In any close relationship it is vital that while accommodating each other, you don’t bend over backwards, for that will only break your back.

Every time I talk of relationship boundaries to anyone who cares to listen, I usually get pretty similar responses. Relationship boundaries – isn’t that an oxymoron? Why have boundaries in relationships? Aren’t relationships meant to liberate one from boundaries? Don’t boundaries confine and restrict? Isn’t that a western concept?

Whichever part of the world we live in, it would be a fallacy to believe that we can get by in our relationships without boundaries. Whether between parents and children, siblings, spouses, friends, peers, bosses and subordinates, masters and pets, in short, any situation where two living beings enter into a more-than-casual equation with each other, boundaries creep in, consciously or unconsciously, invited or uninvited. Every transaction you have with another individual is determined by the boundaries both of you have in a relationship. If you agree to go out to lunch with a friend but not to the movies, you have defined a boundary. When you tell your child that you won’t play with him but will help with the homework, you are asserting a boundary. When you tell your boss that you cannot stay back late because it’s your spouse’s birthday, you have defined a boundary.

Most of us are uncomfortable with the use of the term boundary, for it seems to imply that we set a limit on the relationship. Or that we draw a lakshman rekha around ourselves, which the other is not allowed to cross – a thus-far-no-further kind of approach. We generally think of a boundary as erecting a protective wall around ourselves that no one is allowed to breach. In truth, a boundary is none of these. It is actually a recognition of our capabilities and limitations. It basically tells us how much we are in a position to extend ourselves for a person at a particular point of time in our lives. How much we can accommodate the other’s needs, given our own limitations of energy and time. And how close we feel to the person, for we generally extend ourselves more for those we care more for than less.

This is why we are usually willing to extend ourselves more for one parent than the other, more for a spouse than a friend and so on. Usually we are not conscious of how and when we erect these boundaries, and therefore, run the risk of taking them for granted. It’s perfectly understandable that our childhood boundaries were unconsciously defined, but since our adult relationships are designed to be more conscious ones which require informed choices to be made, it would perhaps be prudent to be a little more aware of the boundaries we want to define in them. In the absence of conscious boundaries, we end up over-extending ourselves in some relationships and not having enough time and energy for those that truly matter, and we end up telling ourselves that it’s okay to take the ones we love most for granted, since they will understand. Actually they won't, beyond a point.

The first thing to appreciate when defining a boundary is that there are no right and wrong boundaries, only congruent and incongruent ones. If both persons are comfortable with a boundary, it becomes congruent and poses no problem, even if this may appear to others to be a wrong way of handling things. The key thing to remember is that in accommodating each other, neither of you should have to bend over backwards, for this will only break your backs. Boundaries can be tight or lax. People who, for whatever reason, need more privacy than others, generally tend to draw their boundaries very close and very tightly around themselves and are considered very private and guarded. Some of us may be quite the opposite. Most of us fall somewhere in between these two extremes. It’s very likely that in time, even tight boundaries may progressively loosen and eventually become lax, for our boundaries are not cast in stone. They keep changing. It’s only when we demand a lax boundary as a right, can things become messy.

The other thing to remember about boundaries is that they can be inclusive or exclusive. An exclusive boundary effectively excludes any consideration of the other person’s needs or requirements, and focusses only on our own level of comfort. Even if the other person is reasonably comfortable with this boundary, thereby making it a congruent one, it would still be a good idea to define more inclusive boundaries, for these make for greater closeness since they take into consideration the other’s feelings, thoughts or ideas as well.

However consciously we define our boundaries, most of us do tend to violate them every now and again, often unintentionally. Sometimes, we violate boundaries wantonly, perhaps out of anger, maybe out of spite, or even out of sheer contrariness, and fights and fallouts ensue. To ensure that these are minimised, it would be judicious to define as many congruent, lax and inclusive boundaries as is humanly possible without, of course, compromising one’s sense of personal space. What I mean is, do your best to extend yourself for the other person, but don’t sell your soul. Then your boundaries become beneficial boundaries, not walls.