Saying no is difficult for many people that do not have an awareness of their limits and appropriate boundaries. Limits reflect how far we will go for someone else and dictate what our boundaries are. The boundaries that result from limit setting allow us to have control of our lives, and an appreciation for the reality that we are only responsible for ourselves. Even our dependent children must learn, around the age of adolescence, that they must take responsibility for themselves soon. We can get close to other people in relationships while maintaining our individuality and separateness.
I frequently work with couples who have unclear or undefined boundaries. A husband will say, “I don't tell her how I really feel because she will get upset.” This is a result of one person feeling responsible for how the other feels. How we feel is our responsibility and we are not capable of controlling how another person feels. That is a boundary. “I am responsible for my feelings, you are responsible for yours.” The freedom that comes with boundaries is tremendous, but it seems to frighten some people. Instead of feeling empowered by boundaries, they become overly involved in the lives of others.
Addiction almost always blurs boundaries in a family. Parents feel responsible for their adult children. A husband or wife feels responsible for their spouses addiction. Many parents have sat on my couch and agonized over how they can get their adult child, who is actively using substances, out of their home. “I can't put my child on the street. I won't kick him out.”
The guilt feelings interfere and the issue is to difficult to deal with, so it is avoided or transferred to another family member.
In a family with healthy boundaries, children are expected to leave home. It is planned and cause for celebration. When boundaries are blurred or fused, addiction, mental illness, or marital problems may arise because the real issue is too disturbing to deal with.
A clear boundary would state that the choice to use substances lies with the person using them not his or her parents. The resulting consequences also belong to the addicted person, not the family or spouse. Setting limits and informing his son or daughter of the boundaries is probably the most humane thing a parent can do. “I will support your choices as long as you are clean and sober.” Continuing the guilt, anger and resentment in the relationship is destructive and psychologically abusive but for some people it is more comfortable than the freedom that boundaries permit.
We all have property lines that distinguish where our yard ends and our neighbors begins. If we live in an apartment building, we have walls, floors and hedges that delineate our space. If crab grass from our neighbor's yard creeps into ours, we might be irritated but we would take care of it ourselves. However, if the neighbors weeds spilled over, he dumped trash in our yard, and his dog roamed freely into our plant beds, we would confront the neighbor, get in touch with the building manager, or contact the appropriate county agency. We would enforce our boundaries.
When it comes to relationships, some of us never enforce our boundaries. They may be unknown to us or we feel like we are not entitled to them. Someone who is miserable in a relationship with a controlling partner, suffers silently while his or her right to have a meaningful role in the relationship is extinguished. Passive-aggressive behavior results and poisons the relationship, eliminating positive emotions. In such a case one person's boundaries have fused into the other's and dependency or co-dependency rises out of this entanglement like a two-headed monster. The remedy is to identify and clarify appropriate boundaries.