How to Improve Relationships Using Boundaries: Part 2
By Rex Allison, LPC
What are some expectations you hold in your relationships?
- Do you expect your child to go to school?
- Do you expect your spouse to call when they are going to be late at work?
- Do you expect your boss to treat you fairly?
We all have expectations in regards to how we want to be treated or how we want life to go. Conflict can arise however when those expectations go unspoken or unnamed. Expectations are not bad things, but in today’s culture, both expectations and boundaries can get a bad rep. They can be seen as harsh, outdated, or rigid. But in reality, they are integral to healthy relationships. As I talked about in this post How to Improve Relationships Using Boundaries, without any boundaries, too much debris will come into the relationship. And without expectations, you won’t have good boundaries. Your expectations help you define your boundaries.
Here’s how that might look in a relationship. While we know each case is complex and unique, we are going to simplify it here to see the principles at work.
A woman, Jane Doe, grew up in an abusive home with a violent father. Her experiences fed into her expectations: abusive relationships are normal. If that’s all she’s known, that’s what she will seek out in romantic partners. Without anything to reset her expectations, her boundary will be set to include far too much, if there’s even a limit at all.
To begin to experience growth, she will first need to take some time to examine her expectations in relationships: how do I expect my partner to speak to me? To act toward me? How do I expect to resolve conflict? After some reflection on and adjustments of her expectations, she can begin to set boundaries accordingly.
Where Do Expectations and Boundaries Come From?
Expectations and boundaries are formed from all sorts of learning experiences, including what you saw modeled in childhood by parents, grandparents, or other close guardians. Those interactions go on to form the foundation of how you respond to future relationships.
In their book “Why You Do the Things You Do,” authors Tim Clinton and Gary Sibcy had this to say about expectations, “These combined beliefs about self and others shape our expectations about future relationships. Besides working like glasses that color the way we see ourselves and other people, these beliefs guide how we behave in close relationships.”
Expectations are also formed first by thoughts, so that’s an important area that I address with my clients. In the language of counseling, we have what’s called a cognitive triangle, but really it’s a process everyone is familiar with: what you are thinking about feeds how you are feeling which in turn feeds your behaviors.
If you can trace a negative or poorly defined expectation back to a thought pattern, you have a chance of redirecting your thoughts, leading to healthier feelings and actions.
Authors Clinton and Sibcy spoke on this very pattern in “Why You Do the Things You Do,”
Negative thinking can intensify negative moods, and that’s one reason why it’s important to tell ourselves the truth. As Paul said, ‘Whatever is true…think about such things’ (Philippians 4:8). Take Paul’s advice to heart. Whenever you catch yourself in the act of negative self-talk, you’ve taken the first step toward repairing your destructive thinking pattern.
Common Misconceptions about Boundaries
Feeling anxiety or concern about addressing expectations and boundaries in your relationships is normal. You may be concerned about the pushback from friends or family members and worry about the fallout from speaking up about the boundaries you are trying to enforce.
It’s important to remember that often the most loving thing you can do is enforce boundaries, even if the road is bumpy to resolving conflict. It’s also important to remember that you are only responsible for communicating about the boundary; you cannot control how the message is received. In fact, that may be the first important expectation to adjust—understanding you can’t manage the results of every interaction.
Boundaries come up in so many sessions and what I try to encourage clients to do after an initial consult is to pay attention to their expectations for themselves: what do they need and what do they want. While that may seem like foreign language if you’ve never engaged in this practice, it will help to set your mind in the right direction.
For instance, if you are struggling with anxiety issues, name what you would need to feel less anxious and more secure. If you are feeling angry, specify what you would need to deal with the anger. There is power in naming those expectations and provides a starting point for clients in setting healthy expectations which lead to healthy boundaries.
If you are struggling to set expectations and boundaries in your relationships, reach out to Rex today and schedule an appointment. We know that taking that first step takes a lot of courage, but we are here for you. We want to help get you started on the road that leads to freedom and wholeness.