As a therapist, one of the most common questions I’m asked is the secret to a good relationship. People want to know what they can do or say that will quickly and drastically impact their relationship. Usually when people ask this, say at a grocery store or dinner party, I will laugh and slowly change the subject because the answer to that question is often complex and there is not usually a quick and easy fix. However, if I had to choose a key area to focus on that can help improve a relationship, next to communication and connection, I would say boundaries.
Boundaries may not sound like something that could really protect and enhance a relationship, but healthy boundaries foster effective communication, dependability, teamwork and trust. With all of those components, your chances of a successful healthy relationship increase. John Gottman cites a social psychology study in which they asked people “What is the most desirable quality you’re looking for in a partner when you’re dating?” The number one answer was trustworthiness.
Here are some ways that you and your partner can develop and discuss healthy boundaries with the added benefit of cultivating trust.
Understand what your boundaries are and where they came from.
We all were introduced to boundaries when we were children, whether they were healthy or unhealthy depends on your childhood. Understanding what your personal experience with boundaries are is an important part of developing healthy boundaries for your current relationship. Another part of this is understanding the emotions behind your boundaries. For example if you don’t want your partner to communicate with an ex of theirs, what is the emotion behind this? Try to write down some boundaries that you would like to develop in your relationship along with the emotions behind them and have your partner do the same.
Communicate these things to your partner in a non-defensive way.
One of the best ways to shut down a healthy productive conversation is by blaming. Starting a sentence off with “you always” or “you never” and then complaining about something they have done or might do will often put up a wall and end the conversation right there. Instead consider using an I statement. This is a sentence that is structured I feel_(emotion)______, when you _(action)______ / when _(situation)_____happens. For example “I feel scared when you text your ex-girlfriend because I am worried she means more to you than I do” compared to “You always text your ex-girlfriend and never think about how wrong that is”. Structuring your sentences in I statements encourages you to express your emotions and is more likely to encourage an understanding and non-defensive response from your partner.
Understand your walls and windows.
Dr. Shirley P. Glass created the concept of Walls and Windows and discussed them at length in her book, “Not Just Friends”: Rebuilding Trust and Recovering Your Sanity after Infidelity. This concept explains how within a relationship there should be walls surrounding your and your partner, and windows in between the two of you. Consider these walls as a protectant from things coming to attack your relationship, these are people or behaviors that are not supporters of your relationship and should be kept at distance or have a clear boundary defining what is ok and what is not. Windows are the guideline and understanding that there is an openness and vulnerability between the two of you that is not shared with others. Windows become possible because the walls, i.e boundaries, are there to protect you.
When you and your partner are able to have healthy boundaries, it becomes possible to have an even deeper connection and trust that fosters into a beautiful and happy relationship. If you and your partner are struggling to create boundaries, I highly recommend Dr. Cloud’s books, Boundaries, or Boundaries in Marriage.
If you need more help taking these steps, reach out to this team of highly trained therapists. This team can support you in learning about and understanding your boundaries along with communicating boundaries and expectations to your partner.