Boundaries & How to Create Them: Dealing With Enmeshment, Codependency, Trauma Bonds and More
Boundaries are the way we teach other to respect us, and how we respect ourselves. Another term for boundaries could be deal breakers. When someone does something that disrespects or crosses your boundaries, that’s a deal breaker. And it should be, honestly. This person has blatantly shown that respecting you is not important to them. A healthy relationship cannot be built on that. Respect is inextricably linked to trust. If someone disrespects you, they have violated your trust. Very few relationships can survive that without serious effort from both parties to rebuild the trust that was broken. In relationships with narcissists or alcoholics, for example, there is just too much selfishness and dysfunction involved for that to happen.
In most abusive relationships, there is a serious lack of boundaries between the people involved. Enmeshment often occurs, which is where boundaries between people are so weak and damaged that their individuality disappears. We might see this for instance in codependent enabling relationships between parents and a child that is addicted to drugs. Their child’s pain has become their pain. Their child's struggle has become their struggle. They give their child money, even though they know he will buy drugs with it. They don't call the police when their child steals from them, even though they know she has taken these things to pawn or trade for drugs. They allow their child to live in their home, leaving needles around or having unsavory characters over or whatever the case may be.
This happens because the parents don’t have strong, healthy boundaries. They cannot separate themselves emotionally from the situation in order to see it clearly. Everything is controlled by the child's emotions and what this person wants, rather than logic and what is the right thing. The parents subject themselves to abuse and more importantly, they are not doing right by their child - because they are too blinded by their child's emotions and pain to care for themselves or their child, and because they are blind to the fact that their own needs are being met this way as well. They operate on the premise that relieving their child's discomfort - which is now their discomfort - makes them good parents. They tell themselves that giving their child money is better than what their son or daughter might go do if they didn't. They tell themselves giving their child the money keeps the peace.
There is a belief that this happens because the parents can't stand to see their child in pain. While this is certainly true, it happens because they cannot separate themselves from their child. It's the parents who cannot take the pain. If they were able to think clearly and were able to distance themselves from Ground Zero, so to speak, they would realize that they are not helping at all. They are not relieving their child's pain. They are enabling it and making it worse.
This type of enmeshment and enabling happens in abusive romantic relationships as well. The partner who does not leave or call the police after they have been battered, or when their property is destroyed. The partner who does not end the relationship with a serial cheater. The partner is enabling the abuser's behavior by not doing anything about it, by making excuses for it and by tolerating it. Enabling is about not enforcing boundaries - and therefore not enforcing consequences - for behavior that is not OK. Boundaries and enabling or codependent behavior go hand in hand. Codependent people and enablers have poor boundaries. Boundaries are about saying, "I love myself and I will not allow myself to be treated this way by anyone." Boundaries centered around stopping enabling behaviors are about saying, "I love myself and I also love you, which is why I will not be a part of this wrong thing you are doing. I will not help you hurt yourself or others."
Setting up and communicating boundaries can be difficult. People who are used to just running over your boundaries will likely react badly to it suddenly not being so easy anymore. You should not let this stop you. People sometimes say things like, "Well, that's just how I am. I can't stand up to people." No, that's what you've learned. You can learn to be assertive, just like you learned not to be. People often fear the reaction from others, but look at it like this: do they worry about how you feel? Obviously not, if they don't care to respect or consider you. Maybe if you assert yourself and enforce your boundaries, they will learn to. And even they don't, you won't be putting up with abuse and disrespect anymore.
It's really about your motivation and your determination, because boundaries don't mean anything if they are not enforced, if there are no consequences when someone crosses them. It becomes just words that you're saying. Actions have to follow words or the words don't mean anything. If you set a boundary that you will end your marriage if your spouse quits one more job, then they quit another job and you don't end the marriage, you've just taught this person that they don't need to listen to you because you're not being serious. You've taught them that they don't need to respect you because you don't respect yourself.
People will often say, "Well, I tried to enforce boundaries but it didn't work." That's not really possible. If you are actually enforcing boundaries, it will not fail. The problem is that many people don't want to change. They are afraid to, or maybe they think the other person should have to, not them. While abusive people are most definitely in the wrong, focusing on them is not going to help you. It's time for less focus on them, not more. Focusing on yourself and why you've been putting up with this behavior is what will help you. Creating boundaries is the first step to remedying that situation.
It seems to be that people think boundaries don't work if someone crosses them. That's not how it works. The point of creating the boundary with your job-quitting spouse, for example, is not to scare them into doing what you want. You cannot control other people, and that isn't what boundaries are for. Boundaries are not for other people. They are for you. They are you standing up and saying, "I will not put up with this anymore. You can act however you want on your time, but you won't act that way on mine, because I will not be part of it." You cannot change another person. You cannot control them and you cannot fix them. It is not up to you to see to their well-being, emotional or otherwise. It is not up to you to fix their problems. Their problems are their problems and your problems are your problems. Don't take responsibility for something someone else needs to do for themselves. You are not helping them. In fact, you are hurting them, and yourself.
Just like when dealing with trauma bonds, it's really important to be honest with yourself here and break down your own excuses, illusions and denials. Relationships - even abusive or dysfunctional ones - require two to tango. Refusing to own your part of the situation means that it can never be fixed. If you are enabling someone, you can stop. If you are enmeshed with someone, you can separate. If you are codependent, you can become independent. If you have a trauma bond with someone, you can break it. Boundaries are the key to all of it. So how do you do it?
The first thing is to identify why your boundaries are so poor in the first place. A lot of people say "Well, I just have a hard time saying no." But why? Why do you have a hard time saying no? That's the question that needs to be answered. Maybe you're afraid people will become angry with you, or that they will not like you anymore. Maybe you feel guilty for some reason. Maybe you fear that people will abandon you or reject you. Maybe you feel that things are so far gone it's hopeless. Maybe you just want others to be happy. Maybe you do it because you just feel it's easier. Whatever the reasons are, write them down. (Don't be embarrassed. No one will see it but you.)
After you've done that, then write down all the reasons you think these things are more important than your self-respect. Because that's what we're talking about here: respecting yourself. Caring for yourself. It's time to take control and responsibility for your life and your feelings out of the hands of other people and put it into your own. You do that by recognizing that your own choices have played just as big a part in the situation as everything else.
Everything is a choice. That can be hard for some people to hear, but it's the truth. Usually we find that people who say they have no choice in a situation do have a choice, but they don't like one or more of the options. Following our example, the parents of the addicted adult child could send their child to rehab or kick them out of the house but they don't like those options. They don't want to do that, and the addicted child certainly does not want that. So they sacrifice their own health and their own self-respect and their financial stability and who knows what else to give the addicted person what they want, all the while telling themselves that they have no choice. And by now they probably feel like they don't.
Upon examining your writings honestly here, you might find that you don't really have all that much self-respect, even if you didn't realize it before, but that's OK. Creating and enforcing boundaries will help you build it, and so will the realization that you are in charge of your own life and therefore don't have to do these things anymore. Change can be scary but you know what? It feels good to say no sometimes. It feels good to say, "No, I don't have to put up with this anymore." Sometimes people don't even realize that, but it's true. You don't have to put up with anything you don't want to put up with.
Once you've identified the reasons why you've had issues with boundaries, you can start addressing them by constructing a list of deal breakers and consequences. This is the list of things other people do that you don't like, and what consequences there will be if they do them. Make sure they are specific. This prevents you from rationalizing later. For example, you might say, "I will not associate with people who do drugs. If I find out that someone does drugs, our relationship will be over." Or, "I will not have anything to do with people who call me names. If someone calls me names, I will no longer be around them." Or, "I will not allow someone to manipulate or guilt me into doing things I know are wrong, or don't want to do." These are the rules for how you will allow yourself to be treated.
You can make specific boundaries for specific people as well, like "I will not stay on the phone with Dad if he starts to insult or attack me. I will hang up," or "If my spouse begins screaming and breaking things, I will not tolerate that. I will call the police." Write what you mean, and mean what you write. Remember, boundaries only work if you enforce them. If you are not going to do what you say you will do, they are pointless.
After you've created your list of deal breakers, you can create a list of personal boundaries, too. This is a list of deals you are making with yourself to make sure that not only do others not disrespect you, but that you don't disrespect yourself. This can be things like:
- "I will not sleep with someone I haven't known very long."
- "I will not drink until I pass out."
- "I will not obsessively check my ex's social media accounts."
- "I will not give money to people who I know will buy drugs with it."
- "I will not continue arguments that I know are pointless, unreasonable or unfair."
Whatever behaviors there are that you think you need to address. It's important to be honest here, to really own your feelings and behaviors. Don't forget two to tango. They may not change but it won't matter if you can change to where you don't choose to put up with any of that anymore.
After you've written these things down, it's time to put them in place. Make them very clear and communicate them well to other people. If you are on the phone with Dad and Dad starts in on his abuse, you simply say, "Dad. I've decided I'm not going to put up with being talked to like this anymore" and hang up. He'll either get it or he won't, and if he never does and never stops his abusive tirades, then you keep hanging up. Either way, you are not listening to abuse over the phone from him anymore. It's time to stop feeling bad for thinking you deserve respect.
A few things to remember are that it is not selfish to refuse to be abused or taken advantage of, it's not wrong to refuse to carry other people's burdens and self-respect matters more than the opinions of other people, especially people who don't respect you. You have to be able to look yourself in the eye every day.
Now, it can be especially hard to enforce boundaries if you feel guilty or if you feel sorry for someone. It helps to think of saying "No" as a way of saying, "I love you." For instance, if you have an addicted loved one, don't look at it as you are saying, "No, I will not give you any money." Look at it as you are saying, "I love you and I don't want you to be hurt, so I cannot be a part of that anymore." That is what you are saying anyway. It's not about the money. It's about you refusing to participate in someone's self-destruction anymore, or your own. Making excuses for other people or yourself only hurts everyone involved. People don't have a right to ask you to shoulder their burdens and you don't have a right to take them. Enmeshed relationships, codependent relationships, relationships where abusive behaviors are enabled, excused or tolerated... these are all abusive and unhealthy in their own way. You don't have to be a part of it anymore. All you have to do is decide not to be.