Boundaries as Relationship Zones

Boundaries are getting a lot of buzz lately. That’s great because learning how to set, enforce, and respect personal boundaries can be a big part of healthy relationships. Yet, all this talk sometimes skips over some important basics.

I’ve been thinking about this concept in a slightly new way. Typically, I talk about setting a boundary as if it’s a line in the sand. A barrier that cannot be crossed. Lately, that’s been shifting to more of a zone concept.

Zones are essentially spaces contained within boundaries. For this post, which will focus on personal relationships, let’s picture them as circles.

A circle with the words "in bounds" written inside and the words "out of bounds" written outside. To show a visual idea of boundaries.

Relationship Zones

Imagine every relationship you have has its own zone of acceptable behavior. That applies to friends, family, coworkers, and strangers you meet out in public. Everyone. You can picture that relationship as a circle with acceptable topics/behaviors inside and unacceptable ones outside. In other words, there is an acceptable “in bounds” area and an unacceptable “out of bounds” area.

Maybe this is how you already think about boundaries or maybe it’s a new way to visualize the concept. Either way, this can be a really useful tool in helping you figure out the topics and behaviors that are acceptable for you. Particularly when your definition of acceptable is different than someone else’s!

That difference, or personal choice, with boundaries is really important. You may be uncomfortable with situations that are fine for someone else. Or vice versa. Furthermore, those “in bounds” and “out of bounds” zones will be different with different people in your life.

Sizing Your Relationship Boundaries

We all behave differently with strangers than we do with our best friends. How close and safe we feel with someone shifts based on our experiences with them. When we don’t know them well, we may be more guarded. There’s a small number of topics we’ll comfortably talk about so our in bounds circle is small.

We test the water as we get to know new people. If we feel safe and accepted, the circle may expand, allowing more acceptable topics and behaviors inside. We may share secrets, talk about our feelings, and feel free to act silly or try something new with them.

Of course, circles can also shrink. If we share a secret and someone doesn’t keep it, we move “secret keeping” out of bounds. If we talk about a passion for a hobby and are mocked for it, that topic gets moved out of bounds. Over time, the number of safe topics becomes more limited and the circle of that relationships shrinks.

There may still be value in a relationship with a small safety zone. Maybe we have to interact with that person for work. Maybe there are a few things we do have in common, like a shared hobby or a shared friend, so we create tighter boundaries and accept the limited relationships for what they are.

Generally, relationships with small safety zones are going to be trickier to navigate than those with big, roomy circles where you rarely bump against any boundaries. That’s why we’re happier if we can spend more of our time in relationships where we feel safe and accepted.

Family Challenges

Circles with family members might be larger from the start. Hopefully because we’ve been treated well and feel safe within our families. Also because we’re often taught to allow more leeway with family. But the boundaries of any relationship will change with experience. They can expand with positive interactions, and they can shrink if we’re not treated well.

For example, parents who are controlling or refuse to accept their children for who they are, often find that their children shut them out to protect themselves from being hurt. The circle of topics that can be safely discussed and behaviors that can be safely shared shrinks as more aspects of their lives become out of bounds with their parents.

Societal messages often reinforce the idea that we “should” allow more leeway with family. That social pressure can make it hard to put your own needs first. However, being family is not a pass to treat someone badly or a reason to accept being treated badly. We all have the right to set healthy boundaries for our relationships.

Safety and Ending Relationships

Boundaries are important because they help keep us safe. In relationships, they limit topics and behaviors that might lead to our being hurt.

Boundaries may also help us feel comfortable, but sometimes comfort isn’t the goal. Personal growth requires stepping out of a comfort zone to try something new. Understanding the bounds of your relationships can help with that.

For example, you might be willing to try Karaoke with your closest friends but not want to pick up the mic in front of your boss.

Similarly, we might explore uncomfortable feelings with a close friend or therapist, but we wouldn’t share them with someone who makes us feel unaccepted or unsafe. Put another way: feeling uncomfortable in a relationship might lead to personal growth, but feeling unsafe in a relationship does not.

With both family and friends, there may come a time when even a small relationship with tight boundaries isn’t enough to feel safe. In those cases, people may be better off ending the relationship and having no interaction.

Those are some of the thoughts I’ve been kicking around about relationship boundaries. What do you think? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

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