Most of us have heard that phrase – good fences make good neighbors. But is that true? After all, aren’t we supposed to be breaking down barriers rather than putting them up? Don’t walls just keep people apart? Well, yes…and no. Let’s dive in, shall we?
History time! If we could go back in time to the Old West and journey beyond the borders of the Ponderosa and past the OK Corral, we would find ourselves embroiled in an age-old dispute – Farmers vs Ranchers. The ranchers had been accustomed to allowing their cattle to roam free-range, monitored distantly by the cowhands, enabling the herds to access the best grazing and watering areas as needed, even uneasily sharing space with other ranchers. As farming expanded, the farmers found that – shockingly – their crops suffered if trampled by thousands of hooves. Thus, the West renewed the war that has been fought as long as there have been hungry, stomping livestock and the tender, tasty crops to tempt them.
What was the answer? Fences.
Fences delineated a clear boundary between the farmers’ property and the ranchers’ grazing land. The farmers’ crops were protected and the ranchers’ herds were still able to graze and roam, just without unlimited space. The farmers’ fences protected what was in and kept the danger out. The cattle were kept from straying too far into danger. The livelihoods of both were protected and any disputes were more easily understood by the knowledge of exactly where and how any boundaries were violated.
So the farmers and ranchers put up a few fences, then met in town for preachin’ and a square dance? Well…no. But why not?
People don’t always like boundaries. This is important. The ranchers were accustomed to their freedom to go where they pleased, and fences did not solve the problem of finite resources. The fencing disputes lasted for decades.
This is a bummer, Sarah. Also, what do a bunch of cows and turnips have to do with me?
You, too, have precious things worth protecting. Perhaps it’s your marriage that is under threat, or your children, your work environment, even your body. Sometimes, we might not even know that we have certain boundaries until they’ve been violated! The farmers, for example, probably didn’t mind if the cattle grazed in the next field over until they crossed the line and started trampling their crops. What are some examples of boundaries being violated or being too relaxed?
- A mother-in-law coming over unannounced, despite repeated requests for a warning phone call or text.
- A boyfriend or girlfriend going through your phone without permission (assuming this is not an agreed-upon arrangement).
- A spouse sharing personal details of your relationship with others, including family members, in a way that makes you uncomfortable.
- A boss continually demanding that you work beyond your agreed upon hours, cutting into your home and family time.
- A person – any person – touching or pursuing you in a way that makes you uncomfortable and/or puts you in danger.
- A friend always calling late at night without regard for your family time.
- A neighbor allowing his or her pet to relieve themselves in your yard without cleaning it up.
However, there are such things as boundaries that are too rigid (imagine a steel-reinforced concrete wall with razor wire versus a waist-high picket fence). An all-too-common example is someone refusing to be vulnerable with others – even their spouse – isolating themselves and eroding their relationships. In these cases, even though the individual feels uncomfortable with emotional vulnerability, this does not mean that that feeling of discomfort should dictate their response. If spouses and friends cannot be vulnerable with each other to a certain extent, their relationships cannot remain healthy. Feelings are indicators, not dictators – feelings do not tell us whether something is right or wrong, only how we feel about it. (For example, paying my taxes does not FEEL good, but I know it is the RIGHT thing to do.)
How do we build healthy boundaries?
- Consider: Robert Frost, in his poem “Mending Wall,” has some sage advice for us:
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
As Mr. Frost suggests, we must consider what it is that we wish to protect, where our invisible lines already are, so that we may make them visible. Consider your own responses to the actions of others. Do you become uncomfortable, irritable, or frustrated when your mother-in-law drops in unannounced? There’s a boundary there! Have you begun to dread work because your boss makes demands of your time and energy that are affecting you and your family? Boundary! Do you feel the urge to distance yourself from your spouse when they share personal details of your relationship with others? Boundary there, too. Do you feel frustrated when you and your spouse become distant from each other? Maybe that’s a wall you should put a gate in to allow your spouse to come through.
- Decide and Communicate: How will you take action to protect your boundaries? Determine how to communicate your boundaries and what your response will be when your boundaries are threatened. Both communication and enforcement are incredibly important. Firstly, how can I honor a boundary if I don’t know that it exists? Secondly, enforcing the consequences for breaking your boundaries shows that you are serious. For example, if your friend or relative insists on calling you as you sit down to dinner at night, first communicate to that person that their behavior is not okay with you (“I really miss out on time with my family when you call at dinner”) and perhaps provide an alternative (“Would you mind calling at XX time instead?”). Then, let them know what the consequences will be if they refuse to respect your request (“If you call at dinner again, I will be angry and will not answer the phone”).
- Follow Through: Consider a familiar scene: You tell a child that you are not going to buy them a toy at the store, they then beg for a toy, you refuse, they lose their temper and inform half of Walmart that you’re a terrible parent, you give in and buy the toy. You’ve just purchased peace at the price of your freedom. As long as that pattern continues, they will expect that you will give in and allow them to cross your stated line, and they will wreak havoc if you attempt to curtail their behavior. This exact pattern holds true for adults, as well. No one likes being told “no,” especially from someone who usually says “yes.” But if you are unable to say ‘no,’ your ‘yes’ means very little. What good is a fence if the gate is always open? It is okay to say “no” now, so that you can say “yes” later.
Boundaries are not easy to put up, and, much like a physical fence, require constant maintenance. But aren’t those precious things – our relationships, our bodies, our children, our turnips – worth protecting? If someone refuses to respect your boundaries – even the inconvenient ones – they are refusing to respect you. Having frank conversations with those you love can be intimidating, but communicating your needs and listening to theirs is vitally important to any relationship. Those conversations show us new ways to love each other in just the right ways. Your health and your relationships are worth it.
PS: A great resource on Boundaries is the book “Boundaries” by Cloud & Townsend. Full of great insights and helpful idea.