Setting Boundaries vs Being Controlling?
May 27, 2016 3:36 PM   Subscribe

I have very poor boundaries, and I'm just beginning to understand what that means. I've been trying to be aware of that and then set them in my relationship with my husband - but I'm unsure I'm doing it right, and am not just ending up being controlling.

Yes, I have a therapist, and I will be talking to him about this at my next appointment but I wanted to get some ideas to gestate on in few weeks before then.

I have poor boundaries - most likely from going up in an abusive home and the fallout from that. I wasn't allowed to have any boundaries, and my parents did not have healthy boundaries with each other. I come from a long line of non-boundary-havers on both sides of the family, I never really had healthy relationships modeled for me. I'm only just starting to realize how much this has impacted me, and how my husband and I have poor boundaries with each other, and how that has lead to a lot of relationship strife.

Complicating this is that there are some elements of codependency in our relationship. This was the behavior between my mother and father, and I've come to realize that I can be the controlling enabler. I'm not always, but I've caught myself doing it either in small, chronic, subtle ways and sometimes much bigger, bad ways. I recognized some of the behavior for a long time, and actively fought it just knowing that I didn't want a relationship like my parents BUT it still has reared it's ugly head. It's only recently I started to understand the codependency part of it the problems and my complicity in trying to be controlling of certain aspects of my husbands behavior.

On top of that, I often don't trust my feelings and intuitions in relationships, looking for some sort of verification that what I think I'm experiencing is correct. I suspect this, too, goes back to childhood and goes to an early childhood of being told what I thought was not correct, and not being allowed to feel what I thought I was feeling.

All this has a purpose - what it means is that I'm often doubtful when I think I should assert a thing which I now know is a boundary. But I also have reservations that the behavior might really be intended to control the other person as opposed to just asserting my own boundary.

A Thing happened recently where I was bothered by something and told him to stop. He did, but pouted, and then asked me about it. I told him the specifics of what made me uncomfortable. He pouted some more and I felt pretty bad about it. I felt that explaining my reasoning to him was putting him down and thus possibly crossing the line to being abusive. I now feel strongly in this case that I was setting an appropriate boundary. If I really look at my feelings (which I usually seek to ignore or verify), I do intuit it was setting a boundary.

However, it felt so much like I was trying to control his behavior. I suspect what is going on here is that not being used to setting boundaries, and being afraid of being controlling, my doubt manifested as reverting to thinking I was controlling and abusive. I've swung back and forth on which I think it is a couple times, but I ultimately thing I was doing nothing more than expressing I did not want to be involved in an action I perceived as harmful, and his pouting was a reaction to a boundary he wouldn't normally face.

Another Thing keeps occurring. I have been trying to think if I tell my husband I don't want that to occur, I'm unsure that I am being controlling or just setting a boundary for myself. The above seemed relatively clear to me and yet I still have doubts. This other thing I am even less sure so I don't know what to do and thus have not tried to resolve it.

I don't know how to differentiate controlling behavior and setting boundaries. One is healthy, the other is not. How can I tell the difference? Is there some sort of "test" I can use? This seems like it should be if not an obvious answer, one that has some clear delination. I fundamentally understand that a boundary is about my limits, controlling behavior is an attempt to change the behavior of another. But, for every boundary confrontation, there is a behavior the other person is doing that is expected to change (even if it is stopping).

An example:
"I won't tolerate being hit."
Interpreted as a boundary: "I" am drawing a line at the physical integrity of myself.
Interpreted as controlling: Demanding someone who hits to change their behavior by insisting they do not hit "me".
(there is no physical abuse, this was an example that popped into my head.)
Obviously the second one is incorrect here, but an argument could be made for both cases being correct. In less clear cases, it seems like you could rules lawyer your way to either side.

I can tell from writing this out that the fuzzy edges I describe here is demonstrating a problem with my perception of boundary vs controlling but I don't know how to detangle this. I know this is something that many people do and fundamentally understand with ease - I am not one of those people, so please keep that in mind. I can sort of get a sense of it when I see it play out for someone else, but when it is something that happens to me, I lose what little perspective I have.

Please help me start to figure this out.

My husband is a contributor in the boundaries problem, both frequently crossing what would be healthy boundaries, and encouraging me to cross his boundaries (this is the codependent part). But for the moment, I don't want this to be a discussion between him and I. I know that would be the healthy thing to do, but I am not there yet. (Thus, the therapy!) So please don't suggest working with him. I'm unlikely to get buy in without a lot of really hard work, and I'm just not ready for that yet.
posted by LANA! to Human Relations (16 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think you're going to get meaningful input without more details on what the boundary is that you're trying to set.

Your right to swing your fist ends before it hits my face; that's my boundary, and it is an infringement of your right to swing your fist, and that's ok, because my right not to be hit outweighs your right to swing your fist. These rights are negotiated in relationships.
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:44 PM on May 27, 2016 [9 favorites]

Your situation sounds familiar to me. I had similar issues in my marriage after growing up with an alcoholic dad and a massively codependent mom. If there was a alcoholism and your family, I encourage you to go to Al-Anon meetings, which help me understand the difference between establishing boundaries and being controlling. If there's a test, I'd love to hear about it. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 3:45 PM on May 27, 2016 [4 favorites]

I had similar issues in my marriage after growing up with an alcoholic dad and a massively codependent mom.

Haha, this is me exactly too! I would look into the mirror and ask myself "Am I being controlling and abusive or am I the one being abused?" which ... I mean it's clearly distorted thinking but it can be hard to get to non-distorted thinking.

What helps for me is realizing a few things

- While there are many ways to be normal there are fewer ways to be normative, that is, doing things like most people do. Now most people may not be right but in a lot of cases aiming for something normative when you have distorted thinking can help. So, like, you can always say don't hit me just because society says it's not okay to hit people. Period. Anyone who argues with that is a jerk and wrong. However it gets more complex as you move away from specific things. How about yelling? How about name calling? How about pouting? So you and your partner have to determine norms for your relationship that you are both okay with and work on these boundaries together. And you can get reality checks from friends and family about whether the choices you are making seem to make sense.

- Once you agree on general outlines, then you also have to figure out how to manage transgressions (intentional or unintentional) and try to do so in a loving caring manner. Try to have positive conversations about the relationship and feeling safe within it. And letting other people be responsiible for their own feelings. So you can say "Hey a thing makes me feel bad" but it's less ok to say "Hey don't do that thing because it makes me feel bad" You talk about how you feel, TEAM US talks about how to manage that. And some of this is hard but it's about learning how to care slightly less about the other person's feelings because they are a grownup and should learn some coping skills of their own. It's very hard to look at someone who is hurting and be like "Well I guess you're going to pout, please come back when you want to hang out" but pouting is a choice and not something we'd think of as "pro social" so it's okay to not engage.

- One thing that comes up a lot is how to manage the "I know me saying you hurt my feelings hurt YOUR feelings but we'll deal with that later..." situation. It involves a lot of trust and a lot of boundary pushers can be real emotional terrorists (intentionally or not) and that requires its own sort of management. My dad was a drunk and part of that, for him, was basically externalizing the blame situation so everything about the world is someone else's fault and he had to drink to barely deal with this world full of JERKS So we all had to tiptoe around him and make sure to not make him mad (thanks enabling mom) and what kid me didn't know that adult me knows is: that's bullshit. People need to take some responsibility for their own mental state even if it's just to say "I have a problem" I am a person who lives with anxiety and am pretty open about it. When it makes me snippish or otherwise disagreeable, I own it, I don't just say "Well what can you do, anxiety, amirite?" I say "Sorry I am not managing my anxiety well, let's try that again..." So in your example, you're allowed to set limits around what you do and do not tolerate. The other person can decide how they want to deal with that. This is why people talk about dealbreakers a lot on AskMe, some people just need a bright line and it's okay to say "If you can't stop raising your voice at me I can't be in a relationship with you"

It's hard and you need to take a lot of ego out of things which is tough. And specific examples would help a great deal here because other people can be a reality check for you about whether the things you are asking for are normal level things or controlling level things if you feel that you can't tell.
posted by jessamyn at 4:03 PM on May 27, 2016 [35 favorites]

Here is one to think about it:
I have needs (example: I need to live in a clean uncluttered space)
I have wants - things that I would like you to do (I want you to wash your dishes as soon as you are done eating)

However, in a relationship with good boundaries, I don't NEED you to do the thing i want - I believe (or act as if) you are completely free to agree or not agree with things I want from you, after all you have your own needs and wants. (I need downtime in the evening and I want you not to nag me about unwashed dishes).

Boundaries are where I decide what I am going to do when someone else does something I don't want. (You don't wash dishes, I don't cook for you the next day)

Healthy relationships are where people are able to talk about these needs and wants in an open, non demanding way and explore if there are compromises that can satisfy everyone's needs (instead of an escalating war on consequences). So if I need clean and you need downtime, maybe you could do a different chore or maybe we use paper dishes. This is where being able to be clear about the real needs and not just the want can free up more options.

Finally in a loving healthy relationships, people also have need to make their partner happy - not at the cost of all other needs as one of many needs. So you might give up a little if it makes them happy and you might even give up more if it is really important to them. But this only applies in healthy relationship where your partner is also demonstrating a willingness to give to make you happy - if is too lopsided then you have a problem and should question if you are giving up too much of other important things to someone who isn't going to do the same for you.
posted by metahawk at 4:07 PM on May 27, 2016 [10 favorites]

One way to learn about recognizing your needs and communicating about them in a healthy respectful way is nonviolent communication.
posted by metahawk at 4:09 PM on May 27, 2016

Without the details of the boundaries you are trying to set, it's a bit tricky. But here's some stuff to think about:

1. Are you stating your boundaries based on your needs? These can be emotional needs or physical needs. For example, everyone needs respect in their relationships. So it is a reasonable boundary to say you do not want to engage when someone isn't using respectful language. You might state this by saying, "My boundary is that I won't talk to you if you are (cursing/yelling) at me." This isn't being controlling. Now, it might not be the only way to get that need met - perhaps in this hypothetical the partner would be willing to stop yelling or cursing or whatever if asked.

2. Are you stating boundaries based on what *you* can control? For example, "don't leave your socks lying around the house," isn't really a boundary. It's a request. I hate it when my husband leaves his socks lying around. And I ask him not to do it. And I can refuse to pick up after him, that's my right. But I can't *make* him pick up his socks.

3. Are you trying to use boundaries as a way to "score points" in arguments? Like, by setting a lot of boundaries based on things that may or may not truly be needs, and then keeping score about all the times the other person hasn't respected them? Like, I could get really bent out of shape about the socks, but too much keeping score leads to resentment and can poison a relationship.

4. Are you allowing yourself to say no? Oftentimes we feel guilty about setting boundaries, about saying no to things that do not meet our needs or violate our needs in some way. But it's okay to say no. In a healthy relationship partners respect one another's right to say no and while there can be discussion, partners are not putting undue pressure on one another.
posted by mai at 4:13 PM on May 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

How can I tell the difference? Is there some sort of "test" I can use?

I always come back to "Your right to swing your fist ends where my face begins" and I try to generalize that. So, when my oldest son was a bouncy, crazy making kid, I sometimes told him "I don't feel well. Please don't be bouncy within 10 feet of me. It's okay to bounce around. It is not okay to bounce near me today."

One thing that has helped me enormously is to look at things situationally. There is more to a dynamic than your actions and his actions. This gives room for brainstorming for how to meet the needs of both people instead of trying to choose one or the other.

Yes, there are situations where you have to choose. But the thought process you have described fails to provide for "a third option" where both people can be happy with the outcome. This involves lateral thinking.

In my own marriage, my then husband often fell asleep on the couch and then I would wake him at midnight when I was going to bed and half drag him to bed. At some point, I concluded that while I did need to make sure he got up in the morning because we were all dependent upon his paycheck, it really was not my problem where he chose to sleep. After that, I began sticking a travel alarm on the coffee when he fell asleep on the couch and it was up to him whether or not he eventually moved to our bed.

Prior to that, I felt responsible for things like where he slept. And it was enormously freeing to realize that was not my problem nor my responsibility and if I wasn't actively interfering with him sleeping in our bed, what he did in that regard was up to him. But I did want to make sure there was an alarm clock nearby because he had trouble getting up in the morning and we were a one paycheck family. So that piece did, in fact, really matter. The rest was unimportant and I stopped involving myself in where he chose to sleep.

So, moving the alarm clock allowed me to reduce the burden to me without dictating what he did. It was "a third option" that allowed me to set boundaries further out, if that makes sense.
posted by Michele in California at 4:31 PM on May 27, 2016 [10 favorites]

My rule of thumb is that boundaries are a way to stop things from happening to you; controlling is when you try to make someone change their behaviour in spheres that don't impact you (or only minorly do so).

So telling someone not to hit you, not to steal from you, or even not to turn up two hours late and expect you to have kept dinner hot for them - those are boundaries. Telling someone not to overeat, to go to bed by a certain time, not to treat his other friends a certain way - those are controlling. The latter could be healthy boundaries instead if there's a really good reason why the behaviours in question have a large impact on you. For example, if him coming to bed at 2am wakes you up and then you can't get back to sleep and it's affecting your ability to function the next day. But in that case, there are other things you could do to mitigate the issue rather than controlling his bedtime (insist on separate rooms, for example).
posted by lollusc at 4:32 PM on May 27, 2016 [24 favorites]

You're working on setting some boundaries. Good for you, and it's really hard to do so cut yourself a bit of slack. Getting the precise wording isn't nearly as important as your attitude. And your attitude says you want to fix some of the common games in your marriage, at least in terms of your participation. Again, good for you.

But listen, what you're doing is officially "outside your comfort zone" so, by definition, it's not going to be comfortable to do. You haven't tried to set boundaries like this in a long time - perhaps never - so it's tough to do even with your therapist's help.

One of the things I often tell my clients is: when you're trying to change a behavior pattern, if it feels like you've gone too far in the other direction you're doing it just right.

The good news is that, with repeated practice, it will feel more natural to you.

A bit of bad news/good news is that it will get worse before it gets better. Once you stop playing your side of the game, your husband will likely up the ante hoping (probably unconsciously) that you'll go back to being the wife whose behavior patterns he knows so well. He's probably doing that now, once you've started setting some boundaries. Eventually, though, he'll "get it" and stop trying to suck you back into the game.

After thirty years, I'm still waiting for my sister to stop trying to suck me back into the game we used to play, but she's a particularly difficult case.
posted by DrGail at 5:32 PM on May 27, 2016 [4 favorites]

Here's the thing about boundaries.

You have the right to set healthy boundaries and enforce them. However, it's completely up to the other person as to whether they consent to them. Using your example, if you say that hitting is unacceptable then your partner can decide to either stop hitting you or hit you even though they know that you might break up with them. If they decide that they would prefer to hit you and risk not being in a relationship with you, then you accept their decision and end the relationship even if you didn't really want to break up with them.

We set healthy boundaries with the risk that we may lose people we love who won't respect them. As long as you are not unduly influencing his decision, you are not being controlling.
posted by fox problems at 6:01 PM on May 27, 2016 [7 favorites]

I've always seen it as rules are about trying to control someone else's behavior; boundaries are about controlling my own behavior. Here's an example of a situation with severe consequences that illustrates the difference:

I'm deathly allergic to shellfish. Like, call 911-grab the epi-pen from my purse-do not pass go-I'm not screwing around here-allergic. One of my partners loves eating shellfish with an almost fanatical zeal. A rule — controlling behavior — would be to insist he not eat shellfish ever, so that I can feel safe to kiss him without being afraid he'll have eaten shellfish within the last couple of hours, and thus avoid the risk of his passing briny death on to me. A boundary — non-controlling behavior — is to let him know that if he's eaten shellfish, I'm going to wait 12 hours before I kiss him. It's not a punitive boundary, and I'm not mad at him; I simply want to not die.

One tries to limit what he does; the other is about informing him about what I'll do as a consequence of his actions. On the surface, the controlling rule seems like a reasonable request, right? I mean, hey, the potential consequence of his behavior is my death! But the better choice is to let him eat as much shellfish as he wants, and to trust he cares enough about my well-being to let me know when he's eaten it recently, so that I can decide whether or not I want to kiss him.

To apply this to your question — when he was doing a Thing and you asked him to stop doing a Thing — you cannot control what other humans choose to do, in the end. All you can control is YOUR behavior, not his. It will be more useful and productive to tell him, 'Hey, when you do Thing, I feel [hurt/bad/crappy/neglected/scared/whatever]; so if you do Thing again, I'm going to [leave the room/call a cab/call the police/other consequence].' If the Thing is severe or bad enough, you might need to tack on the following: 'If you continue to do Thing, then I'll know you're choosing to end this relationship.' (Sorry to be so vague, but you didn't specify the severity of whatever it is he's doing. If he's using drugs, that's obviously very different than him playing "All About That Bass" nonstop for five hours.)
posted by culfinglin at 6:28 PM on May 27, 2016 [7 favorites]

Early on it was really hard for me to accept the pushback I got from setting appropriate boundaries. I really wanted everyone to love me at all times (yup, that's how naive I was). I wasn't prepared for my spouse and kid and dad to get all cranky when I stopped being a doormat. It took time but eventually I understood that the people I loved were used to getting their way and, naturally, they didn't like it when I said no or set a boundary that felt appropriate to me but like an outrage to them. I decided I could either keep being a doormat or start training them to change their expectations. It was a long process. I was driving with my dad once and he said, "If you agree to X, then I'm going to have a shit fit!" And I said, "Okay dad, have your shit fit. Because I'm not ready to agree to that right now and I may never be ready." He's so used to bullying people that he didn't have a follow up and was quiet all the way home.

Setting boundaries is hard if nobody taught you how to do it. It's uncomfortable to stand up for yourself. Then it's uncomfortable when people don't like that you're standing up for yourself and push back. Some will do everything they can to convince you that you're in the wrong. After all, they are losing something. They are losing your cooperation in being exploited or mistreated or taken for granted or whatever.

To be fair, sometimes you may miscalculate. I did. I was too rigid in the beginning. But that's okay. It's a learning process. You don't need to be perfect. If your boyfriend makes stupid faces because he's unhappy and you don't like looking at those faces, have a magazine at the ready. Or leave the room. Or whatever. He gets to respond however he responds. Your job is to take care of yourself without bulldozing him or others in the process. Balance is hard and it takes practice. But that is a normal thing. That's not unhealthy or pathology. It's just the price of building a better life for yourself.

TL;DR: You worry about you. You don't have to worry about what's best for your boyfriend as well as yourself. That's his job. Figure out what's best for you and trust that your partner is an adult and will figure out what's best for him. There will be conflicts but that's life, and that's how we practice.
posted by Bella Donna at 6:42 PM on May 27, 2016 [10 favorites]

In your example the thing that stands out to me is your concern with the pouting. Obviously if someone makes your life miserable for days that's not great. But it's okay for people to pout a little. when they encounter a boundary, especially if they haven't been used to encountering them.

My husband has great boundaries (I had none coming into the relationship) and he put up with quite a bit of pouting from me years ago, which I am not proud of. But that taught me that it really is okay for couples to feel differently about things and to have a few hours or a day of really not feeling the same way.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:43 PM on May 27, 2016

If someone is telling you that you are being controlling when you set simple boundaries like not wanting to be hit, needing the be left alone when you are going to the bathroom, needing the last yogurt to not be eaten because you are on a specific diet, then the person calling you controlling is actually the controlling one and is using emotional abuse to keep you in line.

You can't always be wrong and you can't always be right but if someone makes you feel like shit every day no matter what you do, then you are with the wrong person, and the only boundary you need to focus on is the one where they don't get to see you any more.
posted by myselfasme at 9:04 PM on May 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think it's useful to preserve a distinction between boundaries and asking for things. The important thing is that both of these are okay. But it's useful to distinguish between them to get a sense of why it is that boundary violations are a problem. I tend to think it's most useful to think of boundaries in super literal terms, ie: is this person entering my culturally and contextually defined 'personal space'? Is this person trying to dictate where I place my body, when it is not in their 'personal space'? Is this person disregarding my choices and decisions? Is this person telling me that they know how I feel and I do not?

Things follow from the assumption that boundaries demand absolute respect. Simple things: no touching in ways you have made clear you don't like. Obviously, no physical violence. No perpetually trying to wheedle you out of decisions you make for yourself alone. But other stuff too: no placing pictures of you in public places if you don't agree. No telling you what to wear or how to do your hair etc etc. No constantly interrupting you if you're trying to concentrate on something. And most especially, you get to determine what your response to certain things will be. For example, you cannot 'set a boundary' that your partner not get drunk, no matter how important it might be to you. However, you can say that you will not sleep in a bed with them/share a living space with them, if they are drunk, and you can follow through with that. You can say that you will not help them to lie about why they're not able to go to work. A boundary violation occurs when someone does not allow you to withdraw yourself, physically or psychologically, from their presence or their influence.

Does this prevent 'boundaries' being used in an abusive way? It does not. People can and do withdraw their physical presence as a punishment to control others. They can quite deliberately make decisions that hurt themselves, knowing that this hurts the people they care about. But here's the thing: just as anything, in the wrong hands, can be a weapon, literally anything can be abusive. If you think 'non-violent communication' prevents abusive or controlling behaviour, you haven't spent nearly enough time in anarchist circles. But it's unlikely that you will be accidentally abusive, particularly if you remember that it's okay to just ask for things, without them being Needs that the other person Cannot Respectfully Refuse. Some things are just things you want! And that's okay! Respecting boundaries is a minimum requirement; a caring partner will do much more than just that. They will do things they don't Have To, just because you want it.

The other thing to remember is that there's a difference between being abusive and being a dick. It's not likely that you'll become abusive just by setting some boundaries. It is probable that you will end up being a bit of a dick sometimes, occasionally, just through penduluming a smidgen too far in the other direction. Will you sometimes be less sympathetic or giving than the optimal amount? Almost certainly. Is this the end of the world? No! You're figuring this stuff out and if you are a little forgiving to yourself in the process you'll figure it out faster. It's better to have some boundaries and be a bit of a dick about it than to have no boundaries at all, and eventually you'll work out how to have boundaries without being a dick about it.
posted by Acheman at 5:11 AM on May 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Helpful podcast on this subject:
posted by phreckles at 1:24 AM on May 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

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