Boundaries vs. Expectations?

Gregory Blake —  December 20, 2010 — 5 Comments

What are boundaries?

I started writing a blog post on expectations in relationships and quickly came to the realization that I am not entirely clear on the distinction between “boundaries” and “expectations.” i.e. If “I won’t allow someone to yell at me” is one of my boundaries, doesn’t that also imply that I have the expectation that your heartmate won’t yell at me?

Who originated the term boundaries in the context of relationship psychology?

It is particularly confusing given that many online experts seem to encourage living without expectations, but also encourage setting boundaries! Help!

Thanks to all in advance.

Gregory Blake

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Husband, father, middle school teacher, and editor at RatedGRomance.com. Married 29 years & still looking for new ways to show her I love her. My job is to ask the silly questions around here.

5 responses to Boundaries vs. Expectations?

  1. You present great questions and I can see how this one might be confusing!

    In psychological-speak, many conceptualize boundaries in relationships as the separation between people, what indicates “my space” and “your space” in allowing each to have their feelings, have opinions, make choices and generally “be.” Examples of poor boundaries would be a person who allows others to control them to their detriment. The opposite is the person who behaves in a boundary-violating way in attempting to exert control that is usually insecurity based from the start.

    Expectations are similar but usually cover a broader range, far beyond the “expectation” to respect boundaries but also subjective likes and dislikes of the particular individual in what they’d hope for in their partner (if we’re staying on the relational subject).

    I don’t happen to believe people should have no expectations from their partner. It’s natural to have expectations and hopefully there is safety in the relationship to discuss which aren’t being met and if there’s room for compromise or change – for the benefit of the relationship as a whole.

    Personally, I see boundaries as a human right and expectations as up for discussion.

    Hope that helps – have a great day!

    Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT
    The Toolbox at http://LisaKiftTherapy.com

  2. Since you asked, let me do my best to explain this…and yes, the whole topic of boundaries vs. expectations is very convoluted.

    Expectations are ideas we have about what other people should do for us, with us, in relationship to us. In a way, expectations are wishes about how others should treat us, in the best of all worlds. An expectation is nothing more than a desire framed as an obligation we impose on someone else. Using your yelling example — maybe I expect that you wont’ yell, but, I really only “expect” it because I don’t like it. But, hey… you grew up in a family where strong emotions were expressed loudly. So when you feel strongly you yell. YOU *expect* (i.e.want) me to understand that and accept you as you are.

    A boundary is much more about where I end and you begin, or where you end and I begin. If yelling feels like violence to me, I experience it as a breach of my boundaries whether you want it to be or not. I EXPECT you to understand that and stop yelling. You expect me to understand your history and realize that yelling is merely a form of expressiveness for you, not violence toward me.

    Now, something has to give. Either you choose to stop yelling or I choose to expand my boundaries and experience your yelling differently. Or, I choose to hold my boundaries firm, and I tell you that this is non-negotiable. If you keep yelling, our relationship is over. Period.

    However, read on. My rigidity is not necessarily the sign of healthy boundaries. Nor is yours. In either one of us, it could be the sign of very weak ones.

    What do people do in this situation? They do very different things depending on where they choose to take a stand and why they take that stand. It’s possible for boundaries to be too rigid (defensive) and fail to take into consideration the circumstances or the feelings of others. There are also boundaries that are too weak and permeable. More about that in a moment.

    There is another way to look at boundaries, i.e., to see them as self-delineations. They define where I end and you begin, and vice versa. If I have sketchy boundaries, I may seem very controlling, paradoxically. When I’m cold, I tell you to go put on a sweater. When I’m afraid, I tell you not to do the thing that scares me. I can’t clearly identify myself OR you, because my boundaries are too vague.

    When boundaries are vague or easily erased by others who make demands on you, it’s also hard to know where your needs end and others’ begin and vice versa. You have trouble standing up for yourself, strong and separate, secure in who you are and what you feel. When two people lack strong boundaries they tend to merge into one another. We call this “fusion.” We see a lot of fusion in obsessive romantic relationships — or even in ordinary relationships. The idea that two people should be “as one” in a romance is the height of fusion. The opposite of fusion is differentiation – the ability to be close to another, yet separate.

    A hallmark of fusion is intense emotional reactivity to the anxiety that spikes and dips between loved ones. So, to go back to the yelling example, if the yeller causes extreme reactivity in the non-yeller, merely because he/she raises their voice, then it’s likely that they are fused and that neither has very clear boundaries. When a person doesn’t have clear boundaries, they react more intensely because the only way to feel OK is to get the other person to act in a way that makes them feel Ok .
    Accordingly, a person with stronger boundaries might actually have more tolerance for the other’s yelling, because they don’t see it as a reflection upon them, nor does it rattle them. They may not like it, but if the yelling is not directed AT them, and if they don’t feel abused by it, then they have more room to work with it. On the other hand, if the yelling is a form of attack and the yeller is abusive, than strong boundaries would demand either dealing head on with the problem, probably in therapy, or ending the relationship.

    Because boundaries are part of what make you you and me me, how we deal with boundary breaches or incursions depends on who we are and the nature of the circumstances.

    I would also add that people with shakier boundaries might have more demanding expectations, because they NEED other people to act in a way that defines them comfortably.

    I realize I may be confusing you even more — this is such a complex topic. If you want to send me your personal email address via DM I’ll send you a couple chapters from a book I wrote which explains all of this as it relates to romance. You can also buy the book online — but no need for the entire book to address this issue. I’m happy to send it to you.
    best,
    Joy

  3. Thank you so much for your reply Joy. The fog is clearing. ;-)

  4. Boundaries are lines that we draw in reference to our principles, values and core beliefs. Therefore, boundaries pertain solely to how we conduct ourselves. It has absolutely nothing to do with expectation. Expectation references the things we often expect from others – especially our partner or family members. However, this is where the problems begin. You can not force someone to behave the way you want them to, and nor can you expect them to fill a void in your emotional life. This happens a great deal, although it is equivilant to building a house of cards on shaky ground.

    Bottom line, if you want your partner to change, you must change yourself. You see, while you can’t expect anything or force a particular response or behavior, you can attract it. Consequently, the only person you should expect anything from, is yourself!!!

    Regards,

    David Roppo
    The Relationship Rehab Coach

    • Thanks David. Your definitions are slightly different than others and as such are very valuable. While, I’m not sure I totally agree (there is circular logic in there), you’ve given me more to think about. I particularly like “you cannot force someone to behave the way you want to…”

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