A boundary is a limit or edge that defines you as separate from others:

  • your skin is a boundary.
  • everything within your skin is the physical you.

We have another boundary that extends beyond our skin. We become aware of this when someone stands too close. It is as if we are surrounded by an invisible circle ~ a comfort zone. We have other boundaries as well: 

  • emotional.
  • spiritual.
  • sexual.
  • relational.

You have a limit to what is safe and appropriate. You have a border that separates you from others. Within this border is “YOU” ~ that which makes you an individual different and separate from others. What is an emotional boundary? 

  • we have a set of feelings and reactions that are distinctly ours.
  • we respond to the world uniquely based on our individual perceptions, our special histories, our values, goals and concerns.

We can find people who react similarly, BUT none reacts precisely as we do. When it comes to how others treat us emotionally, we have limits on what is safe and appropriate. We have spiritual boundaries. You are the only one who knows the right spiritual path for yourself. If someone tries to tell you he knows the only way you can believe, he’s out of line. We can be assisted, but not forced. Our spiritual development comes from our inner selves. We have sexual boundaries:

  • limits on what is safe and appropriate sexual behaviour from others.
  • we have a choice about who we interact with sexually and the effect of that interaction.

We have relational boundaries ~ parent, partner, and friend:

  • the roles we play define the limits of appropriate interaction with others.

Boundaries bring order to our lives. As we learn to strengthen our boundaries, we gain a clearer sense of ourselves and our relationship to others. Boundaries empower us to determine how we’ll be treated by others. With good boundaries, we can have the wonderful assurance that comes from knowing we can and will protect ourselves from the ignorance, meanness, or thoughtlessness of others. 

How do we develop boundaries?

Boundaries begin to form in infancy. In a healthy family, a child is helped to individuate ~ to develop a self-concept separate and unique from the other family members. We learn about our boundaries by the way we are treated as children. Then, we teach others where our boundaries are by the way we let them treat us. Most people will respect our boundaries if we indicate where they are. With some people, we may need to actively define them. Boundaries require maintenance. Your skin is an obvious example of your physical boundary. Your emotional and relational boundaries may be less obvious, but they are just as important. If the barrier of your skin is breached by a scratch, you become vulnerable to infection. If your emotional or relational boundaries are breached, you also become vulnerable to harm. When these invisible boundaries are trespassed by the thoughtless, or intrusive actions of others, it is called a boundary violation.

Healthy boundaries are flexible enough that we can choose what to let in and what to keep out. We can determine to exclude meanness and hostility and let in affection, kindness, and positive regard.


  • What are your boundaries? (physical, emotional, spiritual, sexual, or relational)
  • Do you know?
  • Do you have a sense of your edges ~ your uniqueness?
  • Are you comfortable within your limits?
  • Are people in your life comfortable with boundaries?

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Context ~ the type of relationship ~ defines appropriate closeness and distance in a relationship. Certain relationships presume closeness:

  • marriage ~ potential for great physical and emotional intimacy.
  • parent-child relationship ~ offers a range of safe physical closeness and a range of emotional involvement.
  • best friends ~ can share some physical closeness and a high degree of emotional intimacy.

What is the range of appropriate closeness and distance in the context of an intimate partnership? The acceptable degree of intimacy and distance can vary in different marriages and within a single marriage from day to day. Communication keeps the partnership fluid and vital, and clarifies each person’s need for intimacy and separateness. Ideally, marriage contains enough togetherness to preserve the boundary of us and not us and enough separation to preserve each person’s individuality. In an intimate partnership:

  • each person is whole and intact.
  • they choose to live together.
  • they could still live if something happened to the other.

Relationships do well when the individuals have a lot in common:

  • shared interests.
  • similar values.
  • kindred goals.
  • comparable backgrounds.
  • roughly equal intelligence.
  • parallel way of looking at things.

Too much difference can build too much distance. On the other hand ~ each person is unique ~ this uniqueness contributes to relationship and world. So, it is critical for each person to have his, or her own thoughts and feelings and for each to take responsibility for his and her actions.

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Enmeshment vs Intimacy

Enmeshment may feel like intimacy, but it is not. Intimacy comes from knowing each other very well, accepting short comings and differences and loving each other anyway. Enmeshment is attempting to feel and think as if you were the same person. Since quite a bit of one’s uniqueness is missed this way, neither person can really be known. This is a very different experience from intimacy. When a couple becomes enmeshed ~ that is ~ when the individualities of each partner are sacrificed to the relationship, the individuals and partnership suffer.

What about too much distance?

What is too much distance in a committed relationship? One cause of too much distance comes from not talking about important matters. If intimacy means being known by the other, lack of intimacy comes from not being known. If partners aren’t talking about problems, feelings, needs, and wants, they will feel less known and distance will grow between them. Distance also results when a partner is cold, or emotionally withdrawn:

  • when he makes himself unavailable to his partner;
  • when he’s focused primarily on work, alcohol, drugs, acquiring things, or getting ahead;
  • when he lets stress mount so high that he can’t come out of himself to see the other.

Why would a husband be cold to his wife? If, as a boy, he was taught to disregard feelings, then he was taught to be out of touch with himself.

  • emotional boundaries develop as we know ourselves and our feelings;
  • if a child is taught to ignore inner-self, his inner-self won’t develop.

Women often do handstands trying to get men to talk about their feelings. They might as well be speaking Swahili for all the good it does. They can get very emotional, which reminds men exactly why they swore off feelings in the first place:

  • they’re messy;
  • they make you lose control.

To feel or not to feel becomes an enormous power struggle. A struggle that polarizes many a man and woman:

  • marriage or committed partnership permits the greatest physical and emotional intimacy;
  • intimacy comes about as partners grow in their knowledge and acceptance of each other;
  • the balance between appropriate closeness and distance is difficult to find;
  • with too much distance, the couple leads separate lives, separate worlds with different friends, and sexual fulfillment decreases;
  • with enmeshment (too close), at least one person’s separateness is lost;
    • the other person may lose respect;
    • both lose track of the other’s uniqueness;
    • sexual fulfillment decreases.

Therefore, marriage is a process that challenges two people to develop individuality in the context of intimacy. Process is:

  • delicate;
  • difficult;
  • deliberate.

Myth ~ “the commitment is made”. Therefore intimacy is automatically in place and leads you forward.

Truth ~ “takes a lot of work and must be deliberately undertaken”.

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Whatever mishmash of boundaries, your parents have profoundly influenced your development.

part i: Pick a parent, your mother or father or other adult, and answer the following questions.

  • In what ways was your parent distant, or withdrawn from you?

    • Incidents in which you ran to your parent with enthusiasm and he, or she turned you away without following up on your excitement.
    • Events missed, such as no one there when you were the lion in the school play.
    • Broken promises.
    • Evidence that your preferences were unknown.
    • Evidence that your though processes were not understood.
    • Evidence that your interests were missed.
    • Being passed over when something concerned the whole family.


  • In what ways was your parent enmeshed with you?

    • Ideas held by the parent that were forced on you.
    • Preferences that a parent expected you to share.
    • Evidence that your parent assumed you felt the way he, or she did.
    • Parental ways which you were expected to adopt.


  • In what ways did your parent use you to meet his, or her needs?
      Include need for:

    • Power;
    • Comfort;
    • Sex;
    • Stress relief;
    • Solution of adult problems;
    • Other.

part ii: Repeat this exercise with any other person who assumed a parental role towards you.

part iii: From what you know of your grandparents on both sides, what’s your best guess about their boundaries? Write about each grandparent. Identify suspected patterns of enmeshment, withdrawal, coldness, intrusion, and the expectation that children existed to meet their needs.

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Visible & Invisible Boundaries

Two main types of boundaries ~ physical and emotional:

  • physical limits are marked by our skin.
  • emotional limits by ~ age, roles, our relationships with those around us, our requirements for safety, our choices about how we want to be treated.

I set my physical boundary by choosing:

  • who can touch me.
  • how and when I am touched.
  • I decided how close I’ll let people come to me.
  • Because I have a reverse gear as well as forward, I can back away from someone who invades my personal zone.

I set my emotional boundary by choosing how I’ll let people treat me:

  • set limits on what people can say to me;
  • healthy, safe expressions of anger, or even rage by people I’m close to are very acceptable;
  • inappropriate anger from an inappropriate person is not;
  • I determine the range of personal comments I’ll accept from others;
  • stop sexual comments or remarks from men, e.g., sexist or racist jokes;

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Violations come in 2 main categories:

  • violations of intrusion.
  • violations of distance.

Intrusion violations occur when a physical or emotional boundary is breached:

  • inappropriate personal questions;
  • inappropriate touching;
  • attempting to control how another things, believes, or feels.

Distance violations occur when intimacy is less than what is appropriate to the relationship ~ when someone from whom one has a right to expect closeness in excessively removed or cut off. Therefore, if closeness if an appropriate part of a relationship and it does not occur, the relationship has too much distance. Too much distance is harmful.

Children need safe physical contact in order to define themselves:

  • non-sexual cuddling; hugging;
  • holding, and touching are important for a child’s emotional and physical development;
  • adults also need to be touched.

In “A Natural History of The Senses“, Diane Ackermann reports on experiments that show that the more babies are held, the higher their level of alertness and cognitive development and that people of all ages can sicken in the absence of touching and being touched. We learn emotional boundaries by the response we get. When our feelings are met with disapproval, harshness, or stiff upper lip messages:

  • we learn to push them down;
  • to separate ourselves from our feelings;
  • and to ignore the valuable information they have for us.

When feelings are met warmly, when we are encouraged to talk about them and helped to identify them, and when a parent correctly interprets our facial expression, our body language and the feelings connected with it, our understanding of our inner self grows. Learning about and connecting with feelings is essential for complete boundary development. Our feelings are rich in meaning about the nature of our connection with others. When we are in contact with our feelings, we can be guided by our inner selves. We can feel who we are and what is right for us.

Therefore, we can know our emotional boundaries. Therefore, to be healthy, we must have clear physical and emotional boundaries. We must be able to defend ourselves physically by setting limits on how close we let people get, on who touches us, and on how we are touched. To do this, we need a definite sense of our emotional boundaries. When we enhance our sense of who we are and what we need, like, want and feel, we strengthen our emotional boundaries.

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Seeing Boundaries

Exercise ~ This exercise can raise your awareness of other people’s boundaries. Use it as a time for information gathering and don’t try to influence the interactions you see.

Physical Boundaries ~Today, watch and listen carefully to the people around you. By what actions or words do they indicate and protect their physical boundaries ~ the distance others must keep for them to remain comfortable?

  • If riding a bus, notice what people do when a stranger sits next to them.
  • If walking downtown, notice the berth people give when passing others. How different is that distance from the people with whom they are walking?
  • How close does the boss get to the workers?
  • How close do the workers get to the boss?
  • If someone speaks angrily, do the listeners move closer or farther from the speaker?
  • If someone speaks kindly, do the listeners change position?
  • How close do your children come to you? How close do they get to your spouse?
  • As you stand talking to a person at work, move just a bit closer. What does the other person do? After a bit or with a different person, step back a little. What does the other guy do?
  • If you are fortunate enough to live in a place where people of other races or cultures live, observe how close they stand when they talk to a friend; a stranger.

Emotional Boundaries ~ Tomorrow, observe how people keep and set emotional boundaries:

  • Listen for remarks among people that are appropriate given their relationship and what they are doing.
  • Listen for remarks that are questionable, or clearly inappropriate. How does the receiver handle the situation?
  • Watch your children. How do they protect their privacy from their siblings?
  • What does your spouse do to warn you off from private emotional territory?
  • How does your spouse communicate important needs and feelings? What happens when he or she feels or wants something different from what you feel or want?