The Difference Between Relationship Boundaries and Barriers

Understanding is critical to implementation.

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

I had a woman tell me that she’s become hesitant to establish boundaries when dating because every time she does, she gets ghosted. She’ll be really into a person and believe things are going well. However, as soon as she tries to communicate who she is and what she wants from a relationship — they disappear.

My response to this revelation was “good.” That means it’s working.

It sucks to be ghosted by someone you like, but the sooner, the better. Someone who runs away as soon as they become aware that you have boundaries was never going to stick around. May as well get it over with early and move on. Instead of waiting until you’ve developed real feelings for the person.

This scenario did make me think, however, about the confusion many have between relationship boundaries and barriers. Maybe not everyone that ghosted this woman had cruel intentions. Perhaps, a few of the guys had the wrong idea about boundaries and viewed the notion as something that would get in the way of connecting.

When referencing boundaries, many will rebuttal with how the practice can prohibit building an intimate relationship. The idea is misconstrued as a deterrent. It’s actually quite the opposite. Healthy boundaries are crucial to a healthy relationship.

Joaquín Selva, Bc.S., Psychologist, says,

In other words, healthy boundaries can be the difference between a healthy, happy relationship and a toxic, dysfunctional relationship.

A relationship without limits is ripe for habitual offense. Partners can’t respect lines that haven’t been drawn. Two people who frequently feel violated and disregarded can’t be happy.

The first step to transforming a negative perception of boundaries is to clearly understand the concept. Think of boundaries as your identity — your needs, wants, comfort levels, and rights. It’s the line between where you begin, and another person ends.

According to Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT:

Love can’t exist without boundaries, even with your children. It’s easy to understand external boundaries as your bottom line. Think of rules and principles you live by when you say what you will or won’t do or allow.

Lancer also details several different types of boundaries:

  • Material — Such as wanting to discuss large purchases with a partner before spending the money.
  • Sexual — Your comfort level with touch, activities, and positions.
  • Emotional — For instance, refusing to be gaslit or feel guilty about someone’s transgressions.

There are many more types, and each is valid.

You have a right to say “no” to things you don’t enjoy. You’re entitled to dictate how you’ll be treated in relationships. You set the tone for what you will and will not accept.

I don’t think many would disagree with those statements or the notion that you’re the captain of your life. So, the issue must be that some have a conflicting perception of boundaries — one that’s closer to the definition of a barrier.

A barrier is an obstacle.

One of my favorite quotes by Rumi states,

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.

Love is something that should flow to and from us, effortlessly. If it’s not doing that, it’s because we have something in the way. It could be a lack of trust, fear of being vulnerable, or any metaphorical wall that disrupts the flow.

I can see how some may view a partner’s boundaries as a hindrance. Especially if the two sides contradict. Sexual limits come to mind as having the potential to clash with a partner. For instance, if one person is more sexually explorative than the other, they may see the more conservative boundary as prohibitive.

However, boundaries by nature are healthy — a critical component of self-care. They are birthed out of self-respect and wanting to ensure that a partner considers your needs.

We may confuse the idea of boundaries and barriers ourselves. Because, in a sense, both shield you from harm. The methods and outcomes just vary.

There’s a more distinct difference between the two concepts. Barriers keep your partner on the other side of a divide. Walls that you build to keep out the pain also keep out the love.

Boundaries, on the other hand, are designed to protect you. Sometimes from yourself. Personal limits say “no” when it needs to be said — even if you want to say “yes.” Boundaries don’t keep anyone out. The practice keeps you from losing yourself as you let people in.

Author of a critically-acclaimed book on women and dating. https://www.amazon.com/dp/1687069786

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