The Process Toward Establishing Healthy Couple Boundaries
Couple boundaries are personal and therefore couples need to discuss these and come to agreements that makes sense to them. Couple boundaries are dynamic, not “set in stone” and will need to be discussed on-need basis as situations change over time. There are many reasons why agreements, expectations and the resulting boundaries need to be evaluated on a regular basis. These include among others illness, pregnancy, injury and mental health status. Boundaries also dramatically change when the relationship status changes from living together and sharing all, to having different bedrooms, experiencing informal separation leading toward a formal separation, becoming friends (companions) rather than lovers, up to not being in touch after a divorce.
When boundaries are discussed we talk about values and preferences and when we feel safe or when we feel uncomfortable. There are times we cross boundaries and there are clear boundary violations. Although setting “rules” is often seen as too strict, certain topics that elicit strong feelings in couples need to be clearly communicated. Rather than calling it a rule, it can be referred to as an agreement. If the agreement is perceived by the couple as practical and both equally feel comfortable with it, it will help to increase trust or it aids in re-establishing trust after betrayal.
No couple can explore boundaries and come to agreements when they do not communicate effectively. In many cases, conflict is a direct consequence of ineffective communication and in general it is not about content, it is about how an issue is communicated. This means it is not about what is said, but how it is said. For example: “I thought we were going to bed, but you are still reading/watching television/busy on Facebook/working”. Or “I would really like to go to bed early, so we can cuddle a bit before we go to sleep”. Another one: “You have told this a million times and I am sick of it as it will never go away”. Or “when you talk about [topic] I feel frustrated because I thought we had come to an understanding, but I obviously misunderstood and I would like to know what I am missing”. In summary, “I-statements” are used and words such as “never, always, all the time” are avoided and the speaker assumes responsibility for their own feelings.
It is also hard to discuss boundaries and come to some shared agreement when a couple has problems solving conflict. Of course, conflict can only be solved when effective communication is used. People have different styles in how they respond to conflict. Some prefer to avoid conflict, others want to have it all sorted out as soon as the disagreement surfaces. Avoiders tend to either walk out or forget about it, or they agree with the more dominant person in order to have the conflict out of the way. Different conflict styles are directing, cooperating, harmonising and avoiding. None of them is perfect in every situation and all of them have value depending on the situation. Knowing each other’s style in dealing with conflict will help to deal with it (search for Kraybill Conflict Style Inventory, if you want to know more about different styles in dealing with conflict).
Before talking about boundaries, a couple needs to get clarity about each other’s level of commitment which is highly correlated with how much partners share with each other.
Another factor that plays a role is differences in personality as these differences relate to different preferences and again only when a couple communicates effectively they will understand and respect each other’s needs and wishes (search for free personality testing e.g. on Humanmetrics to learn more).
Once all of the above have been acknowledged and validated, a couple can talk about boundaries and expectations. Important topics to discuss when entering a different and more committed relationship or when rebuilding a relationship are: Honesty, Sharing and Secrets, Relationships with Others (friends and family including cyber-relationships) and Work-Relationships (see post 69 for boundaries in the work environment).