Everyone I’ve worked with who finds themselves in a toxic relationship has problems with setting and maintaining healthy boundaries. It’s one of the reasons people end up in toxic relationships and then have a hard time leaving.
It’s a relationship where one person violates the other person’s boundaries, values, and identity on a regular basis. These relationships are verbally, emotionally, and sometimes physically abusive.
When I talk with people who are in toxic relationships common themes emerge.
Even if you aren’t in a toxic relationship, if any of these bullet points resonates with you, you are having problems setting and maintaining healthy boundaries.
Boundaries mark a line between you and another person. They define who you are, what you value, and what makes you unique. There are three key indicators of healthy boundaries. First, they must be clear to you. You must know what you like, what you value, and what you want. Second, they must be clear to others. The trick to this point is your ability to communicate your boundaries, both through words and actions. Finally, you must be willing and able to take full responsibility for your behavior and at the same time to NOT take responsibility for another person’s behavior. With clear boundaries, your friends and family know your rules of engagement. Even if people don’t agree, at least they have clear guidance on what is okay and not okay with you.
If you have healthy boundaries you will recognize behaviors that are not okay with you. Instead of rationalizing them away just to stay in the relationship, you will be clear with how you expect to be treated and intolerant of being mistreated. This clarity will cause you to recognize a toxic relationship and take a step back from it.
Unhealthy boundaries exist when a person is unclear about what they want and their values. As such they have problems communicating their boundaries to others. Because of their lack of clarity, they don’t know what they are responsible for in the relationship, resulting in either taking responsibility for other’s behavior or taking too little responsibility for their own behavior.
Let’s see how this could play out in a common dating scenario.
Imagine you have started dating someone but he (or she) doesn’t seem to like to commit to plans. They tend to put you off when you try to set something up or they call at the last minute and ask if you are free. You feel that’s okay to do this occasionally, but not on a regular basis.
You really like this person and want to get to know them better. When he or she calls, you readily agree to meet and do whatever they suggest just because you like hanging out with them. You also want to be seen as “easy-going” and not overly invested in the relationship. Maybe you read or heard somewhere that being overly invested a fast track to losing a new relationship. But whatever the reason, you have a boundary and you are not respecting it or communicating it.
This dynamic doesn’t mean you’re in a toxic relationship but you are exhibiting a willingness to go along with what the other person wants and a failure to recognize where responsibility lies. You are giving them responsibility for this dynamic, rather than taking responsibility for your part in it.
As time goes on the other person is likely to start taking advantage of this dynamic and it is exactly what a toxic person is going to look for in a partner. Without you recognizing what’s happening, the toxic person will increase their disrespect for you and eventually push you to the point that you say something. Once you say something, they argue with you and blame you for the problem, rather than take responsibility for their part in the dynamic. Since you’ve been unclear about your boundaries, and thus where your responsibility lies, you are highly likely to be persuaded that you did something wrong or mistreated them in some way. That’s the beginning of the cycle of a toxic dynamic in the relationship.
It is possible to have clear boundaries and be willing to go along with what the other person wants, to a point. Once that point is crossed and you voice your concerns, how your partner responds should tell you everything you need to know about how they expect to conduct the relationship. If they blame you for the conflict, with clear boundaries you will see they are not taking responsibility for their behavior and know this is a clear sign of more problems to come. If you are unclear about your boundaries you may believe their assertion and assume responsibility for their reaction and behavior.
The Bottom Line
Unclear or poor boundaries makes you vulnerable to a toxic relationship dynamic. Learning what your boundaries are and ways to effectively communicate and maintain them will save you a world of trouble down the line.
I’ll be coming out with more about this topic in future posts, so stay tuned. Be sure to sign up for my newsletter to receive my posts in your inbox.