7 Things Everyone Needs to Know About the Link Between Healthy Relationships and Setting Boundaries
Have you set personal boundaries in order to protect yourself from being manipulated or violated by others? Or have you been used or hurt because you didn’t have appropriate boundaries in place? Since the mid-80’s, the practice of setting personal boundaries has been popular. What is the link between healthy relationships and setting boundaries?
But what about boundaries for your love relationship? Has your concern for self-protection been prioritized over that of your relationship? Are you afraid of being codependent? There is a link between healthy relationships and setting boundaries. And that’s what I’m going to dig into here.
Boundaries define the structure of healthy attachment. And healthy attachment is the glue that bonds relationships together.
Emotional connection and healthy relationships
In this article I want to describe the foundations for healthy attachment. Emotional connection is the key ingredient for secure attachment. And emotional connection is created through a process of having transparent compassionate loving conversations. Couples who get into negative cycles of conflict have difficulty with these emotionally connecting conversations.
Dr. Sue Johnson’s Emotionally Focused Therapy was created to help couples escape negative cycle arguments and create secure attachment bonds by having emotionally connected conversations. There is a wealth of information about how couples can do this in our book Emotional Connection and Sue’s book Hold Me Tight, as well as books by Stan Tatkin.
Many couples who show up in my office in relationship crisis have no idea how their boundary problems have led them down a slippery slope that threatens to end their relationship. This article will define 7 ways that you can set boundaries to help make your relationship healthy and happy.
Making your primary relationship primary
This is the biggest overarching boundary you can set. Attachment science teaches us that people, like all mammals, are wired to pair bond. This means that we have an inborn instinct to make one other person our most trusted go-to person to meet our most intimate needs. It’s in your wiring!
When your primary relationship is lost or threatened you will experience profound fear and anxiety. Your brain will throw you into very primitive fight or flight emotions.
This is because your primary relationship is important to your health and well-being on so many levels. Any threat to this primary relationship will compromise your immune system and create a greater risk for cardiovascular disease. Your risk for anxiety and depression will increase. And your pain tolerance will decrease. It can be traumatizing and give you Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Making your primary primary means putting your primary relationship in first place, the way that nature intended.
This is a really big deal. But it doesn’t come naturally for everyone, even though this is most natural thing for you to do. Many people don’t grow up in homes where this is modeled. And our culture often gives us mixed messages about the importance of primary relationships.
So how can you increase the security and decrease threats to your primary love relationship by making it primary? The following boundary suggestions are a great place to start.
1. Understand the pecking order
In order for your primary relationship with your partner to be primary, your extended family and children will be in second position. Yes this is difficult for some people to comprehend.
You may have a deeper bond with your children than with your partner. Many people do. And don’t get me wrong. It is essential to bond with your children and to love and protect them. And extended family is also important. But your attention for them cannot take the place of your attention for your partner.
Your primary relationship with your partner demands your primary love and attention. Your children know this. When you and your spouse are not getting along your children become insecure. Their attachment needs demand that each of you are accessible, available and responsive to them. And that you are securely attached as a couple and their parents.
If your relationship with your partner breaks down your children will begin to suffer. They will become less emotionally secure and have more difficulty trusting their relationship with you. And their relationships with others.
Who’s on first?
Your parents, sibs and close friends may try to become first place in your life. But your relationship with them will become less healthy if you allow this to happen.
I tell my clients that your true family and friends are friends of your relationship.
People who truly love you understand the primacy of your primary love relationship. They understand that a healthy love relationship creates a healthy you.
Stay out of the trap of prioritizing any other relationship over the relationship that you have with your partner. When the two of you are secure and connected, you will be the best parent, family member and friend. And you will be a great model to others.
2. Guard your heart with all secondary relationships
Guard your heart! Do not allow any relationship to put your primary relationship in emotional second place.
How about the kiddoes?
Be careful to present a united front with your kids and to work out disagreements behind closed doors. That means not allowing your kids to manipulate you by going to your spouse. It sounds crazy that a child could have that power over you, right? But they do.
You need to be present to give emotionally to your children even when they have little to give emotionally to you. But your emotional giving to them should never take away from your emotional connection with your partner.
Parents and siblings
Your parents and sibs lost their primary claim on your time when you got married. You cannot continue to relate to them the way that you did before you got married. Your partner will feel betrayed if you spend more time supporting your parents and extended family than you do your marital relationship.
Friends can also be forever. But the way in which you relate must change.
Emotional affairs happen when you begin to share your heart with friends of the opposite sex. This can happen innocently with people you work with. Enough intimate sharing will result in your feeling more emotionally connected to a special friend than you do with your spouse.
This is dangerous! It can lead to a surge of new-love emotions that will threaten the stability of your lifetime love relationship.
Few people who commit in front of friends and family to be faithful to each other for life believe that they are capable of having an affair.
The truth is that anyone can have an affair of the heart. And it can be with nearly anyone they unwisely open up to.
If same sex friendships don’t have any potential for a sexual attraction they can still place unhealthy demands on your loyalty to your primary partner.
So be mindful of the time you spend with others.
3. Fitness and fun
Be careful who you workout and recreate with. Gyms are breeding grounds for affairs. The commitment to staying fit requires hours of time working out every week. Group-based exercises, yoga and Crossfit can create boundary violations.
I recommend that couples work out together. But if you don’t work out together you will need to be careful that you don’t develop unhealthy attachments to others. Again, relationships that might threaten your marriage are often those least suspected.
Recreation that takes hours away from the marriage needs to be kept in check. Golf, cycling, and fishing are time consuming activities that come to mind. If you do them together great. Have a blast. But most people do them solo or with people other than their partner.
Couples have to deal with male female athletic mismatches that can make recreating together difficult. As a result, many couples who cycle “together” end up riding with distance between them and rarely talking for the day.
Consider doing together sports like tandem kayaking and tandem cycling. There is nothing like these activities to build teamwork and togetherness. Go for hikes together, scuba dive and snorkel together. Playing doubles pickle ball or tennis is a great way to connect with your partner and with others.
It takes thought to recreate in a way that connects your love relationship rather than connects you with others or just creates more time apart.
Primary love relationships require a lot of time to grow and mature. Boundaries need to be set so that outside activities do not consume the time needed to keep your love relationship healthy.
4. Career acceleration
Take turns with career acceleration. Today’s culture allows for both partners in relationships to have fulfilling careers. While this can be a good thing, it is important to be wise about how much time it will take to make it work.
Many couples with promising dual careers find themselves in couples therapy on the brink of divorce because they are not realistic about the time demands of dual careers. This is especially true when you throw kids into the equation.
Consider taking turns with career acceleration. One of you may need to climb the career ladder while the other works part time while taking the lead with the children.
Kids and careers take time. If the marriage is not given the time it requires it will crumble and everything else that matters to you will fall like a house of cards.
Devoting time to your marriage creates core strength that empowers you to do the rest of life well.
5. The important stuff
Time is the one thing you can’t manipulate. It is fixed and finite. And how you use it will define the quality of your relationships. Your setting boundaries to protect time together has to happen if you want to stay together.
Take time for catching up, intimate sharing, going out together and having sex.
Doing life together requires a lot of catching up. And there are a lot of moving parts that you’ll need to keep in sync. It is staying in sync that will protect you from drifting into parallel lives. This takes real-time communication. Who is doing what, when and where? The complexity is multiplied with kids and challenging dual careers.
Intimate sharing does not need to be saved for candle light events. If this is your mindset, it probably won’t happen.
The over-used but helpful definition for intimacy “into me see” defines the openness that mature loving couples learn to live in. Show your partner appreciation while he/she scurries around the kitchen getting ready for the day. Send your lover a mid-day text saying looking forward to seeing your face tonight.
True intimacy is being in tune or in attunement with your partner’s mood rhythms. Do you know when to say or text an encouraging word just at the right time? Can you help your partner get out of an emotional funk by reassurance that he or she is loved and desired? That’s connection or attunement. How else do you connect?
6. Addictive behaviors
Most of us struggle with some kind of addictive behavior at some time in our lives. But when we talk about addictions, drugs and alcohol often come to mind first. There are many other things that people get addicted to. Sex, food, work, gambling and even sensation seeking.
Addictions are a way of creating an artificial non-sustainable mood state. They are often a way to cover emotional pain and feelings of loneliness
When you go to your favorite addiction to feel better you rob your partner from the opportunity to give you the love and support that will help you feel better. Addictions always cause relationship disconnection and isolation.
There are many ways to set boundaries that will keep you from developing addictive behaviors.
I tell clients that nothing good happens after the second drink. Set a boundary regarding how much alcohol you will drink in a day.
Stay away from pornography. It lights up the brain like a Christmas tree and can lead you into a cycle of craving and using more and more. It can make you believe that normal sex is boring.
Set a boundary regarding how much you will gamble in a particular month. Gambling is highly addictive, not to mention expensive. And It’s often done in secret and can cause major relationship problems.
You can also become addictive to work. If you are finding that you are never working enough hours or making enough money, you may be addicted. Are you a workaholic?
Is your performance at work your way of feeling better about yourself? Your work will never fill your need to be validated by your partner. It is good to excel at what you do. It is not good to become obsessed with working and earning more.
So set some boundaries regarding how much you work.
7. Control your digital media consumption
Digital media consumption can become an addiction. How much time do you spend with your electronics.
Do you catch up on your social media while you’re out to dinner together? Or do you look at your phone or the TV when your partner is trying to talk to you?
The digital world is likely intricately woven into your life. And it is important to set boundaries with it.
Make an agreement that neither of you will be on your phone during meals. Turn off the TV and put down your phone when your partner is trying to talk to you.
Even driving while your partner devours digital media can feel isolating. So when together, talk more and do digital less.
Try to do recreation activities that black out digital use. Communicate to each other that the relationship takes precedence over all outside interruptions.
The Big Boundary Picture
Boundaries define nations, cities and relationships. They create citizenships, memberships and marriages. Boundaries draw clean lines regarding who is in and who is out of your inner circle.
There is a strong link between healthy relationships and setting boundaries. All pair-bonded healthy relationships require setting clean and clear boundaries. All of us will become jealous and insecure if our partner is sloppy or inappropriate with boundaries that affect the relationship.
How are you doing?
How are the boundaries in your relationship? Do they communicate that you love your partner. And that you are committed to protecting that love?
The 7 ways to set boundaries for healthy relationships listed above are not all inclusive of the many ways that boundaries need to be set. How you and your partner set boundaries for your relationship will ultimately depend on what’s right for your relationship.
Let me challenge you to make time for that conversation. Begin with the 7 I’ve talked about here. Check for holes in your safety net. And don’t stop there. Make it a part of your life to be mindful of everyone and every thing that has an impact on your most valuable asset – your relationship. Keep. It. Safe.
I’m Michael W. Regier, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and Certified Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist in Visalia & San Luis Obispo, California. I help restructure relationships for healthy secure lifetime love. Along with my wife Paula I authored the book Emotional Connection: The Story & Science of Preventing Conflict & Creating Lifetime Love.