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Boundaries and the Dance of Intimacy

By: Ellen Berk, LCSW, BCD

Patti is like many women. She has trouble being in a relationship without feeling that she is responsible for it's outcome. She has been blaming herself for what her husband and children do, or don't do. As a result, she's been feeling overwhelmed, tired and burned out lately. When she expressed her emotions to me in counseling, she was relieved to hear that others have similar reactions.

Women in our society are often pre-programmed to be care givers, and to focus on relationships. While this tendency to connect with others and stay connected has many positive benefits, there can also be a down side. Stress levels rise if we to constantly attend to others at the expense of nurturing ourselves. So how can we stay in touch with our internal needs without feeling compelled to take on others' burdens? One important step toward reducing daily anxiety is to understand the concept of healthy boundaries, and set limits accordingly.

The Definition of Boundaries

"Personal boundaries" are what separate our feelings, issues, needs and beliefs from someone else's. To maintain a healthy sense of self, we need to define our own comfort levels for self-disclosure or openness, along with physical and sexual boundaries in relationships.

When boundaries become "enmeshed," it means we generally feel responsible for what another does or feels. (We do not define ourselves separately form them.)

The opposite situation, called an "anti-dependent stance," means that we feel distant from others in our life. We fail to recognize that at times we might need to rely on them.

Either of these reactions, being enmeshed with others or being anti-dependent, makes relating more difficult. How can you tell if you tend to fall into one of these categories in your relationships with others? Ask yourself the following questions.

Enmeshed Boundaries

Are you unsure if what you're feeling stems from you or others?

Do you often allow others to cross over your boundaries even when it makes you uncomfortable?

Do you fail to recognize your uncomfortable feelings, or do you feel like you can't do anything to protect yourself even when you do recognize those feelings?

Do you tend to blame others for the way you feel?

Are your beliefs and values unclear to you?

Anti-Dependent Boundaries:
Are you unable to show your internal world to others?

Do you have difficulty accepting feelings at face value? In other words, you need to have a reason for them.

Do you often say that you do not need anyone?

Do you distance yourself emotionally from someone you claim to love?

Do you want intimacy, but push it away...or not want it once you have it?

How to Rate the Confusion Around Boundaries

Family roles and rules about acceptable behaviors are laid down in our childhood. We bring those into our current relationships, and the result can be confusing. Our boundaries may not seem to fit with our partner's. How do we work it out?

Boundary setting (or limit setting) includes all of the following:
  • Receiving feedback from others, then accepting, modifying, or discarding it.
  • Knowing when we are uncomfortable, and doing something about it.
  • Recognizing others' needs for boundaries, and not violating them.
  • &Separating out our feelings, attitudes and beliefs from others'.
  • Not blaming others for how we feel.
  • Realizing when a problem is our own, someone else's or a problem shared between us.

Intimacy is a Complex Dance
In intimate relationships we are continually taking steps back and forth. We move toward someone, or away from them, based on what is going on inside of us, circumstances outside of us, and what is going on between us. As we go through this series of adjustments, the relationship develops a tempo. When we focus on what we are doing and what is around us, the dance can be beautiful and flowing, one that moves gracefully with us through our lives.

To find out more about your own communication style, Assess Your Communication Style.

Also check out the list of Recommended Reading.

Other Resources
About the Author
Contact Ellen

The Benefits of Sharpening Interpersonal Intelligence
Boundaries and the Dance of Intimacy
How To Make Your Love Last Common Sense Tips for All Ages

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