Setting Boundaries in Relationships

Updated: Oct 31, 2019

In my practice, I have found that setting and fulfilling boundary requests in relationships is something that we all struggle with at some point or another. In my quest to help my clients understand what this means, I set out to the local library and came across an excellent work of literature. Empowered Boundaries by therapist and social change activist Christien Storm give the reader insight regarding the challenges of negotiating boundaries with the people in our lives.

There is one statement in particular that Storm makes that I find entirely relevant to the conflict resolution process, "the more we know about ourselves the better we will be able to set, maintain, or negotiate boundaries across a variety of different situations."

How is this relevant to the mediation process? Funny you should ask... Boundaries are requested and established in nearly every mediation that I have been a part of. When we engage in conversations about what we believe to be true, the outcomes we want from that truth, and the steps we will take to achieve that outcome, we are outlining the parameters that will dictate how we interact with the individuals with whom we are in conflict with. So what does that mean?

Basically, we don't seek out mediation unless we are looking to establish some sort of boundary - whether that be in parenting time negotiations, relationship dissolution, employment contracts, or even landlord-tennant situations to name a few. The conversation could go something like this:

Sibling 1

"I hate it that you put mom in that nursing home! She is suffering and I can't take how lonely she is getting. We talk every day on the phone and she always asks how long it will be before I come for a visit. I live 12 hours away! What am I supposed to say to that?!"

Sibling 2

"I can't believe you're still on this.... mom is 87 years old! She can't live on her own anymore, that's why I found her this place. I have 3 kids to worry about - getting them to all of their activities, plus I'm juggling a full-time job, a divorce, and volunteering for Cindy's Spring Bake Sale event. I don't have time to worry about making sure she doesn't fall and hurt herself if she is living with me! We go and see her every Sunday - we pick her up for church and go to lunch after. It's not my fault you decided to move that far away!

Sibling 1

"Well you didn't even ask me before you did it. Now she just sits in her room all day and wonders when she will have company. It's not fair! How would you like it? I am far away but I had to move for my job! I would move back today if I could! I get that it's inexpensive, but isn't there somewhere that she can keep doing some of the activities she loves? Like cooking and playing cards? You know she still loves to dance... If you weren't so selfish, you'd cut back on all of your volunteering to help mom. That's the least she deserves after all she's done for us. I know you have a spare bedroom that she used to stay in from time-to-time. She should be living with family.

We can clearly see that these siblings are at odds about what to do with their sick mother. They are expressing the need for acceptance and agreement. they are frustrated because neither one of them feels heard, but neither want to take the responsibility to care for their sick mother. When left up to the siblings, alone, this could easily be a disagreement that interferes with their respect for one another. Feelings of disgust, contempt, and even stonewalling could occur if they are unable to understand where the other is coming from.

There is a clear difference in priorities and goals in this situation. Sibling 1 is concerned for their mother's loneliness, while sibling 2 is preoccupied with a busy life and has no time to worry about that. Moving forward, the two would benefit from trying to understand why they feel the way they do about the situation, and listening to each other's perspective. It could look something like this, when reframed and de-escalated:

Sibling 1

"I'd really like to understand why you chose the nursing home that you did. I know you spend as much time with mom as you can, but don't you think she's lonely there? I talk to her almost every day and I feel so guilty because I live so far away... I can't be there for her the way I want to."

Sibling 2

"I've been really overwhelmed lately. I'm sure she is lonely. With the divorce and all of the kids' activities, I rarely even have time to sit by myself and relax for 10 minutes. I don't know much about the place that we put her up in. It was recommended by the church, so I assumed she'd love it there. I thought about putting her up with us, but I am just too swamped right now. Plus, I know that at least two of her friends are living there."

Sibling 1

"I didn't know that she knew anyone there, she never mentioned it... I just worry about her. She seems to be uncomfortable. Do you think we could discuss other options? I would be willing to take some time off of work and come home to figure this out, what do you think?"

Sibling 2

"Before you go and take time off, we should see what is out there. I don't want you to miss work if we research and find out that there is nothing better. Plus I feel like pulling her out of there too soon could do more harm than good. She might just need some more time to get used to it."

Sibling 1

"Fair enough. Lets each try to find at least two other options and go from there. I think we might be surprised at what we find... I have already done some research."

Sibling 2

"That sounds good. Let's look into some other places and if we find some that look promising, then I would say taking that time off could be beneficial, you know you're always welcome at our place when you're home."

Some of the hidden elements here were the pain and guilt that Sibling 1 felt from the fact that they were not involved in the decision to place mom in a nursing home. In addition to that, feelings of guilt for living so far away and being responsible for part of her loneliness. Sibling 2 felt that the decision was up to them, since they lived close, and that Sibling 1 should not be making such a big deal about it. Sibling 1 thought that they were doing the right thing by putting their mother in a decently priced funeral home where 2 of mom's church friends already lived. They felt overwhelmed and that all of the responsibility to take care of their mother fell on their shoulders without Sibling 2 around, and does the best they can to manage all of the craziness in their life at the moment.

By reflecting on their conflict, they were able to understand what it actually was that they were fighting about. They made sense of their negative emotions and communicated them in a way that allowed them to negotiate. They established boundaries regarding the importance of their mother's mental health (loneliness). the need for help from Sibling 1 in finding a place for their mom that would suit her and the siblings (not too costly, but nice enough and with enough activities to keep her busy) and how much each sibling should have to sacrifice in order to do so (not taking time off of work until they know they have better options and will proceed).

Storm also emphasises the importance of using statements that will resonate with the other person and the outcome that is desired by that individual. I love this. Using words of affirmation can help the person with whom you are in conflict understand that you are not trying to attack them, but to negotiate with them. Some things you could say are:

I get that this is hard. You are talented enough to figure it out. You do so much for (person/group). I realize that you didn't mean to say (offense). I forgive you. It is okay if you are unsure right now. Thank you for everything that you do. I appreciate (you, something they did for you).

These words of affirmation let the other person know that they are heard, that their boundary has been communicated, and also helps to eliminate the idea of you as the enemy. Be clear, be compassionate, and be fearless. Setting boundaries is hard, but when we use collaborative communication, it gets easier.

How does this apply to a conflict in your life? How will you challenge yourself?

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