Boundaries and Healthy Relationships


9- Boundaries and Healthy Relationships


Boundaries define who we are. They set limits against unacceptable behavior and make clear our role and responsibilities in relationships. Maintaining boundaries and healthy relationships help increase our value and self respect. This article provides some suggestions on how to set boundaries so that as codependents we can start our journey into recovery whilst enjoying healthy relationships that are equal and mutually satisfactory.


  • Importance of boundaries for healthy relationships
  • Setting effective boundaries



Importance of boundaries for healthy relationships


  • Setting boundaries is not about being unkind or controlling, as many codependents tend to believe. On the contrary, boundaries set the stage for genuine and respectful relationships. Many of us fail to understand that setting healthy boundaries in our relationships creates conditions under which love and support can grow. Maintaining healthy boundaries in our relationships means we no longer need to be dishonest and manipulative in order to get our needs and wants met. Setting boundaries is our way of saying no to dysfunctional or abusive relationships. Stepping this step marks the end of being victims in life and of adapting our identity in order to please others.
  • As children we may have been brought up with faulty beliefs, which we still live by as adults, in that it is wrong or selfish to object to behaviors that are abusive or disrespectful. But these are messages we most probably got due to living in dysfunctional families lacking in any boundaries. We realized asserting our needs and wants in relationships was dismissed and or frowned upon and so we learned best not to speak up for ourselves. Under the banner of respecting our elders, some of us accepted that we had no choice but to put up with being abused or treated less than. But now that we are seeking freedom from codependency, setting healthy boundaries in our relationships will help put an end to dysfunctional and unspoken rules that led to our loss of self esteem. For us setting boundaries is an integral part of taking responsibility for the care of our lives and acting in our own best interest.
  • When we start setting healthy boundaries some of our relationships may resist and want to undermine us. But if our goal is to become free from abuse or disrespect, then we may need to question having such relationships in the first place. If we are serious about our recovery from codependency, then having healthy boundaries in our relationships is a requirement, for it helps draw the line at unacceptable or objectionable behaviors. Setting boundaries conveys the message to others as how we wish to be treated. It helps us develop a sense of the proper roles to be played by family members, by friends, and by ourselves, which then gives way to mutually respectful and satisfactory relationships. At the same time, having healthy boundaries rid us of the need to control others for we are aware of our own responsibilities and limitations, to then allow others to live their lives as they please. We would no longer need to manipulate others into behaving in ways with the underlying intention to feel safe and secure within ourselves. We feel secure about ourselves because we have taken responsibility to put our own care and interest above all else.
  • When we set healthy boundaries in our relationships, we are defining our role and value in our relationships. We know our limits and that which we have power over and so do not play God by taking responsibility for the way others live their lives. Often the reason for our unhealthy and dysfunctional relationships is our need to control their behaviors, though we may not be aware of this. Most of us believe our intention is to be good and helpful, yet we forget each person has the ability and the right to decide how to live their lives, even if that is detrimental to them or others. As codependents we tend to lack awareness of our own identity and so we find it difficult to separate our emotions and our lives from family members and others. When other people are having problems and or are in pain, it feels like we are the ones affected and suffering. Our emotional enmeshment with others makes it difficult for us to let go and allow others to experience their own problems and pain. We try everything to solve their problems, never stopping to ask if our help is asked for. Under the guise of being helpful, our behavior becomes controlling and our true intention is so to feel safe within ourselves.
  • When we commence our journey in recovery from codependency, when we start setting boundaries on behaviors we find unacceptable, we have begun our journey towards an authentic identity and self worth. By virtue of asserting our rights as worthy human beings, we have shifted power to ourselves in relationships. We have, in short, started to regain control of our lives. Because we are acting as adults, fully in charge and responsible for our lives, there will be less likelihood that others will exploit or disrespect us. Setting boundaries and standing up for ourselves are foreign concepts for us codependents. In fact, the act of taking control of our lives is a frightening prospect. But we must believe that this path is all about self-empowerment and self-respect. To illustrate how this process works, lets examine the following example. A codependent woman who was raised under abusive parents may have learned as a child that to be maltreated is normal. As an adult she is trapped by this faulty belief and is allowing those in her life to treat her in the same abusive manner that has been her norm. She has no idea that she has the right to be treated as an equal and with respect. Nor is she aware that she has the power to assert herself and set boundaries on unacceptable behavior. She has never in all her life learned that she has such rights – or power. But then she decides to enter recovery from codependency, and things change. Finally coming to see the baselessness of her belief that she is a victim deserving to be maltreated, she realizes she can set boundaries against abusive relationships. She discovers that with these boundaries comes a sense of her worth as a human being equal to others, along with the freedom to live a life of her choosing. By setting boundaries, she has started her journey towards healing from an abusive past. She is no longer living as a victim, but rather is asserting her right to be treated with respect. By setting limits on objectionable behaviors, she is slowly able to regain her dignity as a valued and worthy individual. But as they say in 12 Step recovery programs, nothing changes if nothing changes. The point is that if she doesn’t practice setting boundaries, remaining in her codependency, she will continue believing herself less than others and so remain in abusive relationships.
  • Due to feelings of low self worth and value, codependents develop a tolerance for pain and abusive behavior from others. Having grown up in a dysfunctional family, they put up with behavior that is both disrespectful and hurtful — because this is what they are used to. Codependents may have little idea what a healthy and loving family life looks like, so their willingness to abide abusive behavior is very high. For example, as children they may have witnessed their mother being hit by their drunken father, yet she continued living with him. The lesson they draw from this is that it is normal to tolerate violent behavior from others. Or they may have been regularly criticized and demeaned by their narcissist mother, and so as adults they accept similar degrading behavior from others. It may be difficult for a codependent to acknowledge abusive behavior, because that means facing the reality of a painful childhood. Many prefer not to confront their past; preferring to stay in denial or minimizing the effect it has had on their life. But the consequence of failing to face up to their ill treatment as children traps codependents in the false belief that they lack value and rights as human beings, and therefore don’t deserve to be treated with love and respect. This leads codependents into abusive relationships, which, for them, are the norm.
  • Setting boundaries is a pivotal step for codependents seeking recovery. Our confidence and self-esteem rise when we realize we have a right to be treated with equality and respect. The more our self-confidence is nourished, the better we own our rights. We can then set firm limits on the behavior and actions of those who would be disrespectful towards us. As we walk in our journey towards recovery from codependency, we slowly learn how to take responsibility for our own self-care. We start to engage in self-nurturing activities, make wise decisions about our lives, and come to discover our needs and wants. We finally begin to realize what we like and what we don’t like. As we come to value ourselves, we exercise our personal rights and listen to what our gut instinct tells us. Yet in setting boundaries, especially in the early days of recovery, we need to be cautious and take baby steps. Having been jolted by how long we put up with abuse from others, we may swing to the extreme by setting rigid rules and limits on every relationship in our life. But setting boundaries is not about building walls that will isolate us; it is about having enough self-worth to get close to others without the threat of losing our integrity or being abused. The aim is to construct the conditions and ground rules under which we can have loving relationships that are equal, respectful and nurturing.
  • Codependents usually feel guilty and fearful when they first stand up for themselves. They believe setting boundaries amounts to being unkind and selfish, that this new way of operating will anger people in their lives and drive them away. This faulty thinking has a long history in the life of codependents. Being brought up in environments lacking healthy boundaries, codependents tend to believe that by saying yes all the time, they will be safe and accepted by everyone. But the truth — as many of us have experienced first-hand — is the complete opposite. In the absence of healthy boundaries in our relationships, we have endured a lifetime of being abused, disrespected and disliked. But the illusion that people pleasing will get us what we want endures despite finding ourselves again and again in relationships that have betrayed our trust. The truth is that setting boundaries is one of the most loving and unselfish things we can do for others and ourselves. When we know our needs and want and can distinguish our role and limitations in a relationship, not only have we contributed to our self worth and identity, we have made clear to the other person how and what we want our relationship to be. Other people will not be confused and are likely to respect us more. They will no longer be at the receiving end of our erratic behavior — one day cheerful and helpful, the next day angry and resentful. They will treat us as adults, because we won’t be dependent on them for our sense of wellbeing. Instead, we will be people who are responsible and able to care for themselves. An adult-to-adult relationship that is mutually respectful and satisfying for all replaces the child-and-adult relationship that is abusive.



Setting effective boundaries

Below is a step-by-step suggestion on how to set effective boundaries on behaviors that are unacceptable and or detrimental to you.


Boundaries and healthy relationships - Setting a boundary


1. Establish internal boundaries

  • It is difficult to set a boundary on another’s behavior when our own thoughts are obsessive and our behavior erratic. So the first thing we need to do before setting boundaries with others is to establish healthy internal boundaries. This means self-discipline and healthy management of our time, thoughts, emotions, behavior and impulses. When we are aware of our feelings, knowledgeable about exactly what we like and dislike, and what our needs and wants are, then we can we set boundaries on behaviors that are unacceptable to us.
  • It is the nature of our condition that most codependents lack internal boundaries. The consequence of this is that we have difficulty separating our lives and our feelings from those of others. We feel their feelings for them, because their pain seems to be ours. We rescue them from their problems because we believe it is our job to help them. And we take responsibility for their wellbeing because we equate their happiness with our own. But this enmeshment and lack of separateness from others leads us into relationships that are fraught with abuse and resentment. To recover and set healthy boundaries in our relationships we need to disentangle ourselves emotionally from others and see ourselves as human beings with an individual identity. As we practice owning our feelings and forming a sense of our identify, we begin to appreciate our self worth and to discover our needs and wants. We are then able to get a sense of our likes and dislikes. From there we can determine which behaviors we find respectful and which ones we find objectionable, and so begin the process of setting boundaries.


2. State your boundary

  • When beginning this process of recovery, codependents can often be heard complaining that they set a boundary on a behavior, but that the other person disregarded it. They say: the boundary did not work! But there’s an art to setting limits against unacceptable behavior. The first thing to remember is that a boundary isn’t a wish that we express to another, with the hope that it be granted – and that the person changes their behavior once and for all. Boundaries need to be clearly and assertively stated and maintained. They need to get restated and reasserted every time the unacceptable behavior is repeated. Think of setting a boundary per this example: Imagine that you are comfortable with a person standing a certain distance from you, but not closer. As a person moves closer, you raise your hands to indicate stop, indicating that this is the distance with which you feel comfortable. The person stops at your requested distance, so you put your hands down. A big mistake! By doing so the person thinks you have loosened your boundary and is bound to start closing the gap, disregarding your initial boundary setting.
  • The key to setting a boundary is to first define it and then to consistently maintain it. It is no good setting a boundary if are not planning to enforce it. Saying no to an unwanted behavior and then to relent and let the person behave in the objectionable way is self-defeating. Needless to say, other people will not take you seriously and are bound to disregard your limit setting.


3. Commit and persevere

  • Having no familiarity with boundaries, we codependents have allowed others to walk all over us for ages. When we finally decide to set boundaries, some of those in our lives are bound resist. They will want to continue taking advantage of us, to disregard our interests. What is pivotal in setting boundaries is that we have a clear idea of how we want to be treated, of how we want others to behave toward us. Then we must be ready to follow through on our resolve to be respected by maintaining the boundaries we set. If needed, we must repeatedly insist that others behave toward us only in ways we find comfortable. Codependents not in recovery may recognize objectionable behavior toward themselves, but instead of asserting a boundary they will use emotional defenses such as getting angry, nagging, blaming or complaining. People will not hear us if we behave like children, and, of course, they will not take us seriously.
  • For a boundary to be effective, we must state in a calm, assertive and courteous manner the behavior we find unacceptable. If the other person seems not to hear us or fails to respect the boundary we are setting, we may need to communicate consequences for their actions and encourage them to comply with our wishes. We want to be sure of ourselves, though. Specifically, if we spell out consequences for an objectionable behavior, we must be ready to carry through on them. For example, your son has gotten into the habit of coming home very late each night. You tell him to be home latest by a certain time, that these are the rules, and that you find his behavior unacceptable. If he disregards you and continues in his behavior, you may want to set a consequence such as putting him on a curfew or stopping his pocket money for a while. He may listen to you and stop for a while, but then go back to his old habits of coming home late. Remember that perseverance and commitment are keys to making boundaries work. So you would need to stick to your guns, again insisting on him coming home by a certain time. You may also want to assert that there will be further consequences if he fails to abide by your rule. But by careful that you are ready to carry through. It does no good to threaten to throw him out of the house if there is no chance of you doing such a thing. This will only lead to your not being taken seriously and being further disrespected in other ways.


4. Assert your right

  • Finally, remember that if you have difficulty saying no to unacceptable behavior, if you are more concerned with pleasing others than asserting your right as a worthy human being, then you are still under the power of your codependency. You are still operating in the role of victim, a person deserving to be treated less than, a person at the mercy of other people’s wants. Recovery from codependency requires you to change what you believe about yourself. Keep reminding yourself that you are perfectly all right as you are and that you have worth and value as a human being. Once you begin to realize this truth about yourself, then setting boundaries will become easy. You will find yourself employing them naturally, as tools to guard your integrity. You will realize it is your right to take care of yourself, to protect yourself against any behavior that is abusive or objectionable.
  • Remember it is your right to assert yourself and set a limit on any behavior that is detrimental to your worth as a human being. If you feel yourself being made uncomfortable by someone who is demanding, controlling, criticizing, pushy, abusive, invasive, pleading, or even smothering you with kindness, then you have a right to voice and set a boundary on it. You have the right to assert what you want and that which you are not comfortable with. It is your responsibility as a person of worth and value to set a boundary on any behavior that is disrespectful.


  • For further explanation on boundaries, please refer to Addict’s family booklet: Setting Boundaries
  • For step-by-step suggestions on how to set and maintain boundaries, please refer to Addict’s family booklet: 3 Phases of a boundary

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