Every couple will negotiate boundaries: what is individual, what is ours, and what is public. The architecture of a relationship is made up of a web of rules and roles that we begin weaving on the first date. It never ceases to amaze me how a little unit of two can be such a complex social system. The moment two people become a couple, they set out to negotiate boundaries—what is in and what is out. Who is in and who is out? What are we free to do alone and what do we share? Do we go to bed at the same time? Do we combine our finances? Whose name is on the deed? Will you be joining my family every Christmas?
There are explicit boundary markers that delineate our public contract and spoken agreement (i.e. wedding vows), as well as implicit boundaries we make with ourselves about where we draw our lines and create our own demarcation.
Sometimes we work out these arrangements head on, but more often we go by trial and error. We see how much we can get away with before trip-wiring on sensitivities. "Why didn’t you ask me to join you?" "I thought we’d travel together." "Why don’t you want to stay over at my place?"
A look, a comment, a bruised silence are the clues we have to interpret. We infer how often to see each other, how often to talk, and how much sharing is expected. We sift through our respective friendships and decide how important they’re allowed to be now that we have each other. We sort out ex-lovers—do we know about them, talk about them, stay friends with them on Facebook? Whether above board or below, we delineate the boundaries of separateness and togetherness.
Today, our definitions and expectations of commitment are transforming. These lines that are drawn are not as obvious as people think they are, and therefore it is an important conversation to have early on in relationships. Often conversations about boundaries are conversation stoppers, after one person has crossed an implicit boundary of the other. Instead, initiate a conversation to set yourself and your relationship up for success.
Relationship boundaries are not a topic that you negotiate only once. Your personal and couple-dynamic boundaries may change based on your relationship or your individual preferences at varying stages of your life. The most successful couples are agile, and allow this to be an open and ongoing discussion.
In this six-minute video, Brené Brown speaks about how boundaries are the key to self love and treating others with love. What boundaries are important to you and your sense of self?