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The Importance of Boundaries: Building blocks for healthy relationships

Author: Carter DeVary

When you look at a map of the entire world, what do you see? Maybe you notice the big bold letters that spell out the names of different countries. Maybe you see the distinct clusters of land mass that represent the great mountain ranges of the world, or the long stretches and blotches of blue that represent lakes and rivers. Even with all these details, it is hard to miss the boundary lines that separate country from country.

Let’s zoom in. When you look at a map of the United States what do you see? Perhaps you notice some of the same things: lakes, rivers, mountains, etc. Perhaps you notice some new things such as state names, bold letters paired with large dots representing major cities, or symbols representing major highways and interstates. One thing that is hard to miss, again, are the lines that separate state from state.

Let’s zoom in one more time. When you look at a map of Iowa what do you see? Again, rivers, lakes, definitely not mountains, roads, interstates, all 99 counties and the lines between them, hundreds of cities, and millions of people. Regardless of if it’s an imaginary line drawn on a map to separate two countries, a physical landmark, a barbed wired fence with a sign that reads, “NO TRESSPASSING,” or two of the people on the map who have a scheduled date night once a week, free of child and work obligations, each of these punctuations represent one universal idea: boundaries.

Boundaries exist between and within all of us, internally and externally. This is especially true between the relationship we have with ourselves and others. Boundaries exist in many different forms and many different levels with those forms. This leads us to the question, what do healthy boundaries look like and why are boundaries so important?


Types of boundaries

3 main types of boundaries exist within a family or an individual:

  • Rigid/disengaged
  • Enmeshed/diffuse
  • Clear/healthy

(Nichols & Davis, 2017).

An enmeshed boundary is one where people have trouble saying no. This also shows up when one family member “feels” the emotions of another family member and is unable to separate from that family members emotional experience. Other examples include when there is one person who speaks for the family, or when individual privacy is impossible. Enmeshed boundaries can lead to over involvement within each other’s lives, possibly leading to a loss of identity for the individuals.

A rigid or disengaged boundary is the opposite of enmeshed. There is little to no communication between family members which may lead to feelings of loneliness or isolation (Nichols & Davis, 2017). For example, asking for help may be a challenge with rigid boundaries, because an individual may be fearful of the response.  Another example could include putting up an emotional wall, leading to alienating yourself from loved ones.

Healthy boundaries, and all types of boundaries will look different across diverse relationships within one’s life. Boundaries within a parent-child relationship will look different compared to boundaries with a co-worker or hair stylist. Healthy boundaries include both flexibility and firmness. They allow for respect and nurturing of others while also establishing a space for the individuals needs mentally and emotionally. With healthy boundaries there is a sense of give and take, but not giving too much and not taking too much, or not giving enough and not taking enough.

Healthy boundaries help create and maintain healthy relationships. Healthy boundaries also help with identity formation. If an individual has enmeshed boundaries with another person, it impedes individuation and the knowing of ones self. If a person has rigid or disengaged boundaries, it can also result in the loss of the individual self, due to isolation and lonesomeness. Setting and maintaining healthy boundaries takes time and practice. The first step to setting healthy boundaries is acknowledging where your boundaries are in the current moment, assessing a need to create more firmness or more flexibility, and implementing your own strategies to facilitate this change.

Once again, boundaries exist across many different fronts. Unhealthy boundaries lead to dysfunction between relationships. Healthy boundaries create and maintain healthy relationships with yourself and others.


Nichols, M., & Davis, S. (2017). Family therapy : Concepts and methods (Eleventh ed.). Boston: Pearson.

How to Set Healthy Boundaries: 10 Examples + PDF Worksheets. (August 21, 2018). Retrieved from https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/great-self-care-setting-healthy-boundaries/

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