I love words and spend much of my time playing with them. And not often, but perhaps more often than most, I come across a word I hate, sometimes a word I liked that’s been bastardized into a form I hate. In the past several weeks, I’ve frequently bumped up against a word that I maybe didn’t love before, but had a rather romantic-to-neutral impression of. Now — it’s just annoying. The word is “boundaries”.
When I think of boundaries, I think of crossing space, entering new space, exploration. When I think of boundaries I think of things that can be contained, but as much so, how artificial the containment is. I understand private property and national sovereignty, but also, on a deeper core level, scoff at the thought of anyone actually owning a beach, for example. I think of pushing boundaries in an expansive, life-affirming sense — the way unjust laws are broken, the way disciplines seep into each other.
Webster defines boundaries as, “something that indicates or fixes a limit or extent.”(1) By this definition, it’s not incompatible to apply boundaries to expectations in relationships, but its widespread use to every aspect of a relationship seems extreme and to lack both meaningful specificity and nuance. Also, to me it has connotations of a line being drawn, which feels less than collaborative or romantic, at least in its far-reaching application.
Many of the examples of boundaries that one might set in relationships include expectations that the other person not be a jerk, i.e. “ask permission,” “take one another’s feelings into account,” “show respect for differences in opinion, perspective, and feelings."(2) I don’t understand how this shorthand of “set boundaries” helps the dialogue, either in establishing expectations with a friend or partner or when thinking through personal needs or aversions.
Depending on the psych source, there seem to be five to seven categories of boundaries to set in a relationship. I’ll list six: physical boundaries, emotional boundaries, time boundaries, sexual boundaries, intellectual boundaries, and material boundaries.(3) Basically, it seems that popular advice would have every aspect of interaction defined by boundaries. Well, I choose not to see boundaries in anything as complex, unpredictable, ever-changing, and nuanced as relationships. Is that to say that I lack a sense of my own needs, desires, and expectations? No. I suppose I have boundaries as popularly used, but I don’t perceive them in those terms. Have there been situations in my life where someone close to me has failed to fulfill communicated and agreed upon expectations or done things I expected would be deal breakers? Of course. Have I forgiven those? Always. Have I regretted continuing in relationships when that has happened? Rarely.
Of course I believe in being clear on expectations and deal breakers. But also I think it’s weird that boundaries is the word around which people are wrapping the conversation. It seems to me that compatibility, acceptance, love, and support is arrived at, not from a long litany of rules and lines in the sand, but from sharing our authentic selves, collaboration, compromise, and respect.
One may argue that I’m knocking up against people referencing boundaries so much because I maybe could be well-served by setting and sticking to some. Perhaps. But also, I’m in a space, historically and geographically, that seems to hold psychology as the primary tool for understanding and good health. I respect psychology and am grateful that people benefit from it, but it’s not my go-to compass or comfort. When a friend or acquaintance starts advising me on setting boundaries, it hardly seems appropriate to explain the ways in which I reject the frame of reference, but it still seems worth putting an explanation out there.