We all need relationships. Family, friends, and intimate partner relationships drive our universal needs for love and connection. Even if we have been hurt hundreds of times, we will still long for a relationship where our needs for love, connection and acceptance are met and, hopefully, where we can meet the needs of another. How do I know where I end and you begin? Healthy relationships need boundaries to create safety and allow for growth. Healthy boundaries share these qualities:
- Being able to assess trust in the relationship
- Knowing my limits in relationships
- Emotional Safety
- Physical Safety
- The freedom to be myself
Trust is a key feature in healthy relationships. Depending on our life experiences, we may, or may not trust easily. This may have worked well for us or it may have allowed us to be hurt by others. If you have struggled in this area, it may be helpful to think of trust as a gift that is earned slowly. About new friends you may ask yourself ‘Does this person act in a trustworthy manner? Is this person known to be trustworthy by others including family and friends? Is this person honest and how do I know the answer to that question? Does he/she talk negatively of others?’ Honest assessments will help us to make better decisions about who we choose to trust.
If we struggle with trust in relationships this may be linked to personal needs for safety; this can be especially true if we have experienced trust violations. We may feel that we can only trust ourselves and that others will ultimately let us down or betray our trust. A general sense of mistrust will lead to feelings of disconnection, isolation and loneliness. Finding persons we can trust will enhance our lives and is a worthwhile effort. Sometime, working with a therapist can help us restore our ability to trust others.
Time is a factor for long-lasting and trusted relationships. You cannot rush the process.
We might ask ourselves, ‘How do I define myself in relationship with you? Where is my place and how do I hold it when we are together so that I don’t lose myself in this relationship?’ We want to be treated with dignity and respect. One way is to use limits for myself and for others. These are road signs that tell others to stop or to proceed. Examples of limit setting may be:
- I can decide how much or how little time I spend with you.
- I can say no with or without explanation.
- I cannot talk about this subject, but I am grateful for your support.
- I do not want you to share the contents of this conversation with anyone.
- I would like to receive hugs, or I would not feel comfortable being touched.
Perhaps the most disheartening thing about limit setting or use of boundaries in relationships is when others do not respect them. I always encourage my clients to have a plan that they may follow if others cannot respect limits or boundaries. Each of us is responsible for maintaining our boundaries. For example, if you are not treated with dignity and respect, you could:
- Restate the boundary perhaps using different language. This is sometimes called the “broken record” method.
- Use an “if-then” statement, e.g. “if you continue to raise your voice with me, then I will hang up the phone.”
- Leave the conversation, leave the physical space you are in together, or ultimately leave the relationship.
Don’t underestimate the value of acting on the limits that you set for self and others.
Emotional safety is another important feature in healthy relationships. It means we can share our feelings, be assertive, and be interdependent with one another. Mistakes can and will be made without shaming or being shamed. We can be different and that is OK. We can be sensitive to each other’s feelings and have empathy for them.
Physical safety in relationships is about making physical boundaries clear to others. How much physical space do you need when talking with others? Studies show that the average is about three feet unless that person is a trusted loved one or friend and then the distance may be less. Physical safety boundaries respect the rights and needs of self and others. They utilize compromise and negotiation in the relationship and include asking permission to touch others when their boundaries may be unknown to us.
In a healthy relationship we get to be our authentic selves. What a relief! We don’t have to hide our thoughts. We can share our emotions and be open and honest about our needs. We can see the value in others even if they have different views and needs in relationships.
We all need relationships. While no one can do or be the perfect other, healthy relationships continue to evolve and bring us a sense of belonging and connection. Author Donald Miller wrote, “When you stop expecting people to be perfect, you can like them for who they are” Now, that is my kind of friend!