Protecting one’s own personal boundaries and finding balance with other people, whether family or strangers, and often in subtle ways, are everyday parts of a human life. Testing and pushing on others’ boundaries is normal in a relationship of a child to a parent, and is still very much present among adults, too. Some people feel their disrespect of others’ needs and decisions as so normal they won’t even notice when they do it – while others might not notice when it’s done to them. Most people learn to disrespect their own or other people’s needs in a very early age, depending of how their parents set their own boundaries, how they react to the child expressing his/her will, but also of how they treat each other.

In adulthood, the most important boundaries are those one sets with a partner and children. Since a partner is usually acquired before children, if you set boundaries with him/her first, later it’s easier to do it with children, too. A problem is that, usually, an adult person has much stronger and better solidified ideas about what is normal and acceptable – ideas which are not necessarily overly healthy.

A bigger problem is that many people – especially those who are naturally (or were raised to be) more considerate, insecure and/or responsible – feel a need to please their partners, which often turns into ignoring one’s own boundaries to accommodate the partner. Some people in time get used to denying more and more of their own desires, needs and values, which can end up in an abusive relationship, or at least in a relationship full of frustration and disappointment.



Let’s say Mike and Tiffany agreed on a date, but Tiffany is late. She’s 15 minutes late, 20 minutes, half hour… and she doesn’t call or respond to calls. Mike feels frustrated, but doesn’t want to risk a potential romance before it even started, and decides to say nothing “this time”. He hopes this is an isolated case and not a habit of Tiffany’s. Perhaps Tiffany finally shows up with some weak excuse, or she only sends an apologetic message the following day. Mike is not happy with her behavior, but only grits his teeth and asks when they could meet again, because he likes Tiffany too much to “rock the boat” so soon.

Or, say, Anthony introduces Danielle to his friends, and proceeds to share private details from Danielle’s life with the group, or makes disparaging comments in her direction, probably presented as jokes. Danielle later complains about his behavior. Anthony will almost certainly say, “You are too sensitive, I was just joking!” Danielle thinks, “Maybe I’m truly overreacting? Maybe it’s my problem if such things hurt me? When we are alone, he’s not at all bad! Best not to risk the relationship over such a small thing!”, and allows her needs to be silenced under the treat of being labeled as too sensitive.

Regardless of whether Tiffany and Anthony were acting out of disrespect or they were simply raised to accept inconsiderate behavior as normal, once they experience there will be no consequences, next time it’s even easier to repeat such behavior. They might even be more and more convinced that such behavior is acceptable, and might be surprised or offended if their partners object to it. On the other hand, Danielle and Mike might find it easier to ignore their own needs after they’ve already done it before. Thus an unpleasant surprise becomes a habit

Humans are adaptable creatures, so we can unconsciously, even against our own will, get used to unpleasant circumstances if we stay around long enough. After a while, we could be surprised when we look back and realize how many things we’ve learned to tolerate which we thought “we never would”.

If you think about all the variety of inconsiderate and irresponsible behavior you’ve gotten used in your own environment, perhaps you’d be surprised to realize how much of it is considered “normal”, not only in personal, but also business relationships: manipulation, dishonesty, various power struggles, exploitation… People who do these things usually find mental justifications and excuses for them, usually because they’ve seen it justified or at least tolerated within their families and cultures. 


Finding balance

To set boundaries, you don’t need some measurable, external confirmation you are “right”. It’s not so important, or sometimes even possible, to know who is wrong and who is right. What is important are compatibility and mutual consideration. To be able to set good boundaries, you need:

1) not to be afraid to risk a relationship /job/ whatever else

2) develop a sense of balance

Developing a sense of balance is not so difficult in theory, especially as this is partly an innate human instinct. It might be trickier if your family trained you to believe you don’t have the right to express your needs and you’d be punished if you are angry or have demands. (Also you might have a problem with balance if your family taught you to believe that you are “special” and your needs are more important than others’.) Still, even then most people retain some instinct for balancing their own needs with those of other people. Take some time to consider a situation from more than one perspective and decide what makes the most sense.

If you are generally responsible and lean toward self-questioning, it’s more likely that you’d disturb the balance at your own expense than at somebody else’s. Keeping that in mind, it’s important to pay attention and give weight to your own needs as well as other people’s. This might require facing and resolving your old childhood guilt, or fear of punishment or abandonment. We can help you with this.

If you are used to emphasizing your own needs and dismissing others’, and you want to change this (congratulations, you are a rarebreed!), you might need to confront your fear of losing power, losing control, and perhaps losing a sense of specialness compared to other people. Don’t give up; such power, control and importance are only an illusion anyway, or at least are very fragile. Self-esteem, happiness and relaxation you can achieve in healthy, balanced relationships are much more real and lasting. You will also need to exercise seeing other people’s perspectives and a conscious attitude of appreciation for other people’s needs.
If you are used to emphasizing your own needs and dismissing others’, and you want to change this (congratulations, you are a rarebreed!), you might need to confront your fear of losing power, losing control, and perhaps losing a sense of specialness compared to other people. Don’t give up; such power, control and importance are only an illusion anyway, or at least are very fragile. Self-esteem, happiness and relaxation you can achieve in healthy, balanced relationships are much more real and lasting. You will also need to exercise seeing other people’s perspectives and a conscious attitude of appreciation for other people’s needs.



Fear of punishment

Now let’s talk about the more difficult part: not to be afraid of losing a relationship (or something else you hope for). Such an attitude is usually most difficult to achieve in early stages of a relationship, when hopes are still high, while first red flags appear small or accidental. Yet the beginning of a relationship is the most important time to assert our boundaries and express our needs.

Keep in mind that, if expressing yourself and your needs means the other person might punish or leave you, then that person is obviously not used to either seek balance, or cooperate, or to be considerate or respectful. Therefore, obviously, you can expect the same attitude in the future. It’s not likely you want or need such a person in your life. In such a case, it’s better to recognize this on time, than when it’s too late, right?

Plant this thought firmly in your head: as long as your communication is peaceful and constructive, any kind of temper tantrum, blaming, or attempt to frighten you or humiliate you by the other person mean that this person is disrespecting you and trying to manipulate you. Even if you are used to this kind of behavior, it doesn’t mean you should accept it. If such behavior is present in the beginning of a relationship, there can only be more of it in the future. The only acceptable answer to setting boundaries in a calm way, are peaceful, responsible and considerate arguments or negotiations. Only such a response means you can have a healthy relationship in the future. If a relationship is healthy, you cannot damage it by seeking balance. This is true not only in love relationships, but also in friendships, business or any other relationships.

Sometimes, fear of losing a relationship is not the result of a realistic perception of one’s partner, but experiences in early family. Perhaps your partner is responsible and willing to cooperate, but in your imagination, the obvious reaction if you express your needs will be rage, punishment or abandonment. This means your expectations come from your past, not present times. You need to find where they come from, work with the child part of yourself to help it feel safe, and develop new habits of thinking, feeling and behaving. These are all things we can help with.

Sometimes the biggest challenge is to recognize that too strong a bond to an incompatible partner is a result of unconsciously seeking a parent substitute. Such bonds can be worked with and transformed. Such emotional entanglement makes people feel that they might not get another chance at happiness and that they could never find someone better than their current love interest. In reality, there are plenty of people who are healthier and better for you than a person who would punish or abandon you just because you express your boundaries clearly. An emotional bond that is a result of seeking replacement for a parent, needs to be healed from within, working with your “inner child”, rather than trying to keep a partner at all costs.



Determining the consequences for lack of cooperation

What if you are in a long term relationship or married, perhaps with children, and you recently realized that you spent years getting your partner (and yourself) used to not pay attention to your needs? Or, what if you are still in an early stage of a relationship, you recognize that your partner doesn’t have a well developed sense of balance and consideration, but you believe it can be changed?

The worst thing you can do is to make threats that you never put into action, whether because you don’t dare to, or you take pity on your partner. The second most ineffective approach is to keep trying to convince your partner to change with demands and pleas, while not changing anything in your behavior. Every time you do it, and every time your partner successfully ignores your words, you weaken yourself and your boundaries. (All of this is true in relationships with children, too.)

In such circumstances, the best and possibly the only effective approach is to determine practical consequences of ignoring your boundaries – in advance, and hold on to them for dear life. Call it punishment if you wish, but such consequences should be no more (or less) than how a healthy, self-confident person would react. To be able to put them into practice, the consequences must be moderate and realistic, while still unpleasant enough to motivate your partner.

Rather than threaten to end the relationship, try this: your partner doesn’t want to do their share of household chores? Let them wash their own clothes and cook their own food for a while at least. Your partner keeps being late when you need to go somewhere? Leave without them (if possible start using this approach in less important situations, rather than when you are in a rush to get on a plane). Your partner is embarrassing you in public? Leave them there and go home by yourself (preferably let them use public transport rather than leaving them the car). Your partner wants you to cancel your other tasks and agreements because they suddenly want you to do something else? Let them go where they want by themselves, while you stick with your plans. A temporary separation is a possible consequence for worse misbehavior, but best to determine in advance when this is appropriate, and who should stay where.

Ideally, warn your partner in advance about consequences of their behavior, so they know what to expect and cannot accuse you of a temper tantrum or manipulation. Explain your partner why the need for such approach (because, obviously, words didn’t help). Does it sound a bit like raising a child? Yes, and it would be great if that wasn’t needed, but the reality is also that many adult people don’t want to take adult responsibilities.

Your partner might try to accuse you of controlling or manipulating them. Then it’s time to talk about what does balance in a relationship mean to them, and whether you are compatible at all. Expectations and needs do not mean controlling the other person, if there is no pressure to stay in the relationship – and also if you focus on what is really important to you, rather than insisting on things being your way every time. As usual, the key is in finding balance.

If it’s obvious that your partner doesn’t want to change something that for you is a requirement to continue the relationship, then it’s more fair to end the relationship peacefully, then to try to force somebody to change in the way they don’t want to (even if such a change would be healthier for them). Everybody has a right to decide how they want or don’t want to change, and whether they want to stay in a certain relationship or not. The only obstacles to this – and the causes of various manipulative and controlling behaviors – are various childish fears, financial concerns, and the oversimplified tradition that says, “‘Til death do us part”. None of this is necessary in a modern society (ok, financial concerns can be realistic, but rarely unsolvable), and it’s certainly better to make your decision sooner rather than when it’s too late.

Do you feel fear or guilt when you consider determining consequences for somebody’s unpleasant behavior? Perhaps you were abused as a child, or in a previous relationship, or you might be abused in a current relationship, so you learned to fear punishment and violence if you stand up for yourself like a healthy adult. If your current partner makes you afraid, recognize that it’s likely a result of abuse rather than a normal state, and it’s time to seriously consider leaving that person. And if your fear comes from your past, this is not so difficult to work through and change.


Related articles:

Are You Being Abused?

Setting Boundaries

Are You Too Sensitive?


All articles 

Online coaching