Partner's Workshop: Stage Three; Lesson Seven

Developing Healthy Boundaries

In the previous lesson, you were asked to create a limited number of rules that could be used to help you in defining the limits of your own value system. These rules are your boundaries. When a rule is broken, a boundary has been crossed. When a boundary has been crossed, a value has been infringed upon. When a value has been infringed upon, action is required to protect the values that have been jeopardized. It is that simple. Such clarity allows you to accurately interpret the great majority of external events, as well as to manage your own internal reactions to those events.

Ideally, a separate set of rules/boundaries should exist for each value that you hold dear. Of course, because of life's complexities, no pre-existing set of finite rules can sufficiently manage all such events. In fact, most individuals would be hard pressed to exist a month or more without experiencing some type of completely unique experience. Because of this, the creation of such an extensive list is both impractical and impossible. Identifying your existing boundaries then, becomes only one piece to the boundary puzzle. There are two other pieces that must also be in place: developing new boundaries and redefining existing ones.

Responding to New Life Events

While it might be cathartic for you to spend the next six months writing out a comprehensive list of all the rules that you choose to live by, it is both unrealistic and ultimately, a waste of time. For almost everyone, the most significant boundaries that will be used to guide their lives can be identified in a matter of a few days - and for some, a few hours. Yes, you can spend additional time thinking of all possible events that you may encounter. Yes, you can map out all possible reactions to those events in terms of rules and values...but ultimately, life does not exist on such a predictable plane. Instead, it is fluid and deceptive...mixing emotions with perceptions in a manner that inevitably leads to events that you are completely unprepared for. Therefore, rather than memorizing a thousand specific boundaries/rules to prepare you for a hundred different situations...your goal is to internalize those general boundaries that already exist, and then to learn to use those boundaries to develop uniquely specific ones as a particular event is taking place.

†This mapping out of potential triggering events is an important tool in the maintenance of a healthy life - and is used extensively in the relapse prevention work done late in the Recovery Workshop.

When developing new boundaries, the first step is to identify the values that are involved with a particular event. Once this has occurred, the next step is to examine what general boundaries currently exist to help define/protect those values. Hopefully, there will be several that will guide you towards interpreting the behavior in question; otherwise, you are left to use your emotional reaction to guide you. And while this is often sufficient, it also carries with it the greatest risk for misperception, manipulation, inconsistency and doubt. Refer back to your responses in the second exercise of Part I to see that it is when your emotions are involved in the “here and now” interpretation of an event that you experience the greatest risk for prolonging/intensifying the consequences of that event.

When new events occur for which you are not prepared, you will use your existing values and boundaries to provide you with the foundation for interpreting and responding to those events. This means that you will be wading into unknown territory with only what you have learned from your previous life experiences. This leaves you with only general rules to use as a guide. So even when you think you know what to do in any given scenario, it will still only be your “best guess”. You could very well be wrong. You could still completely misperceive the event...or act in a way that actually has a negative impact on your values in the long run. That is okay. Such an approach (trusting your existing boundaries and values) is still the healthiest way of proceeding in all new life events-by far.

Why? Because no matter what may be the actual reality of a new event, the best that you can ever do is to base your reactions on how you perceive the event. And when you use that perception to make value-based decisions, and then learn from the consequences - be those consequences positive or negative - you will have furthered your own development. Expanded your existing boundaries. Redefined your value system. You will have grown.

Changing Existing Boundaries

On occasion, you will face events for which clear and decisive boundaries already exist. For others, you will know how you "should" act, but something inside you tells you to act otherwise. Almost always, this "something inside you" is emotionally-generated — utilizing the same triggering mechanisms involved with compulsive behavior. Your partner asking you to engage in sex with another man, for instance. Without getting into moral issues, let's say that this is a thought that you initially found repulsive, but now find curiously exciting. And while your decision to participate violates your existing boundaries, you are considering changing your existing boundaries and/or suspending them for a particular event. There is nothing wrong with such an approach. In fact, it is part of a natural, healthy life. Just know that, with each event in which you abandon your existing boundaries, you are risking the potential for those values to be intruded upon. You are risking the potential for destroying those values. Of course, you are also facing the opportunity to expand those boundaries/values - thus creating a more fulfilling and rewarding life. The key is, that when you change your boundaries, or temporarily suspend them, you do so by choice. And you pay particular attention to the consequences of that choice. That way, you learn from each decision that you make.

Such an example may be extreme, but consider some of the more subtle sexual events that occur. Role-playing. Spanking. Blindfolding. Masturbation. The boundaries crossed aren't so well-defined. Then, expand these sexual events to all such events that occur throughout a lifetime. You should see that the opportunity to suspend our values, to violate our own boundaries are present on a daily basis. Often, for growth to occur, some of these risks must be taken. But pick and choose such times carefully. Very carefully.

Exercise Twenty: Developing Healthy Boundaries

Review the list of rules that you created for yourself in the previous exercise and compare them to your current list of values. Are they sufficient in allowing you to protect those values? Most likely, they are not. Ten rules is but a drop in the bucket in terms of what is required for efficient life management. Over the next several months, keep a log of the moderate to major events that occur in your life, and assess your ability to deal with these events in terms of your existing boundaries. Family arguments, decisions, chore assignments, etc. All are related to your values, and all should have boundaries that protect those values.

With each event, identify the specific event, the values that were infringed upon, the existing boundaries that were in place to protect those values and any additional rules/boundaries that may help you the next time you face a similar situation. You will not be turning this information in to anyone or posting it anywhere. It is strictly for you to formalize the process of developing your personal boundaries and reinforcing how those boundaries can be altered 'on the fly' to protect your values.


Event: I had plans to attend dinner with a platonic, female friend who was in town on business. My wife didn't want me going and we argued for several days about the decision. Her main argument was that she didn't trust me — though I have done nothing to earn that assumption in over two years. The decision was made that I would go, but at the last minute she called to say that she had to work late. As I had no other choice, I cancelled dinner to stay home and watch the kids.

Reaction: Felt frustrated, helpless. Taken advantage of. Manipulated.

Values Involved: Respect; Partnership; Personal Growth; Honesty (and more)

Existing Boundaries: When one of us is going to be late, we call. When we speak to each other, we speak in specifics, not generalities. When decisions are made in terms of prioritizing time, children's activities come before our own. When our personal growth time is infringed upon, we have that time made up in other ways.

Their Effectiveness in Managing this Situation: Poor. All boundaries were adhered to, but I still felt taken advantage of, violated, disrespected.

New Boundaries Needed: Current trust boundaries were insufficient in managing the event. Will need to adjust as follows:

  • Old Boundary: When we speak to each other, we speak in specifics, not generalities.
  • New Boundaries: When we communicate, all questions will be answered in specifics. When we communicate, will make every effort to offer all relevant information without having to be asked for it. An omission of information will be treated the same as a lie. We will each subscribe to a policy of absolute honesty towards each other. With these boundaries in place, an assumption of trust will exist.
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