Where is the line between having boundaries and being controlling? It can be difficult to determine the difference, especially if you and your partner aren’t on the same page about acceptable behavior within the relationship. 

Am I Setting a Boundary, or Am I Being Controlling? 

There’s a fine line between setting a boundary and being controlling. In fact, sometimes the line is so fine that it can be difficult to tell whether someone’s being controlling or simply setting a boundary. Simply put, a boundary is about what you’re going to do—it has absolutely nothing to do with what the other person does. For example, “I don’t respond to text messages while I’m driving, so you might have to wait for a response if I’m on the road.” When you set a boundary, you’re not giving the other person consequences, rules, or even a choice. You’re simply telling them what you do (or don’t do). In the previous example, one person is telling the other person, “I don’t text and drive.” 

What Are Weaponized Boundaries? 

Weaponizing boundaries occurs when a person disguises controlling behaviors as boundaries. “If you do go out with your friends, I’m going to leave you.” This right here is manipulation: it’s either me, or going out with your friends—you can’t have both. In this example, one person is using their significant other’s affection in order to manipulate them into cancelling plans with their friends. If the person does go out with their friends, the consequence will be that they lose the relationship. Rules can be another form of weaponized boundaries: “You can’t dress like that if you’re going to be in a relationship with me.” is a common one. While there will always be behavior that is unacceptable in relationships (such as cheating, domestic violences, sexual assault, etc) there’s a big difference between refusing to tolerate cheating and refusing to tolerate certain outfits.  

What Are Some Toxic Boundaries? 

Boundaries can be “toxic” when they’re too rigid. Boundaries may be considered to be too ridgid when they’re all or nothing—think of an ultimatum. Some examples may be creating rules around what your spouse can and cannot wear, who they’re allowed to see, where they’re allowed to go, who they’re allowed to communicate with, and so on. A lot of people who are disguising controlling behaviors as boundaries are very concerned with preventing cheating. For example, “I don’t want him going out for dinner with his brother because I know his brother is a bad influence and they might go out drinking and his brother might be his accomplice in cheating.” Therefore a boundary is set: “If you go out with your brother, I will leave you.” If your main reason for establishing boundaries is, “I don’t want them to cheat” that may be a sign you’re trying to control them.  

When Boundaries Are too Porous? 

While boundaries can be too rigid, they can also be too porous—meaning they’re too flexible. For example, if your spouse is constantly spending days away from home—and you’ve got no idea where they are, who they’re with, and when they’re coming back, that may be a sign that your boundaries are too porous. This is especially true if you feel like you cannot tell them that this behavior bothers you, or you have told them and nothing has changed. When boundaries are too porous, a person can end up being taken advantage of or used. People who are more passive and less assertive tend to set more porous boundaries. Although this is typically a “feminine quality” due to the fact that women are stereotypically less assertive, not all men are assertive, so men can also suffer from having porous boundaries. 

How Do I Set Boundaries without Being Controlling? 

You can set boundaries without being controlling by keeping the focus on you and your behavior. Example, “I’m going to hang up the phone now.” Or, “I am going to leave the conversation for a breather now.” In both of the examples above, these boundaries have nothing to do with what the other person is doing; instead, they’re all about what you’re doing: “I’m going to hang up the phone now.” When you set a boundary, it’s important to stick to it, but you don’t need to remain inflexible. If there is wiggle room, and you feel comfortable negotiating, it’s okay to make a compromise. For example, “I can’t help you move at 10:00 am because it’s in the middle of my Yoga class, but I can be at your place at noon to help instead.” 

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