By Robert A. Vella
Psychological boundaries, we all construct them to one degree or another. We build them to protect our inner fears. We build them for the sole purpose of exclusion. Like property signs that read “KEEP OUT,” psychological boundaries are virtual walls designed to warn others where not to tread. Sometimes we construct them for legitimate reasons, such as to shelter our families from potential harm. Sometimes we construct them for ideological reasons, such as to preserve the sanctity of our spiritual beliefs. And, sometimes we construct them for illegitimate reasons, such as those motivated by stress or mental illness. But, regardless of our reasoning, we all expect our psychological boundaries to be respected. When they aren’t, trouble arises.
This trouble often has a devastating effect on our interpersonal relationships. Depending on the nature of our psychological boundaries, we can tolerate occasional violations or those committed accidentally. However, we do not tolerate repeated and/or intentional violations. A person who is flirtatious with others in front of their spouse or mate, for example, risks damaging that relationship particularly if the aggrieved partner feels insecure in the relationship. Sometimes, that is precisely the intent of the boundary violator – to be hurtful towards their partner (as retribution for some prior grievance, or as a manipulative means of control) or to abruptly end the relationship altogether.
All interpersonal relationships – whether they be marital, sexual, familial, in friendships, between coworkers or neighbors, or any other – are wholly dependent upon trust. The violation of our psychological boundaries destroys our trust in the relationship; and, so with it, destroys whatever mutually beneficial aspects of the relationship that might have been present.
Psychiatry advises us to be respectful in our interpersonal relationships even when we strongly disagree with the psychological boundaries placed before us by others. In fact, there are two distinct interests involved here: 1) the maintenance of mutually beneficial relationships, and 2) the potential consequences of our psychological boundaries. When the line between these two interests gets blurred, our ability to respect others declines; and, so too does decline our ability to build and maintain positive interpersonal relationships.