Boundaries are something that I often here people are not comfortable with. Usually it is because they have not had practice or exposure to the language of boundaries. I suspect another reason for the discomfort is that boundaries seem to have the connotation of being “bad” as they often imply distance and disconnect, which can seem cold and rude to people. You may have heard the term ‘detachment with love’ floated around, but what does that actually mean?
First of all, let us clarify that everyone has and needs boundaries. You have them now in your life, whether you realize it or not. Boundaries are our internal parameters for what we are comfortable (and not) doing. If you do not commit crimes, that is a boundary for you. If you do not accept people throwing objects at you, that is a boundary. Most people carry some basic boundaries around respect of rules/laws and physical safety. Where it gets more confusing is emotional safety and care, especially in relationships with people we care about. This is where people start to think that boundaries are not necessary because if we really loved somebody, then we ‘should’ be trusting that they will have our best interests in mind.
Boundaries do not mean you do not trust another person or doubt their care for you. Boundaries are your way of caring for yourself. They tell you what you are okay and not with. Even in a close relationship, we cannot rely on others to know exactly what we need and implement that for us. Boundaries are an act of self-care. Therefore, they are a necessary part of health. No one even has to know your boundaries. They are set for you, by you. Examples of boundaries in close relationships might mean that you have limits for yourself about how much time you spend with the other person, what topics you discuss/don’t, what emotional and mood state you are in when you have a serious conversation, what you are willing to tolerate for activities, etc.
Now where boundaries can get uncomfortable is when your needs and boundaries run into conflict with the reality of what is happening in a situation or relationship. For instance, you have a need to be treated with respect and a relationship has become abusive and disrespectful. You can discuss this with the other person, if that feels safe, but they may not be able or willing to make the necessary changes you require for yourself. What then? This is where detachment with love comes into play.
Detachment does mean disengaging. Love means that it is done with care and respect, not out of spite or a desire for vengeance or teaching someone a lesson. Detachment may mean complete disengagement from that person and relationship, but it might also mean detaching from certain situations, environments, conversations, or activities. For instance, if your friend has started to become uncomfortable to be around when drinking, perhaps your detachment means you do not hang out with them during times or in environments that involve alcohol. This may be comfortable enough for you, or it may not be depending on what happens then. Maybe your friend starts to show up to your coffee and walk dates visibly intoxicated. In this scenario, you may eventually decide that spending time with them at all is not comfortable right now, so you pull away. Detachment gives them and you space to deal with reality. Eventually your paths may cross again, or not.
Detachment does involve letting go. It involves not necessarily letting go of a person or activity (though it may), but it also involves letting go of the fantasy we carried about something, control, and the attachment to how something should have been. “I should have been able to be comfortable in that friendship” or “I should have been able to make that work.” Detachment with love involves meeting reality where it stands rather than getting caught up in the ‘what ifs.’
Love means that there is care there. You recognize that you are not implementing boundaries to hurt somebody, you are doing it to not only take care of yourself, but ultimately you are taking care of them too. If something is not working for you, it is doubtful that it’s helpful for the other person, whether they recognize that or not. That is another sticking point of boundaries: They are not always welcomed or received or understood by the other party. Ideally, we would like all of these things when it comes to boundaries and detaching with love but we may not get any of them.
I am not going to lie and say boundaries are easy work. They are probably one of the most difficult and emotionally challenging parts of relationships because they challenge so many ingrained stories, fantasies, and perceived values that we carry. Unearthing these and really exploring what these historical stories are and how to work with them is important in the journey of boundaries.
What is a practical next step? I would encourage you to write our a list of your current relationships (the people that you interact with the most) and start to make notes of what parts of those relationships are feeling comfortable for you and which parts are not. This will give you more insight as to where boundaries and action steps can be taken to refine these relationships to feel more comfortable and healthy for you.
All the best!
By Paige Abbott
Paige is a Registered Psychologist in Calgary, Alberta and works with individuals around Addiction, Mental Health, and Relationship issues. Boundaries come up in each of these areas as they are a key part of health.