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How to Create Healthy Boundaries in Unhealthy Relationships

Creating healthy boundaries is challenging at best and this is in relationships that are new, fresh, and presumably healthy.  But what happens when you have an established unhealthy relationship in which you need boundaries?  Even though most of us struggle to create healthy boundaries because ours were trampled as children or we were so neglected we couldn’t risk creating them this subject is often overlooked.  If you’re challenged in this area it likely comes from your family of origin.  Meaning people you feel obligated to stay in relationships with.  And these aren’t the only people you’re likely to have obligatory relationships with.  Think of your co-workers, in-laws, and other family members.  These relationships might be nearly impossible to go “no-contact” in but that doesn’t mean you have to tolerate the disruptions they cause in your life.  Find out how to create healthy boundaries in unhealthy relationships.

You Deserve it

Before we start down this road of how to create and establish healthy boundaries, I just want to get one thing clear, you deserve it!  You deserve consideration!  You deserve to be heard and to have your needs met.  It’s possible that you’ve been told otherwise for so long that you honestly don’t believe this, but it’s true.  At the end of the day it’s your life, it’s your future, and it’s your well-being at stake.  You aren’t being difficult or demanding.  Everyone NEEDS boundaries in every relationship. 

By communicating your boundaries and expecting they be honored you’re being mature and healthy.  And honestly, you’re doing the hard work necessary to bridge gaps and create meaningful relationships.  You should get a standing ovation… well… at least a thank you!  You probably won’t, but you should!  So, when you’re doing this very challenging and worthwhile work and the unhealthy people in your life are behaving in their unhealthy ways imagine me cheering you on because believe me… I AM!!!

What Do You Need & Want

First let me clarify that both your wants and needs are important to consider when establishing boundaries.  But needs tend to be firmer and more uncompromising than wants.  In an ideal world you may want your mom to call a few days in advance if she’d like to visit but you may need her to never simply show up unannounced.  See the difference?

Your needs and wants are highly likely to differ from person to person.  Some may apply to everyone though and that’s ok too.  For example, I have a boundary that no one hits me.  It doesn’t matter who it is, I simply won’t tolerate it.  On the other hand, I’m totally fine with my kids calling at any time day or night for any reason but I’m not cool with an acquaintance doing that.  It’s completely fair if your boundaries don’t apply to everyone.

Furthermore, It’s even ok if they don’t apply to everyone in the same category of relationship.  For example. I have 2 younger sisters and 2 younger brothers.  It would even be ok for me to say that one of my sisters can call me anytime day or night but none of my other siblings can.  Nothing wrong with that and guess what… I don’t have to even give a reason or explain it to anyone.

Make Your Lists

Now it’s time to get to work!  Get out a notebook and at the top of the first page write “everyone”.  This will be the page where you write boundaries that pertain to every person you know.  On my “everyone” page it says things like…

Needs

  • No hitting me (or anything similar)
  • No calling me names
  • Let me know when coming to my house

I don’t really have a “wants” section for everyone because these are just basic general things that always apply, but you might.  They may include things like 2 days advance notice before coming to your house or not commenting on your food choices.  Keep in mind that these are things that pertain specifically to you.  You might also have a set of boundaries with your children but that’s a subject for a different post (and believe me… I’ll write it because this is an area of serious importance).

In the following pages make lists for people in your life or categories of people in your life.  Simply put their name at the top of the page and make a “need” and “want” column.  Complete a page for each person you can think of with whom you know you need to establish boundaries plus a trusted practice person (with whom you may already have healthy boundaries).

Practice

Tell your trusted person that you’re embarking on this awesome journey of boundary work and you could really use their help and support.  In my experience they are overjoyed to help because your unhealthy people are likely infringing on their boundaries too.

Before you start communicating your boundaries with the more challenging or unhealthy people in your life go through the next few steps with your practice person.  This will help you gain confidence and work out any anxiety you might have about communicating boundaries in the first place.

Preemptively Communicate

One of the easiest ways to get your boundaries out there is to preemptively communicate them.  This doesn’t mean unloading all of them all at once or mailing people the page you created about them.  People tend to not respond well to that!  It simply means letting people know what you need before it comes up.  You should do this kindly and innocently without any hint of confrontation or accusation.

A simple call or text in advance of an event can go a long way.  For example, you can call a relative to follow up on a future invite or get together and simply state your boundary in the call. 

Work it in Conversation

Mentioning a boundary in a casual conversation is an easy way to communicate it to even the most challenging person.  I sometimes like to approach this by giving an example involving a “friend”.  It’s much easier to get people to see a boundary violation when they aren’t involved.  This gives you the opportunity to get their buy in in a round about way.  Before they know it they’re agreeing that this is a completely reasonable boundary which obligates them to comply with it as well.

Using your Want to get your Need

You can clearly state what you need from someone by using your want as a reference.  It gives the appearance that you’re being flexible and making an exception for them.  This would make it very clear that the need really is a must and also motivate them to go above and beyond to meet the want.  Even very unhealthy people often want to be seen as extra impressive and feel appreciated. 

Saying something like “Ideally I’d love if you would set up visits a few days in advance but I understand that might always be possible so I’ll need you to at least give me a heads up.”  It works even better if you can put something in it for them.  Try this “I’d love it if you set up visits ahead of time so we could agree on a time I could visit undistracted but if that isn’t possible I’ll at least need a heads up.”  Giving the incentive that you can give them more if even your “want” boundary is honored is more likely to get greater compliance.  Just make sure that you’re willing to deliver on what you’ve promised.

Be Clear

However, you go about communicating your boundaries, be clear.  Don’t waver or apologize and remember you aren’t asking for permission.  With unhealthy people it can be helpful to make it seem like you’re looking for their buy in, but really, you’re not.  Creating this illusion tends to keep things nonconfrontational and allow you to communicate your needs.  That doesn’t mean that if the other person doesn’t agree you drop the boundary.  If they push back or say something like “but of course that doesn’t apply to me” or “why are you being so demanding all of a sudden” or my all time fave “who do you think you are”.  Simply respond by saying you’d hoped they’d understand but even if they don’t you still need what you need.

And whatever you do, don’t try to communicate your boundaries during an argument, confrontation or in a fit of anger.  You won’t get anywhere.  Take some time to calm down and re-center yourself.  Think about what you need and what you’re going to say.  Then address it later.  I’ve found that it can be helpful not to refer to the incident that started the whole thing.  People tend to get defensive when you confront previous offenses.  It can be better to simply start with “I’ve been thinking about it and I really need…”

Creating a Consequence

There’s a pretty good chance that you will have to use some sort of consequence as a motivator at some point.  If you do, it’s best to mention it as an aside and not the focus of the conversation.  Even if you know you’re likely to have to implement the consequence pretend you don’t.  Speak as if you assume this will never be necessary but you think it’s only fair to let them know.

Saying something like, “I’m sure this won’t happen again but if you continue to call me in the middle of the night, I’ll have to block your number and I’d hate to do that.”  You’re clearly communicating your boundary and the consequence for violating it but in a non-accusatory way. 

Just remember that whatever consequence you put in place must be something you can stick to.  I often avoid communicating consequences unless there have been several violations of the same boundary.

When Boundaries are Violated

When boundaries are violated it’s important to restate the boundary.  Don’t let it slide and don’t ignore it.  If you do it will consistently happen.  Simply restate it (no apology or explanation) and clarify that you hope this won’t happen again in the future. 

I’ve found that people who are unhealthy tend to repeatedly violate boundaries.  Often this is because they themselves don’t have healthy boundaries or understand them.  It is almost irrelevant whether it’s intentional or not because it will continue either way.  If the violations are consistent you may need to state a consequence, then reinforce it and if that isn’t working you may need to simply distance yourself from the relationship.  This could mean taking a break or spending less time with the person.  Rarely in an obligatory relationship is going no-contact an option, but if it is you may want to consider it depending on the severity of violation.

Handling Backlash

The possibility that you’ll face backlash for even speaking a boundary let alone enforcing a consequence is pretty high.  After all we are talking about unhealthy people who either don’t have boundaries or don’t think you should. 

It is of vital importance that you remember that you’ve done nothing wrong.  What you need is valid and should be respected.  You should absolutely not apologize or modify your boundaries.  This will only make matters worse!  The way they are feeling, or behaving is caused by their thoughts and choices and really not at all about you.  It isn’t your job to fix it.

Surround yourself with healthy people who support you.  Vent in your journal.  Have a dance party and practice self-care.  Do what you can to bolster your spirits.  Make a list in your boundary book of things you can do to cheer yourself up or distract yourself in the event of backlash.

Backing Away

Sometimes the best thing we can do for ourselves in a relationship with unhealthy people is to back away.  You don’t have to tell them or anyone else what you’re doing.  You can simply miss some or all their calls and texts and if necessary, hide them on social media. 

Taking some time away could be just what you need.  Keep in mind that your goal here is to recharge not to punish or manipulate the other person.  It’s about you, not them.  You need to protect your heart, soul, and energy. 

When you do reestablish contact be sure to do so gradually and in ways that feel comfortable and safe to you.

Swatting Flying Monkeys

For those of you who haven’t heard the term before, a flying monkey is a person the unhealthy person manipulated into doing their bidding.  Your unhealthy counterpart could be outraged by your behavior or even acting pleasant as can be.  Next thing you know a mutual family member, friend, or co-worker is blowing up your phone about what you should or shouldn’t be doing, how out of line you are, or generally haranguing you, clearly on the behalf of the unhealthy individual.  This is often the most challenging thing about relationships and boundaries with unhealthy people.  Here’s what you do… simple as this…

SHUT IT DOWN!  This is a hard no.  Tell them you absolutely will not talk to them about this situation.  If they continue, refuse their calls and texts.  There is no use in trying to persuade them.  As a matter of fact, you shouldn’t be talking to people about relationship issues with mutuals ever.  This is incredibly unhealthy.  In a dispute it is always wrong to try to create sides and alliances.  Don’t get into this mud pit, you will lose, if not relationships for certain your dignity.  If you need to vent go to a trusted companion to you.  Your spouse or a close trusted friend.  Someone who has no direct relationship with the person.

Please keep in mind that if the flying monkey is truly a healthy and valued relationship who was simply blind sided or got caught up inadvertently, they will come around on their own.  You don’t need to clarify anything.  If they can’t see clear of what’s going on here, they are likely unhealthy and part of the problem as well.  In my family there are a few people who consistently grow wings.  I find it’s best to keep my distance since I can never predict when they might turn.  I advise you to do the same.

Secondary Relationships

Communicate your boundaries to the people you have primary relationships with.  When it comes to secondary relationships, for example, your mother-in-law, it’s important to consider whether you have a close enough relationship to directly share with her.  Sometimes it can be helpful for your husband to state the boundary on your behalf or for the 2 of you as a couple.  Often people are more understanding and less defensive if they’re hearing it from someone they have a long history with.  This can help prevent confrontation.

My husband is very uncomfortable with drop ins which are common in my family.  When we first got together, I casually mentioned that since I was in a relationship, I preferred a heads up before people come by.  I didn’t initially tell anyone it was his preference.  Over time as our families have gotten to know each other better it’s become clear to everyone that this is something that’s been long standing in his family.  Everyone has settled into the habit and no one has a problem with it.  But had he mentioned it or had I told my family it was his preference to begin with there would likely have been more resentment and push back.

Living Free

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I know this post sounds very different from typical posts about boundaries.  And there’s one simple reason for that… we’re not talking about typical relationships or typical people.  The unhealthy people in your life may be connected to people and traditions you cherish.  You might not be able to or want to cut ties with them all together.  Here’s the good news, you don’t have to.  You can state your boundaries, enforce them, and live free even if you’re in relationships with unhealthy people. 

You’ll be surprised at how creative and resourceful you can be.  Just keep in mind that the only person who holds power over you now is you.  And the worst thing they can do is stop speaking to you!  This happened to me once and let me tell you it was months of peace and quiet.  Since then we’ve had no more issues.  And remember… you deserve respect and consideration!  You have every right to have boundaries… in fact, it’s your responsibility to have them! And on the days it’s tough, remember, you’re not alone!  There are millions of us out here in the same boat, going through the same struggle and we’re rooting for you!

What healthy boundary strategies have you tried?

Posted in Nurtured Self, Relationships

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