Changing boundaries is changing your relationship rules, and that can come with angry pushback. In relationships and recovery, we talk about boundaries a lot. Boundaries show other people the behaviors we will and will not tolerate. You can fill in your own blanks: I will not let others ……Yell at me, lie about me, hurt me physically or emotionally, keep me under control. The list is endless. Boundaries can keep us safe from abuse of many different kinds. Setting boundaries has consequences that we start learning almost from the cradle.

We learn to test boundaries as toddlers

Think of the terrible twos. It’s nothing more than toddlers testing boundaries of their parents and other loved ones. Can I do this? How about this? No? Will I be punished?

Children learn about yes and no, and become masters of the ‘no’ word. As children grow, they continue to test their boundaries, for this is how they learn healthy or unhealthy limits. Teens are also masters of testing boundaries for pushing limits is how they learn to become responsible (or not) adults. So boundary testing is a part of growth. Within boundaries, we learn what are acceptable and unacceptable behaviors.

Others test our boundaries and changing boundaries makes us all uncomfortable

Boundaries are made to be tested. When we set boundaries with others, we will find someone who pushes back against us. Some opposition will be mild, but sometimes, the push back maybe loud, volatile, or even abusive. So what do we do? Will we give in and relax our boundaries?

We must have a reinforcement plan. Setting the boundary is only the first step. We must plan how we will handle the inevitable push back. Our greatest defense is to let others face the consequences of disregarding our boundaries.

Real world consequences of changing boundaries

Jon has a wife Alicia, two sons, and Alcohol Use Disorder. Alicia gave Jon an ultimatum: Get treatment or she will take the boys and leave. Jon has two DUIs and two past attempts at detox.

Alicia is fed up and angry. She tries to set boundaries and then backs down. When Jon got his second drunk-driving ticket, she left him in jail instead of posting bail. This is a perfect example of letting Jon suffer the natural consequences of his actions.  Jon, however, knows Alicia is likely to back down, so he often sweet-talks her relaxing her boundaries.

This is a classic example of the dysfunctional addictive family system with all its nuances and boundary struggles. One of the most important things about boundaries is that we must allow the other person to suffer the natural consequences of his/her/their behavior. We do not cause these consequences and must remember this. Most importantly, we need to understand that suffering the natural consequences of a behavior is what helps us to learn and grow – or not.  Just like with the two-year-old, we must continue to set boundaries with those around us no matter what the age.

Moving from set in sand to set in stone

Jon and Alicia are playing a familiar game. She sets a boundary. He complies at first, banking on the fact that Alicia has struggled in the past with enforcing the boundaries as she has given in to Jon. He knows she’ll cave.

This time, however, is different. Jon has pushed too far, and Alicia found reinforcements. She finally sees that while she can set boundaries, she struggles with keeping them. Alicia started going to Alanon. She’s also been working with family and friends to help her to keep her promises. She now realizes that for herself and for the kids, she must:

  • Follow through with her boundaries
  • Allow her husband to suffer consequences, and
  • Not accept any blame for doing what is needed to keep her family safe and healthy

Changing boundaries for dangerous people

Oft times, the person will try to manipulate you when you set consequences. You must then continue to focus on your needs and wants and stick to the boundaries you set.

If you give in, then nothing will change. In a sense, you must be like a broken record – setting your boundaries and continuing to set your boundaries.

Yet some people may become angry and abusive and even violent. When domestic violence happens, the first step is to get yourself (and children) to safety. At this time, there are no discussions, just action. When that person calms down, then you may try to approach her or him and focus on what you will and will not accept. Any type of violence is unacceptable.

It takes an average of seven tries before a woman will leave an abusive relationship. The likelihood that he will change is minimal unless he seeks some type of treatment.

Unless the violence is a one-time event, then you will need to leave. There are supports in your local community that help to deal with abusive relationships – a women’s shelter, support groups, and counseling. And the most important boundary you set is the one that keeps you safe.

Changing boundaries may also mean the end of a toxic relationship

In short, being healthy means having boundaries, and that suffering the natural consequences of a behavior is what helps us to learn and grow – or not. Just like with the two-year-old, we must continue to set boundaries with those around us no matter what the age.

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Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson, D.Min., ACSW, LMSW, is a licensed clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience in the fields of mental health, addictions, and co-occurring disorders. Her other specialties include grief and trauma, women’s issues, chronic pain management, holistic healing, GLBTQ concerns, and spirituality and transpersonal psychology. Dr. Anderson has been educated and trained in the fields of education, social work, and spirituality, and she holds a Doctor of Ministry degree (non-denominational/interfaith) specializing in spirituality.

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