Boundaries in Relationships

Additional Information for Chapter 9, Page 135

We begin our discussion of boundaries by stating flatly that we will expand this section in the future. I discuss the boundaries in the pages that follow based on my understanding of and experience with the topic.  Following the presentation, we suggest two books that address the topic of boundaries in human relationships. The concept of boundaries, vitally important to living a successful life, is curiously under researched by psychologists.  The only textbook I have used on the topic was very poor. 

Self Discipline−The Broader Perspective

The concept of boundaries is closely related to the topic of self discipline.  Most successful people discipline themselves to do the things that yield success and also discipline themselves to NOT do things that might undermine their success.

Examples abound in the world around us:

The champion athlete subjects him or herself to a strenuous training regimen and avoids (boundaries) those things that will hinder success such as unhealthy diet, erratic sleep patterns, drugs, tobacco

The person working to achieve wealth will follow the financial principles of the top people in the industry and will avoid (boundaries) buying on impulse, accumulating consumer debt, any form of debt that is not associated with well-thought-out investment. A brief but specific example:  I paraphrase Thomas Stanley (author of The Millionaire Mind) to describes how the wealthy purchase their dream house.  First they find the best real estate agent in town and describe their dream home.  Then they tell the agent, “We are in no hurry.  Keep your eyes open.  When you see a repossession or a divorce settlement or some outstanding offer, let us know.  We are ready to move in an instant, but are in no rush.  If it takes 5 years, that’s fine.  We like our current house.” [not Stanley’s words]  The result is that they may acquire their million dollar home for $300,000.  They have boundaries.  They will not make a foolish purchase due to aroused emotions

We could multiply similar stories for just about any area of human endeavor: The professional musician, lawyer, politician, artist, or entertainer.  What boundaries they establish may differ from profession to profession, but, if they wish success they will adhere to boundaries that enable their success.  For instance smoking may not subterfuge the work of an artist but it may spell death to the career of an athlete.

We shift our discussion now to boundaries in the context of human relationships.

You only have to live a few years and follow the news stories to find a multitude of instances where a career is ruined due to non adherence to boundaries.  How many ministers and politicians have had their careers ruined because they violate boundaries associated with sexual responsibility?  [Curiously, actors, entertainers, and some athletes seem reasonably immune to the destructive effects of sexual impropriety to their careers . . . but that’s another story.].

What follows is a quite extensive example of boundaries set by a young woman concerning what she chooses to do or not do in a dating context.  The values this young woman sets are not part of the discussion.  Other people may set different boundaries.  The story does underline, however, how important boundaries can be in safe guarding relationships in a dating and beyond context.  This dialog is actually part of an earlier edition of the book.  It did not make it into The Compatibility Code, but fits well here.

Example of a 20-year-old Woman Who Sets Personal-Closeness Boundries

The position of The Compatibility Code and the evidence of research psychology is that the ability to set boundaries and adhere to them, particularly where strong emotions are involved, represents the foundation for success in many areas.  However, the time to draw such boundaries is long before events that enflame emotions take place.  In the quietness of your room, perhaps with the assistance of a close friend, determine what boundaries will allow you to fully enjoy the pleasures of, in this case, physical closeness.  Since we’re talking about dating relationships that might lead to marriage, we make our comments within that context. Which lines are drawn is not nearly so important as that actual boundaries are established.  We provide some hypothetical boundaries that a 20-year old single woman has established for herself, then explore how they work in the real world.  Here they are:

  • In non-dating relationships I will touch or embrace others in a way that expresses pleasure in their company, affection, or comfort.  Never will physical contact suggest or imply sexual intent.
  • On a first date an affectionate embrace or a simple kiss is the maximum allowed.  There will be no ongoing physical contact during the date such as holding hands or snuggling.
  • For casual dating (not exclusive) the boundaries are loosened to allow greater affectionate contact but nothing that is sexual in nature, either direct (French kissing) or residual (the embrace that begins to cross the line from affectionate to sexually arousing).
  • In exclusive dating through engagement: we are now both close enough to talk directly about boundaries and those boundaries would be mutually determined.  My personal values state that I will not have sexual intercourse until we are legally married.  Boundaries to be set might include no overt sexuality (hand to genital) earlier in the relationship and anything but intercourse later on.  If we feel the boundaries need to shift, we will reestablish them by mutual agreement some time when we are not aroused—perhaps while sitting down at a table and not touching.  We will choose to not violate boundaries while aroused.

Lets discuss the values that this particular person has set up.  We have already established that which boundaries are set is not as important as the fact that boundaries are set and adhered to.  In the case of our hypothetical 20-year old (let’s call her Amanda), we see a clear set of boundaries that are probably more conservative than average.  We’ll consider her thinking on each one.

In non-dating relationships I will touch or embrace others in a way that expresses pleasure in their company, affection, or comfort.  Never will physical contact suggest or imply sexual intent.

Amanda is an affectionate person by nature, enjoys physical contact, enjoys giving physical touch but wants to be clear on what is expressed by it—that is pleasure that someone is her friend, affection when appropriate, and comfort when a person is suffering.  Her reasoning is, “what benefit is it to me or anyone else that my touch should express sexual interest.”  She recalled a comment by her mother who had, back in the 1970s attended a Bill Gothard seminar (on successful living for youth).  Gothard preached conservative Christian values, but even if one did not agree with those values, he expressed a useful definition of the word “defrauding”.  Defrauding, he said is: “Arousal of sensual desire that cannot be righteously fulfilled.”   Even to someone not adhering to Gothard’s value system, there is solid common sense in his words.  What is the value of, through dress, manner, or touch attempting to arouse sensual desire in another person when you know that desire cannot be realized?  [Chevy Chase once commented on acting on set with Christy Brinkley:  He said “It’s like playing with an ice cream cone that you can’t lick.”] Amanda has constructed a logically consistent value in which the boundaries are so thoroughly established, so entirely clear that it allows her the freedom to express her affection with a clear understanding of what is and is not being expressed.  Those values (and standards) will continue to hold toward others even after she is married.

On a first date an affectionate embrace or a simple kiss is the maximum allowed.  There will be no ongoing physical contact during the date such as holding hands or snuggling.

Once again, Amanda has thought through which values she wishes to adhere to and the reasons behind them.  She identifies for herself the purpose of a “date”.  The date to her is friendly time spent with an opposite sexed person in which there is some possibility of a romantic relationship growing.  Amanda chooses to define dating this way.  A lunch or movie with someone without any romantic possibility (family member, girl friend, casual opposite sex friend) is simply not a “date” in this context.  First, the level-1 values for physical touch continue (affectionate embrace or touch) and extend a little by allowing a kiss, but stops short of anything more.  Her reasoning is that she is honestly seeking a life partner.  A first date, no matter how wonderful, is not sufficient data (OK, she’s a statistician) to allow extensive physical contact to bias her thinking.  She applies to her dating relationships the attitude that wealthy people do to making large purchases, such as a house.  The wealthy are patient to find the right deal, and are able to walk away from any offer if they judge that it is not right.  They do not allow their emotions to compromise sound judgment.  For a first date she feels that it is wise to maintain clear judgment.

Her friends try to persuade her:  “My God Amanda, what a prude, why not do more?”  Amanda knows very well why not.  She is seeking a relationship that will allow the pleasure of personal and sexual intimacy for a lifetime.  She once took a psychology class that explored sexual norms for her age group: On a first date, 45% feel that heavy petting is appropriate, 28% feel that sexual intercourse is expected, and 22% feel that oral-genital sex is fine.  She simply rejects those values.  She chooses, on a first date, to follow a more clear-headed approach.

For casual dating (not exclusive) the boundaries are loosened to allow greater affectionate contact but nothing that is sexual in nature, either direct (French kissing) or residual (the embrace that begins to cross the line from affectionate to sexually arousing).

A second date to Amanda is an expression of increasing interest in a particular individual.  As such, the boundaries loosen.  Not to the extent that her peers do (at this stage the numbers have increased to: 61% believe that heavy petting is appropriate, 41% that intercourse is OK, and 37% that oral–genital sex is fine) but she allows freer expression of affection.  Amanda considers that casual dating is non-exclusive, that is, it is acceptable to date others if one wishes.  In this context, such things as holding hands, more generous expression of affectionate touch, and some non-intimate snuggling is allowed.  With a clear understanding of what will NOT happen while casually dating, Amanda frees herself to enjoy the greater closeness.  If her date attempts to press beyond her limits Amanda has already determined how she will communicate her boundaries.

For instance, if sexually-enthusiastic Pablo decides to see what her breasts feel like, rather than the indirect response of pull away or push his hand away, Amanda will be direct:  “Pablo, I appreciate your enthusiasm, but you will keep your hands where they belong.”  The problem with the indirect response (the pull back, push away with a wiggle and a giggle) is that enthusiastic Pablo may think this is just part of the game and will try again with hopes for better luck.  She may use different words than those suggested here, but she does not need to be clinical (no hand to breast or hand to genital contact) to make things clear.  “You will keep your hands where they belong” conveys the message quite well enough.

Amanda acknowledges that there is some discomfort in the ambiguity of a casual dating relationship but has chosen a set of boundaries that allows her the pleasure of progressively closer interaction with a clear fence that tells her that she goes no further.  She starts with the awareness that such boundaries are likely to be challenged at some point and has been proactive to have memorized the sentence she will say to make clear her perspective.  She does not allow herself to try to come up with the wording while under the biasing influence of closeness.  She keeps a clear head even in the presence of enjoyable affectionate closeness.

Exclusive dating through engagement: We are both now close enough to talk directly about boundaries that will be determined mutually.  My own values state that I will not have sexual intercourse until we are legally married.  Likely boundaries will be no overt sexuality (hand to genital) earlier in the relationship and anything but intercourse later on.  If we feel the boundaries need to shift, that will be done by mutual agreement some time when we are not aroused—perhaps while sitting down at a table and not touching.  We will choose not to violate boundaries while aroused.

The playing field shifts dramatically for Amanda when the dating relationship becomes exclusive.  She will not take this step until a greater knowledge base allows her to more seriously focus on one person as a potential life partner.  She appreciates that there are no guarantees in this life and that she may get into a relationship that, in the passage of time, may not work.  Let’s call it a calculated risk.  She has done her homework and has reasonable assurance that this relationship has significant potential for permanence.  She and Carl (she dumped low-impulse-control Pablo some time ago) are now at a point that they are able to discuss what levels of sexual intimacy are acceptable and to draw clear boundaries together.

The progression along the continuum.  The reality in dating is that it is rare for both individuals to want to travel down the road to intimacy at the same tempo.  It is rare for a relationship to not experience tension as the one wants to push ahead while the other wants to hold back.  Two mature individuals can appreciate this reality and determine together which boundaries they choose to establish.  Let us say, for instance, that in the early phases of steady dating that Amanda is comfortable with any form of snuggling or kissing but wants clothes to remain on, hands to remain on the outside of the clothing, and wishes to avoid hands to breasts or genital areas even over the clothing.  Carl is comfortable with the initial standard except he feels that he would like to hold or caress her breasts—he doesn’t mind if it is outside clothing.  Through discussion the couple may decide to allow Carl’s slightly more liberal stance, perhaps not.  The final choice of boundaries is not so critical but that the two identify clear boundaries that both are willing to uphold.

OK, let’s stop for a moment and play devil’s advocate.  What are the challenges to Amanda and Carl in the scenario we have just presented?  1) Some people may not be comfortable with an open discussion of such details.  2) In a romantic relationship it seems so unromantic to discuss in such clinical terms interactions so delightful as intimacy.  3) Remind me again, why do we need the boundaries anyway?  And 4) Even if the boundaries are agreed upon, what is to prevent hands from slipping inside clothing and the dominos beginning to tumble?  All four questions are valid and demand some careful consideration.  We deal with them sequentially.

1) Some people may not be comfortable with an open discussion of such details.  I recall a seminar once in which open expression of affection through hugging was part of the process.  The facilitator stated: “I realize that some of you may not be comfortable with hugging, and I appreciate your concern.  My suggestion is, ‘get over it!’”  My initial reaction to this question is the same.  “Get over it.  Are the two of you adults or children?”  Consider the consequences of avoiding such a discussion.  As mentioned before, it is the rare couple that just naturally wishes to progress along the path to intimacy at the same rate.  In the psychology texts they call it “unwanted sexual pressure” and identifies it as one of the greatest concerns of dating couples.  Secondly, if you have personal values/boundaries that you wish to maintain, the avoidance of such a discussion will greatly increase the likelihood of violation of those values.  Finally the impulsive route to intimacy can quickly get you so entangled emotionally in a particular relationship that when you realize that it’s not right, the pain of breaking up has increased exponentially.  Many weak sorts go ahead and marry someone saturated with disqualifiers and red flags because they are not strong enough to make that break.  Like the old jingle, “play now, pay later” the price can very high indeed.

While the majority are able to negotiate such a discussion successfully, there are some who really do have difficulty talking about this.  In fact, there are some for whom it seems practically impossible.  My suggestion is to see a counselor.  Here’s how the discussion might go.  Carl has just presented Amanda with the bejeweled caterpillar (or whatever symbol of affection is consistent with your culture) and asked her to go steady (or whatever equivalent word is used in your social group).  Amanda really wants to but is uncomfortable discussing boundaries.  She may say “Carl I am thrilled and flubberbusted by your thoughts and I would love to go steady as well.  However, I have a single requirement.  We have a one hour session with one of the campus counselors and establish guidelines consistent with the nature of our relationship.”  If Carl’s response is to refuse, it typically points to bigger problems than you presently see—probably an unwillingness to rationally discuss other issues throughout a marriage.  At this point you follow the practices of the wealthy.  They are willing to walk away from any deal.  This is a deal you need to walk away from.  The pain you feel at refusing to go steady is nothing compared to the pain you would feel when, after three children and seven years, you divorce, fight furiously over the kids, lose your house, lose $50,000 to lawyers, and end up crumpled in despair for many months, even years.

2) For a romantic relationship it seems so unromantic to discuss in such clinical terms interactions so delightful as sexual intimacy.  We start with the initial tenant of the book: If the foundation is securely laid, then the emotional closeness and the ecstasy of physical intimacy will be yours for a lifetime.  If foundations are not securely laid, then you end up with Marryin’ Sam’s [from the cartoon strip Lil’ Abner] $2 wedding: “three weeks of bliss and 50 years of quiet desperation.”  We live in a want-it-now, fast-food society.  But the play now, pay later mentality has resulted in the current statistic of an 80% unhappy rate in marriages.  The quality of one’s marriage, is worth some careful, thoughtful consideration.  Why should the romance cease following the courtship and the honeymoon?  The consequences of Marryin’ Sam’s $2 wedding is tragically the result for tens of millions of marriages. Why should yours be one of them?  Accept that a hard (perhaps even unromantic) look now paves the way for the pleasures of romance and intimacy for a lifetime.

3) Remind me again why do we need the boundaries anyway?  Boundaries are the foundation to success in most areas of life.  Boundaries are closely akin to self-discipline in that self-discipline is the foundational quality necessary to adhere to boundaries.  The two may be contrasted in that self-discipline is more often (but not exclusively) identified with dong something when one’s emotions might prefer to do something else.  Boundaries are associated with choosing to not do things that may subterfuge one’s efforts to achieve a particular objective.  In this context, boundaries might be identified as a subset of self-discipline because self-discipline is required to maintain them.  Why are boundaries necessary?  Because by refusing to adhere to boundaries, or being too weak to live up to your choices, the desired objective may be lost—in this case an excellent marriage.  Elizabeth and I, when dating, had the same challenges of determining acceptable boundaries in the area of physical intimacy that so many do.  In this area we followed the rules.  We set well-defined boundaries, and with difficulty and by mutual encouragement maintained those boundaries until we were married.  Not only did we feel a sense of strength due to having maintained the boundaries we set, but it has paved the way for romance and intimacy to be a vibrant and ongoing in our present relationship.

4) Even if the boundaries are agreed upon, what is to prevent hands from slipping inside clothing and the dominos beginning to tumble? The previous paragraph has underlined the benefits of maintaining the boundaries.  We fully acknowledge that boundaries have been set and violated quite literally billions of times in the course of romantic relationships; but, we say, at what cost?  Rather than focus on the negative consequences of violation let us focus first on the positive consequence of adherence.  We have firmly established that couples rarely want to travel down the road to intimacy at the same rate.  Let us say that Amanda’s more conservative boundaries are agreed upon by both she and Carl (any form of snuggling, kissing, clothes remain on, no hand to breasts or genital contact).  How much enjoyable closeness is possible within those parameters?  Is it enjoyable to hold hands? To link little fingers? To play footsie? To tickle? To run fingers through hair? To spoon together while watching a movie? To stroke one’s face? To give a massage? To scratch an itch? To snuggle kiss? To French kiss? To embrace gently? To embrace tightly? To explore the contours of the other with one’s finger tips?  The list is endless, in fact, I believe I’ve seen a list titled “1000 things to do without actually doing it” which extends this brief inventory to an extraordinary level.

An interesting parallel is provided by Los Angeles Laker’s long-time announcer Chick Hearn (and maintaining the Los Angeles connection by even longer-term Dodgers announcer Vin Scully).  In radio or TV athletics announcing there is a strict rule maintained that no swearing is allowed by the announcer.  Even if the occasional “hell” or “damn” slips out, the consequences are apparently severe because I have listened to thousands of hours of sports announcing and never recall a slip.  There are undoubtedly some announcers irritated by the restriction, but Hearn and Scully have illustrated such astonishing creativity in the use of the English language without swearing, that the result is legendary—Scully as the greatest story teller (more time for that in baseball) and Hearn as the fastest and most fascinating tongue in the west.  Here are people who have thrived within boundaries.

Back to the intimate relationships context:  Boundaries allow a fuller awareness and appreciation of the 1000 things.  The activities listed above are rich enough to provide a lifetime of sensual pleasure without guilt the following day.  Yes there are people who go from first contact to intercourse on a first date.  Erich Fromm (in his classic book The Art of Loving) would cringe at the emptiness, shallowness, and banality of such an activity.  Where is the pleasure of enjoying the journey toward that eventual objective.  The boundaries allow for so much fuller expression of affection by not trivializing the pleasure of activities that fall short of sexual intimacy.  Why not learn to enjoy them?

So, in direct answer to the question posed above, one will maintain the boundaries by 1) establishing the boundaries clearly, 2) Mutually agreeing that when boundaries are reached that you will bolster each other’s determination to maintain the boundary, 3) Realize the critical importance of learning to live with appropriate restraint, 4) Exploring to the full the richness of closeness within the boundaries, and 5) Be willing to shift boundaries when appropriate.

As a final thought in this sub section, what do you do if you violate?  Let’s not be too prudish about this.  If you violate there are two responses that might be appropriate.  1) You discuss at a time of non-emotional arousal the standards you have set, why they are there, and re-establish the boundaries and give it another go.  2) Perhaps the violation represents readiness for you to mutually advance to the next level of intimacy.  If so, discuss that and draw up a new set of boundaries.  The danger is not nearly so much in the occasional slip but in the life pattern of inability to set or maintain boundaries in this or in any other area of life.

We finish our preliminary effort on boundries in this section by suggesting two books on boundaries that might be of interest.


Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life
By: Henry Cloud and John Townsend

This book is very popular.  It consistently ranks in the top 1000 of Amazon sales and manages a 4-star rating (out of 5) by 275 readers who have written reviews.  Those who rate it 5 stars write reviews of unbridled enthusiasm. The caveat is that if you are not a fundamentalist Christian you will probably find the book irritating.  I own the book but couldn’t get very far into it—and I’m a Christian!  One chapter had 60 quotations from the Bible and used Old Testament characters to illustrate their points.  I wondered if I was the only one who was disturbed by the excessive Biblical reference and looked through some of the reviews.  The review sited below pretty much reflects my position.

So, if you are not put off by the language, I suspect the book is very good.  Cloud and Townsend are both trained psychologists.  The link (and negative review) follows.  You can read all the positive review (by far the majority) from the web site.

I knew that this book was written from a Christian perspective, and although I am not a theist, I can usually look beyond that to the substance. Case in point: I’m a big Dave Ramsey fan, which is how I heard about this book.

However, I found that the Bible was the primary authority used for any and all the points in the book. There were an average of 2 Bible quotes per page, often taken out of context and molded in the shakiest of ways to fit the point being made.

Much of the authority I would have allowed the authors on the strength of their experience as counselors was sabotaged by their reliance on quoted scripture for their authority. If they put so much credence into a series of writings with so much internal inconsistency and use it so arbitrarily, how can I trust their professional judgment?

If you’re a Bible believer, this review won’t appeal to you, and that’s fine. You may find value in the book — and I do believe strongly in the basic premise that we should set honest boundaries in our relationships. But if you’re not a fundamentalist Christian, don’t waste your time.

Another book that I have not yet read (only the first chapter—all that was available on the website) but appears to be thoroughly documented yet practical and quite readable is:

Boundaries in Human Relationships: How to be Separate and Connected
By: Anne Linden

The link follows.

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