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The Three Levels of Boundary Setting and Personal Well-being

July 11, 2016

When it comes to mental health and relationships, boundaries is a catch-all term meaning you are able to separate yourself from others; be protective of yourself; and not get drawn into other people’s problems. It is about being able to take care of yourself midst the push and pulls by others whose push and pulls may not be in your interest. In many cases, it is about the ability to say no. Typically, the more appropriate the boundary the better your mental health and relationships.

Let’s look at these examples of problematic boundaries and solutions:

Problem Boundary:

Frank’s mother continues to have Frank stop by her house after work each day. Frank is married with kids at home. Superficially this appears kind. On the other hand this interferes with Frank’s own family and his support of his wife with the kids. His mother is intruding on his family boundary and Frank is having difficulty asserting his need to support his wife. Conflict ensues between Frank and his wife.


Frank advises his mother he is unable to visit each day after work. He learns to say to no her constant requests. Although it is a disappointment to his mother, she adjusts. Franks wife is pleased with the outcome. His marital life improves, he enjoys his time with his children and his mother comes to appreciate her son has a family of his own. His mother is no longer depending on Frank’s company. She now has motivation to explore other friendships in her community.


Problem Boundary:

Sita is unsatisfied in her marriage. A co-worker has been giving her the hint of a romantic interest. Sita flirts with her coworker and this is discovered by her partner. Her partner confronts the coworker at their place of employment. Sita and her partner are now in open conflict about the co-worker which is distracting from underlying issues of their relationship. Both Sita and her co-worker have to deal with HR at work for their flirtation affecting the workplace. Sita had a poor boundary with her co-worker. Her partner had a poor boundary by intruding at her place of employment.


Sita, in view of romantic advances by a co-worker realizes she should confront her issues with her partner at home. She approaches her partner and advises of her dissatisfaction. The couple goes for counseling. Whether or not their relationship survives, it can be addressed without the complication of a third party.


Problem Boundary:

There are a group of friends. Two friends are fighting. One seeks to end the relationship recognizing it isn’t healthy. A third friend, upset by the conflict and impact on the group tries to influence and repair things. When that is unsuccessful, the third friend tries to influence other friends to have the one return to the group. The one who left feels more disrespected and conflict escalates and spreads throughout the group.


When the friend who left the relationship realized a third friend was intervening, that person was asked to stop. When it then appeared that the third friend was seeking to enlist the support of others to influence the situation, the one who left the relationship withdrew further and without confrontation or comment. This person realized that some people just won’t respect a decision to take care of oneself even if distressing to others. This person also realized that arguing only keeps the matter alive and that to take care of oneself, sometimes one has to simply move on. Best case scenario would have been for the third party to resist their peacemaking efforts (maintain their own boundary). Their involvement only made matters worse despite best intentions. That is a difficult lesson for some third parties to learn.

Life and relationships can carry risks. Some work well. There is a sense of mutuality and reciprocity and people can be respectful of each others interests and needs. When that is not the case, then the challenge is about addressing the issue. Addressing the issue is what is meant by setting boundaries. It may require setting limits as Frank did with his mother. It may require discussion and counseling as it did for Sita and her partner. In other situations, it may require severing of relationships particularly when limit setting or counseling is ineffective or unavailable.

Given the examples, the three levels of boundary setting are:

  1. Say no. Assert yourself and set limits in accordance to what is acceptable for yourself and situation.
  2. Discuss and/or attend counseling. Some issues require a more open and frank discussion about peoples’ contribution to distress. If you cannot discuss the issues directly or unaided, then seek professional help to facilitate the dialogue. You may need to involve others who are a part of the situation in order to address all issues to everyone’s satisfaction.
  3. Set a firm boundary. Some issues may not be resolvable. A person may not hear “no” or may not be open to self-reflection or attending help with a professional. If that is the case, you may have to consider limiting your relationship, exposure to the person or situation or walking away altogether. This can be very challenging and disruptive to others who may be involved. Support or counseling may be helpful in making and maintaining this kind of decision.

Setting boundaries is about taking care of oneself in the context of where one’s well-being is compromised in the relationship to the other. Certainly this can pose challenging situations to confront, especially in the face of push-back from others.

Typically the person violating the boundary isn’t in distress because their needs are being met, even though at the expense of the other. When the other person’s needs are no longer met, this can give rise to more open conflict. Hopefully the disparity can be addressed and a mutually satisfying resolution achieved. If not, then one is left choosing.

At times the choice is between compromising one’s personal health or mental health or values to maintain a relationship that more meets the needs of others over oneself. This may be self-destructive however.

I suggest people make their own cost benefit analysis. If a resolution that is mutually satisfying can be achieved, this is the best outcome. If not, then one must consider how much compromise is acceptable. It too much is expected, then one may consider establishing a firm boundary and walk away.

We are all in charge of our own well-being. Better boundaries improves our well-being.

Food for thought? I would love to read your comments. Please post them below and please share this blog with the links provided.

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker. Check out my services and then call me if you need help with child behavior or relationship issue or setting better boundaries.

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

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Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas and Georgina Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.

If your relationship is faltering, then set it as your priority.

Read: Marriage Rescue: Overcoming ten deadly sins in failing relationships

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