Mind Matters — The Path to Healthy Boundaries

Well, it happened again. A young man walking with, presumably his girlfriend at Longwood, has his arm around her neck. She looks uncomfortable and is protesting. Finally, after some time, he gets the message and removes his arm from this “wrestling” hold. No, not the first time I’ve witnessed this kind of display of boundary crossing.

The boyfriend, in this scene, invaded the young woman’s personal space; she did not want to be touched in this way. Whether what he was doing was physically hurting her or not was not the crux of the matter. At root is the notion that a person’s body—infant, child, or adult—is their space, sacred if you will, not to be dominated or intruded upon by another.

Defining boundaries as a line that marks a limit, what about healthy boundaries in relationships? When do we intrude upon another’s space? Unhealthy boundaries and intrusiveness can occur between couples, parents and children, employer and employee, and friends. Anywhere people are!

Simplistically re-interpreting the eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant, one person’s freedom ends where another person’s freedom begins. Hopefully, we readily see that physical abuse or sexual abuse are egregious boundary violations. However, other intrusive and unwanted behavior inflicted on another need to be included on the spectrum of such violations.

Fossum and Mason in their book Facing Shame discuss the development of healthy versus unhealthy physical boundaries in families. Healthy physical boundaries, they say, “require a clear sense of physical space. Those with defined boundaries can intuit distance comfort and discomfort and can move away or toward someone. … They have grown up with people respectful of their physical space and have had appropriate recognition of their developmental needs regarding modesty and openness.”

While physical boundaries are necessary, so are emotional and intellectual boundaries. Most assuredly, in families, they intersect. According to Fossum and Mason, intellectual boundary violations include criticizing, blaming, mind reading, prying. These inappropriate behaviors can be acted out by parents to a child, or by an adult to an adult. There are also speech boundary violations: talking over the other, interrupting, raising voices, correcting, completing sentences.

In addition, emotional boundary blurring can occur in families where generational boundaries are lost: that is, where one parent fuses with a child for his or her emotional support. This is not to be confused with healthy loving relationships. The child, in this case, doesn’t know where his or her feelings begin or end, having become an emotional sponge for the needy parent, thus mirroring the parent’s roller coaster of emotions.

All this reflection on boundaries from one scene on a garden path. My guess is that if that couple is to have a flowery future, they will need to take heed of healthy boundaries—as do we all.