Boundary Violations – Part 1

October 17, 2008

Brent came home from the golf driving range to find his wife crying on the sofa. The baby had been up all night – again – and Terri was too tired to care if he saw her flood of emotional exhaustion. Brent held her for awhile and they talked about all the changes that had poured into their lives since the birth of their now 3-month old daughter. Brent rubbed her feet and told her he would be happy to get up with their girl any night she felt too tired. Terri mumbled some thanks and then looked him directly in the eye. He didn’t like that look. It seemed calculated and threatening to him.

“Do you know what would really make me happy Brent? If you would put as much effort into being a husband and father as you put into playing golf.” That statement confused Brent. He never thought Terri cared at all whether he played golf. He certainly didn’t take any time away from their traditional “together” moments to do it. In fact, just two years ago, Terri had taken lessons from a local professional and showed real promise for the game. She expressed such joy that they were playing golf together. But when she got pregnant, her golfing forays ended.

“So you’re saying that in order for you to be happy, I have to give up playing golf?” he asked.

“Well, maybe not give it up. But I would be really happy if you didn’t play more than a couple of times a year. That’s what would make me happy.”

I presented this scenario to a few of my colleagues a couple of years ago and asked them what they thought about the conversation. They mostly focused on the possibilities of Terri’s post-partum depression, her regrets at having to focus more on her mothering role and less on that of a marriage/golf partner. One therapist, a lady, suggested that Terri may have had some deeper issues with men in general and their hobbies. As fine and professional as those observations were, they all missed what I think was the main point.

Terri crossed a line that should not be crossed in a relationship. She committed the most common and widely acceptable boundary violation in relationships today. But before I explain what Terri did, and how she could have made a minor modification to explain herself differently, I want to briefly define “boundary violations”.

A boundary is a line that marks territory. A boundary line in a relationship is a place within which a person can act and believe without interference from the other person in the relationship. An example of a boundary line would be emotions. We are all allowed to feel whatever we want without having to justify what we are feeling. I am allowed to feel angry and no one has the right to cross that boundary and tell me what to feel. I feel what I feel. A boundary violation happens when someone crosses a legitimate boundary and violates the spirit of it. In the above example, a boundary violation happens when a husband tells his wife to stop being so scared of financial problems. If she is afraid, she is allowed to be afraid.

One more thing to mention regarding boundaries. Every boundary has what I call a “Boundary Responsibility.” Once again, with our example of emotions, there is an inherent responsibility with emotions. Though we are allowed to feel whatever we want, as soon as we start to act upon those emotions, we are now responsible for our actions. No one is allowed to hit another person just because they’re angry…unless they’re a hockey player or a character on a Daytime Drama.

Therefore these are the terms I want the reader to keep in mind:

· Boundary – a line within which a person is allowed to act freely

· Boundary Violation – an act to disallow a legitimate boundary

· Boundary Responsibility – a responsibility that limits how we may act when we carry our boundary freedom outside the boundary.

Are you sick of the word boundary yet? I am.

I have seen three boundaries that people in relationships violate consistently. In the next two blog entries, I will go over the other two. The example I used to begin this entry is a classic one. The Happiness Boundary is most often violated by the person with the boundary, not by other people. Here is what the violation looks like. It is a demand that another person do something or become something or we won’t be happy. We imply that our happiness depends somehow on them. There is a variation of this where our partner assumes that our happiness depends upon them. If we are not happy, they become miserable and feel like a failure. That is a Boundary Violation to be sure, but different than what Terri did.

Terri told Brent that she would be happy if he stopped playing golf. But is that comment legitimate in a healthy relationship? Can she guarantee her own happiness if Brent does this one thing? Does she have the right to tether her choice to be happy to his choice to give up golf?

Happiness is a choice and an attitude. If we are consistently unhappy, there are many choices and attitudes involved. That is a long and important discussion, but I will leave it for another time. Ultimately, no one can make me happy. I can choose the things that make me happy and, for the most part, the things that make me miserable. By telling Brent that her happiness hinged on his action, she had gone past the reasonable expression of her boundary and her freedom. Is there a way she could express what she was feeling a different way that didn’t violate her own boundary line?

There are a few things she could have done differently. First, she could have owned her own unhappiness. It would have been legitimate for her to talk about her frustration that Brent gets to play golf while she is stuck at home watching the baby. Or perhaps she can let him know that she would like to go out to the driving range and have him sit with their daughter. Or perhaps she could just describe some of her feelings of unhappiness and frustration and ask if he understands what she is trying to say. Once Brent understands what she is experiencing, then he can make decisions to either act differently, keep acting the same, or propose another plan of action.

Someone will ask how my suggestions are different than what she said. Each of the statements in the last paragraph accomplish one goal: To explain to Brent what Terri is going through in her new role as mother. The goal of this is to bring them closer together in caring and understanding. But in the statement she actually made to Brent, Terri did not make understanding the goal. She set his change of behavior as her objective. If he would change, she would be happy. As I have already explained, this is a Boundary Violation and is not a healthy relationship practice.

Brent did understand she was telling him to stop playing golf. But he didn’t know why she would demand this of him. In this particular case, Brent (all the names have been changed by the way) already acted too much to try and please Terri and with her golf demand he finally gave in to major resentment. This one little conversation resulted in months of the two of them pulling further and further away from each other. Added to their already heavy load as new parents, this lack of intimacy drove a wedge into their marriage commitment. I do not have permission to tell you the end result of all this, but it was not a healthy outcome.

As Brent and Terri eventually worked through the issues leading up to their year of failure and marital strife, they began to learn about boundaries and how they often are violated. Just correcting the violations related to the Happiness Boundary eliminated so much of the resentment they carried toward each other.

This boundary violation can happen in any sort of relationship: friendships, parent/child, dating, etc. No one can make us happy. And no one has the right to imply or state that something another person will do has the power to make us happy. Those are all out of bounds.



  1. […] pamajama wrote an interesting post today on […]

  2. I am really glad that you are doing this series. Both H and I grew up without healthy boundries and have wanted to know what boundries are healthy since we married. We have been slowly working things out, but this was great for us to read together and to discuss. Thanks.

  3. Kat and I have faced many times when we realized how much we had crossed those very distinctive boundaries that married couples must have. When we have lived within healthy boundaries as a couples, we have flourished. So glad you and H will be reading these. Bless you and your two sweet little ones.

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