Most people know about boundaries and instinctively understand they are important. Betrayed partners are no exception. Often, they feel a keen need to set and maintain boundaries with their cheating partner after discovery. However, what a boundary actually is, how to set a boundary, and how to effectively maintain a boundary can be highly misunderstood or just downright mysterious. For betrayed partners, learning to create healthy boundaries is vital to healing and regaining a sense of stability and safety in the relationship.
My understanding of boundaries comes from my training with Pia Mellody, one of the early pioneers in defining and understanding boundaries and exploring the reasons behind why so many of us struggle with our boundary systems. Here are some key things to know about boundaries:
Boundaries facilitate relationship.
One of the many misconceptions about boundaries is that they are a way of keeping people out rather than a way of allowing people safely in. Basically, boundaries are mistaken for walls and used as a way to protect against vulnerability when they really should be used as a way to facilitate vulnerability and healthy connection in relationships.
Functional boundaries allow you to determine the level of physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and sexual closeness you want to have with various people depending on who they are to you and how close to them you want to be. When your boundary system is operating well, it helps you to have good and satisfying relationships with other people.
Boundaries are about your behavior.
Boundaries are always about your behavior and not about other people’s behavior. Many people do not know this and try to use boundaries as a tool for attempting to control the actions of another person. For example, one of my clients recently said to me, “I told my mom that my boundary is that she is not allowed to talk to me about my boyfriend anymore, but she keeps doing it anyway.” This client was trying to use boundaries as a way to control her mom’s behavior. However, as she learned, trying to control another person’s behavior is like trying to hold smoke in your hand. Impossible.
My client and I talked about what she does have control over, which is her own behavior. By the end of our time together she had adjusted her boundary, and the next week she reported how she had implemented that boundary with her mom. She called her mom and said, “Mom, I find it really hard to talk with you about my boyfriend and I would appreciate it if you would not bring that topic up with me. If you do bring it up, I’m going to ask you to change the subject and talk with me about something else. If you won’t change the topic, I’m going to need to get off the phone and talk with you at a later time.”
Boundaries are protective not punitive.
If the purpose of boundaries is to facilitate healthy relationship rather than to shut relationship down, it makes sense that boundaries are protective rather than punitive. This means that when we use our boundary system or set boundaries with someone, we do it in a way that protects us without shaming or punishing the other person. The purpose and intent of the boundary is to create safety and to facilitate relationship, not to push the other person away or to make that person feel small or diminished in some way.
This can be quite a challenge for betrayed partners because the time when they most need to set some serious boundaries is right after discovery of the betrayal, which is when they are the most hurt, angry, and emotionally reactive. It takes heroic effort to set boundaries with your partner that are not about revenge, making them pay, or hurting them as badly as they have hurt you.
Boundaries are about both protection and containment.
Pia Mellody identifies two key parts of each person’s boundary system. There is the protective boundary, which helps us to interact with people while feeling safe from them impinging inappropriately on our physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and sexual space.
Then there is the containment boundary. This boundary helps us be appropriate in relationship with others. Our containment boundaries keep us from becoming offensive or impinging on someone else’s physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, or sexual space.
Each part of the boundary system is needed to have functional boundaries. If we have good containment of ourselves but let others overwhelm us, then there will be negative consequences for us. The same is true if we protect ourselves well but allow ourselves to operate in uncontained ways that violate the boundaries of others.