There has been a common theme going in much of the work I have been doing with couples of late. I am hearing folks coming in talking about how their partner responds to them in a way that makes them feel emotionally assaulted. Often, these couples are well intentioned, loving, and looking for connection but for some reason they are having arguments that do not make sense.
While having one of these conversations, I asked a couple what the difference was between “Preferences” and “Boundaries”. This sounds like a simple question, but it isn’t. They struggled to come up with a clear and concise difference. I suggested that a preference is a desire – something that we want or how we want something to be. A boundary is a clearly delineated point that is negotiated and agreed upon that will not be crossed.
So, if use football as a point of reference (and it is okay if you are not a football fan…stay with me for a second…). The field has a thick white line that goes around the field of play. Both teams understand (because the rule has been clearly articulated and agreed upon) that no play happens when a player touches the white line. When a player goes into that space the player is “out of bounds”. Play stops. There may or may not be a penalty, but the game is reset and continues on the field. The team with the ball may prefer to keep running down the white line so they can score, but they can’t.
So it is with our relationships. We have to have clearly defined boundaries. They may or may not be based on our preferences, but they are negotiated and agreed upon. They are resolute until they are renegotiated. Our behaviors are then held accountable to those boundaries. We let our preferences rule our behaviors until we come up against the boundary that we each agreed to. When behaviors cross the boundary, a reset must happen in order for the relationship to continue “on the field”. In other words, the healthiest relationships have the clearest boundaries!
Elliott Kronenfeld, LICSW, CST
If you are looking to improve connection in your relationship or learn how to establish health boundaries, contact Elliott at firstname.lastname@example.org.