How to Manage Boundaries and Space with Kids and Your Partner

Annie Gurton

Relationship Therapist

Boundaries help define you. They specify what you like and what you don’t like.  They make it clear how close you want people to approach at a physical level, and what you are comfortable discussing at a personal level.  At an emotional level, they separate your feelings from another’s feelings.    Violations include taking responsibility for another’s feelings, letting another’s feelings dictate your own, sacrificing your own needs to please another, blaming others for your problems, and accepting responsibility for theirs. 

Looking at that list, where do you think you find it difficult to set boundaries? And where do you think you might challenge other people’s boundaries? At a physical level, some people just come too close, but that’s usually not an issue for your partner and kids.  With our immediate family, we usually like and encourage closeness, and boundaries are not usually required.

On a personal level, you are probably happy to discuss most things except the most intimate with your children, and your partner probably knows as much about you as you do yourself.

The challenge usually comes in the sphere of emotional boundaries.  How much responsibility to take for others (with kids it very age-dependent), and how far do we sacrifice our own needs to enable others to get their needs met (again, with children, it depends on their ages).

It’s also hard if we have a partner whose respect of boundaries does not match our own.  You might think it’s normal and courteous to knock on the bathroom door when your partner is in there, but they might think its fine to come right in without knocking when you feel you need and expect privacy.  

Some partners want more connected time than we do.  Or yours might want less than you do.  It’s a fine balance to find – lots of time hugging, kissing and touching, versus individual time reading, relaxing, or working.  Or just thinking.  Some of us need time in the day just to daydream, and it can be unsettling if you find your partner wants every spare moment to be used connecting, eye-gazing or cuddling.

Kids naturally have a completely different idea of boundaries – or to be more precise, no boundaries at all. From when they are little they assume that our time is their time and that we are constantly interested and fascinated by them. If, even for a moment, they realise that their adult caregivers do not prioritise them they can feel hurt and neglected. It’s a big responsibility that parents have, to ensure that their children feel attended to because it means that we have to hide our boundaries and needs. On the other hand, teaching children resilience involves teaching them that the adults around them are not interested in them every moment, and that’s OK.

Some people are taught that putting the needs of others above their own is an important way to be in the world. They learn to get their self worth by reflecting themselves in the lives of others. When this doesn’t always work out, and they find that others are not interested in them, or being a super-carer doesn’t deliver the feel-good they expect, they can end up in the therapy room describing themselves as having low self-worth, useless and without friends.

Rather than find our self worth from our relationships with others, we need to find value in who we are. Rather than seeking to feel good in relation to our partners and kids, we need to be able to feel good by knowing that we are behaving in accordance with our own true self and authentic being.  This means being able to look after our children without feeling that we are failing them or us, and we can live with our partner without sacrificing an authentic sense of ourselves.  It means knowing that you are good enough and that you are entitled to feel, think, and be an independent person in the world.

Setting boundaries is not always easy. We need to have parents who demonstrated how good and healthy boundaries are defined and maintained. Not everyone has that. Often we are left feeling frustrated and confused when we try to set boundaries with our partners and children, and they are not respected.  It’s important to be able to tell someone that they have crossed a line – not to do so will lead to resentment on your part, and confusion on theirs. So clarity is important, trying to avoid mixed messages. 

The only way to set better boundaries is by practising how to tell someone that they have crossed yours.

Examples of Boundaries:

– I’m cool with us all following each other on social media, but not with sharing passwords

– I need quiet time to myself every day

– I want the kids around me, but I also need time to myself

– I want the family to be relaxed but we also need to be respectful and polite to each other

– Everyone needs to take responsibility for some household chores – I am not going to do everything

Four Steps to Setting Boundaries

1. Become aware and define your rights. 

You are entitled to have your own thoughts, feelings, space, friends, and beliefs, and to have your own opinions, time and money. Be aware of your:

– Intellectual worth and boundaries (you are entitled to your own thoughts and opinions, as are others)

– Emotional worth and boundaries (you are entitled to your own feelings and views to a given situation, as are others)

– Physical worth and boundaries (you are entitled to your space, however wide it may be, as are others)

– Social worth and boundaries (you are entitled to your own friends and to pursuing your own social activities, as are others)

Spiritual worth and boundaries (you are entitled to your own spiritual beliefs, as are others)

2. Know your edges

Know how far others can go before you begin to feel uncomfortable, and define them.  Notice them, and be specific in what you are comfortable with, and what makes you feel uncomfortable.   The boundary definitions will change over time, so be prepared to amend them.

3. Be assertive.  

Creating and stating boundaries is great, but it’s the follow-through that counts. The only way to truly alert others that your boundaries have been crossed is to be direct with them. Being assertive, particularly if you are unaccustomed to doing so, can be scary.

Start small with something manageable and build up your assertive skill to larger tasks like these:

– Is your partner asking you to do something that you really don’t want to do?  Tell them calmly and firmly that you don’t want to do it, and are not going to do it.

– Is your partner pushing his or her domestic chores onto you? Remind them that you are busy with your own work, and suggest that the two of you are working as a team and that means both pulling their weight equally.

– Did a teenager do or say something to hurt you? Explain why their words or actions hurt you, and suggest the way you’d like things to be between you.

– Does a child want you to continue to read to them long after you want to stop and have a glass of wine?  Be firm about Mummy’s need for her own time, and encourage them to be self-soothing.

– Does your partner want to have sex and you just don’t feel like it?  Be firm about your need to be engaged and willing, and say its OK to say No sometimes.  (If they sulk, that may require professional intervention.)

– Does your partner want you to be ready to talk to them all the time, regardless of what you are doing?  Be firm in explaining that you are not always available for them, but will be available at such-and-such a time. 

4. Persist and grow stronger.  

It’s not easy to change your ways and do something and be in the world in a way that is utterly alien to the way you have been taught to be, or have learned to be. It takes small steps, low expectations, and the ability to persevere. There will be knock-backs and times when you feel overwhelmed because your boundaries have once more been invaded, but aim to bounce back and continue being assertive in quiet ways. You need to be resilient in creating and holding firm to your boundaries.

By affirming your boundaries means that you value yourself, your needs, and your feelings more than the thoughts and opinions of others. Being assertive does not mean that you are unkind, it only means that you are being fair and honest with them (and, thus, kind to them in the long run), while maintaining your peace, dignity, and self-respect.

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