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Boundaries and consequences as concentric circles

Very rarely does a relationship of any kind (work, intimate, family, friends, etc) go from high functioning to completely broken in one day.

More common is that relationships break down gradually over time. Small transgressions are not identified and remedied in real time, communication gradually gets more strained as it becomes more layered with unresolved issues, and as more hurt accumulates we feel the need to protect ourselves. Dare I say it, as more hurt accumulates we feel more inclined to purposefully hurt the person who we feel has hurt us in the past.

I've been thinking a lot about boundaries lately, and the importance of making the my implicit boundaries, and the consequences of crossing those boundaries, more explicit for myself and those around me. Boundaries are a tool that every one of us can use in order to set clear expectations with others as to how we want to be treated. By making our implicit boundaries explicit for those around us, it then gives us the opportunity to negotiate the details of these boundaries with the people we share our lives with.

When boundaries are understood in a relationship, they make us feel safe. The rules are clear, and provided that they are not overly constricting or controlling, they actually lead to more play and creativity.

The part of boundaries that I've always struggled with in the past is that they feel a little bit like cliff edges... once you cross them, there is no coming back. This might be overly dramatic, but I think that many of us can relate to this, which is why we typically keep the details of our boundaries vague - clarity has consequences.

Last week I was speaking to a good friend, Jean Theron, who gave me a more productive way of thinking about boundaries and consequences:

He described boundaries in any relationship as a series of concentric circles, with gradually steeper ledges (consequences) as you get to the outer limits, which become increasingly hard to recover from once crossed.

Again, no relationship ever breaks down in a day. It happens gradually over time when inner circle boundaries are crossed and not dealt with. As humans we are generally prone to gradually keep pushing further and further until one day we cross an irrecoverable boundary. In an intimate relationship, an inner circle boundary might be that your partner starts to become less communicative with you, and is on their phone a lot to someone else - it's not ideal, but if dealt with quickly you can recover from it. A mid level boundary might be that your partner flirts with someone else at a party - it's really bad and will take some time to process and hopefully find resolution on, but it might not be the end of your relationship. An irrecoverable outer edge boundary might be that your partner is physically intimate with someone else - game over. It's a cliff face most of us can't climb back up after we've fallen off the edge.

These same boundary and consequences dynamics exist at work in our relationships with our colleagues, they exist with our families, they certainly exist with our friends, and yet we rarely explicitly list them with the people around us. I believe there is an opportunity for most of us to have frank conversations with the people we share our lives with, and get to clarity about our shared boundaries, and the consequences of crossing those boundaries. Which takes me onto the next point:

Threatening consequences:

When Ash and I first got married, we agreed to never threaten to divorce each other in the heat of a fight unless we meant to follow through with the threat immediately. We may not have had the vocabulary for it then, but when I look back now, I realise that we didn't want to allow ourselves to threaten an outer boundary consequence because of an inner circle challenge we might be dealing with. By threatening an outer boundary consequence, you destabilise the central base of your relationship, and that's very destructive. It's the same at work when a colleague threatens to leave - it's absolutely fine to be clear about your boundaries, and be clear about the fact that you will leave if an outer boundary is crossed, but don't frivolously make the threat unless you plan on following through with it, most especially for an inner boundary that has been crossed. It will destabilise the relationship in a wholly unproductive way.

The reality is that our boundaries are playing out every day in our relationships, but they are a lot messier than they need to be when they are not made explicit. It's really hard work to negotiate the specifics, and to keep updating them as our worldview inevitably changes, but in my opinion, the hard work put in now will create far more productive relationships in all spheres of our lives.


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