It’s fair to say that every couple will have their disagreements. Whether you’re in a relationship with a partner, spouse or significant other, there exist boundaries that need to be maintained in order for it to function.
Think about physical boundaries, both within the dyad and outside of it: what is allowed during sexual intimacy or whether it’s acceptable to hug a friend. What about verbal boundaries: words that are never to be used no matter how angry you get or relational details can’t be shared with others. Behavioural boundaries may include how late one can stay out or what areas in the home or personal items are allowed to be handled.
Boundaries like these can be explicit and clearly outlined or unspoken and even unconscious. Regardless of how aware either party may be of them, one thing is clear: whenever they are broken, tension, and conflict will follow because there is an underlying feeling of disrespect. So when our partner violates a boundary, how do we go about addressing it?
- Define intention. Is it this a betrayal of agreement or an act of ignorance? In order to work toward a solution, you need to understand where the underlying disconnect lies. Refrain from using labels (for examle: ‘You’re a liar.’) which can elicit defensive reactions and escalate the interaction.
- Move from the action to its effects. Placing too much emphasis on the boundary crossing itself can muddle the conversation while keeping it surface level. Remember, a relational rule, unspoken or not, has been broken between you both and you need to address why why it exists in the first place. Do we do this to feel safe? To build trust? And with this boundary violated, how does it affect our relationship?
- Agree to the boundary. After communicating, set/reset the expectations and ensure both parties give verbal acquiescence. If reminders are necessary, figure out a system that for both of you. Acknowledge the purpose these boundaries serve and how they need to be adhered to in order to make your relationship work.
For challenging relationships that have been going on for awhile, more serious boundary violations can arise. In this situation, you might struggle with knowing when to forgive you partner, when to take more serious measures, or even when to walk away. To navigate this, focus on three variables:
Crossing boundaries with full awareness of doing so is undermining the trust necessary for any relationship to work. Yes, mistakes happen and people aren’t perfect but feeling ‘sorry’ and ‘being sorry’ are two different things. Feelings are ephemeral: they come and go with our situation. But actions are rooted in values and principles and if someone is intentionally violating a boundary, it reflects a deeper disregard for their partner and the relationship itself.
Say that your partner isn’t acting maliciously when they cross boundaries but still continue to do so out of ignorance, confusion, or mistake. When a boundary is continually crossed, it erodes over time, taking with it the original function and purpose it was supposed to maintain in the relationship. Forgiveness for some offences may be fine but when measures are taken and the offenses still occur, it reveals a fundamental lack of self control and inability to recognise the basics of relational rules.
Physical and emotional safety
If you partner engages in denial, blaming, or gaslighting around boundary crossings, it’s a red flag and may indicate a pattern of emotional abuse. Additionally, if you feel at any point you are in danger, it is always appropriate to walk way and see professional help.
Relationships might never be easy and we all struggle at some point or another. Working to identify and address boundary crossings in a healthy and direct way will allow us to exercise better understanding of both ourself, our partner, and the relationship itself.
Josiah Teng is an Asian American therapist based in NYC. He has worked on relational issues, substance and recovery, and life transitions.