to an OBLIGATION. There’s a difference.
The act and value of filial piety should be something that’s given unconditionally, rather than demanded or assumed because of cultural or social reasons.
If you’re forced to visit your grandparents every weekend and you secretly hate it. Then you’re not acting out of a genuine desire to see and care for your grandparents. You’re doing it because you don’t want to piss your Mum and Dad off.
Like I argued, acts of affection are only genuine if they’re performed without expectations.
Is It Okay to Sacrifice?
You may ask then, Marcus, what about making sacrifices for people you love? What about going the extra mile for best friends? What if my girlfriend wants me to call her daily? What if my pet goldfish requires me to stroke his belly 20 times a day?
I SHOULD make that sacrifice right?
Firstly, sacrifices that are made out of obligation aren’t genuine sacrifices. They are actually your inability to say no.
True sacrifice only comes in the form of unconditionally, as a gift, with no expectations of return.
Sacrifice is only true and genuine when you desire to do it out of no expectations, as a gift, and not because you should feel obligated to or fear the consequences of NOT doing it.
You can simply ask yourself this: If you stopped doing a X behaviour, would it change anything about your relationship with Y?
- If I stopped picking her up form her house or sending her home, will she still love me?
- If I stopped agreeing with her on everything she says, will she still love me?
- If I told my friend that he should be on time in the future, and being late isn’t cool at all, will we still be friends?
Read: I know, the algebra. I’m Asian, live with it.
If your answer is NO, it wouldn’t change a damn thing in the relationship, if you stopped doing a certain behaviour, then that’s a good sign.
If YES, then you probably have a boundary issue. You’re making a particular sacrifice or behaving in a certain way because you fear losing the relationship.
Closing Thoughts on How to Set Boundaries
Setting boundaries by cutting an acquaintance out or an ever unaccountable friend is easy. It’s as simple as cutting them out from your life or seeing them lesser. However, setting boundaries and maybe even cutting family, girlfriends, boyfriends and best friends out are a lot harder.
You can dump your girlfriend; you can’t dump a bad family member. Family relationships are usually hardest to deal with. Trust me, I’ve been there multiple times in my life.
I stopped driving a couple of my friends around. I realized that if I stopped driving them around, they wouldn’t bother hanging out with me. Tough truth to face, but that’s life. When I go out with a girl on a date and she says something offensive, I don’t just play nice and ignore, I actually call her out on it. I don’t care. I don’t accept rude or offensive behaviours in my life.
This may sound cold or cruel, however, someone with strong boundaries isn’t afraid to say no. He or she isn’t afraid of a temper tantrum or getting into an argument. He or she also understands that he may hurt someone else’s feelings at times, and ultimately can’t control not determine how someone else feels.
He or she also understands that a genuine relationship isn’t made up of two people deciding on each other’s actions or emotions, but instead, an unconditional relationship is made up of two people supporting each other, without judgment or expectations.
Manson, M. (2015, January 5). The Guide to Strong Boundaries. Retrieved September 5, 2017, from MarkManson.Net: https://markmanson.net/boundaries
Raymond Lloyd Richmond, P. (n.d.). Boundaries .Retrieved from Guide to Psychology : http://www.guidetopsychology.com/boundaries.htm
Rourke, J. T., Smith, L. F., & Brown, J. B. (1993, December). Patients, Friends, and Relationship Boundaries. Canadian Family Physician , 2557-2565.