Beyond boundaries

It’s common relationship advice to emphasize setting healthy boundaries in order to designate a safe place for self-care. The idea is reasonable and certainly helpful when the relationship is mired in unhealthy disregard for people’s needs. However, as helpful and necessary it may sometimes be, setting boundaries cannot be more than a stop on the journey to an even more fulfilling relationship—a boundless relationship.

Boundaries solve a certain problem that arises when our needs are neglected. This may be as basic as needing some personal space, as simple as needing to feel safe and respected, and as complex as needing to pursue a dream career. Boundaries solve these problems by marking a line of separation marking one’s space to feel safe, respected, creative, and more. However, while setting a boundary may be a good solution sometimes, it is not necessarily the best solution at other times. For example, we may instead need the other person’s support in creating new spaces that we both need.

If we focus sharply on setting boundaries we run the risk of ignoring the people and their needs, including our own. Such a focus can turn boundaries into barriers and disrupt the connection that is foundational to a healthy, fulfilling relationship.

Connecting to our authentic self opens the door to understanding our needs and respecting our limits. This not only clarifies what we must do to meet our needs, but also what we must not do.
We must shift the focus from setting boundaries to expressing our needs.

When we focus on needs, we move from the preset solution of boundaries to a process of collaborative discovery of creative ways of meeting our needs. We can assert our needs, listen to understand the needs of others, and find creative ways of meeting them together. In parenting, this non-judgmental, curiosity-driven process contributes to forming genuine connections and secure attachments between parents and children.

Boundaries can be helpful but are not central to a boundless relationship—authentic expressions of need and a commitment to meeting everyone’s needs are.

Here is a relevant experience of mine. My teenage son, who works out several times a week, would frequently ask me if I would drive him or pick him up from the gym after school. I’m still at work when he gets out of school and would normally be preparing dinner when he finishes his workout. Additionally, I felt it was a waste of gas and not a good environmental choice to drive 20 minutes for a one-way ride when he could easily take a bus that has stops at the gym and a half block from our house. Nonetheless, sometimes I felt it would be nice to give him a break from being tied up to the bus schedule (which runs only once every hour) and have a chat in the car, so if I could manage it in my day or on the weekend I’d say yes. But, normally, my answer was no, I would’t.

Yet, despite my frequent refusals he kept asking. I felt nagged and rather frustrated by constantly having to answer the question and considered just giving him a blank no, and directing him to always take the bus. But I was curious, so I told him about how I felt and asked why he kept asking. His answer was that while he appreciated the comfort of the car ride, he actually was more interested in driving the car so he could get the practice hours he needed for his driver’s license.

I had not thought of that! So, this wasn’t just my privileged kid asking for on-demand chauffeur service?! Suddenly, his “nagging” made a lot more sense. When I reflected on this, I realized that it actually changed the situation for me because while I still needed to manage my work and family commitments, I place a high value on his practice. In fact, I’d say, in order to feel good about my parenting I have a need to support his training.

It had been tempting to set a limit and draw a boundary (gently, kindly) by saying no and refusing to engage any more—and then I would have missed the opportunity for a deeper connection. When I expressed my needs and understood his, we could find better ways to meet both our needs, respect the limits of what we both wanted to do and not to do, all without really thinking in terms of boundaries.
Those boundaries need not always be set with focused intention. In effect, often they will set themselves as a result of the work we must do to understand and meet everyone’s needs.



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