Building a relationship requires one essential component.
By Patricia Bonnard
Last updated on Feb 01, 2024
Photo: Drazen Zigic / Shutterstock
Because people and couples are diverse in nature, successful relationships can arise from many different ingredients. A variety of lists of these key bonding ingredients are published in numerous psychology and relationships journals and countless dating-related blogs.
Summing them up, collective wisdom says good relationships are built on six identifiable attributes: Mutual attraction, trust, clarity, tolerance, compromise, and respect.
But there’s one key ingredient that is essential for building relationships.
And that key ingredient is boundaries! Boundaries foster the development of these six essential ingredients in relationships. And there are three important roles boundaries play in relationships:
The development of mutual respect: Boundaries help partners develop a mutual understanding of each other’s likes, wants, and needs as well as dislikes.The setting of relationship parameters: Boundaries clarify what partners are willing to share, and what they would prefer to keep to themselves.The revelation of willingness to change: The relative flexibility (or rigidity) of these boundaries reveals the partners’ tolerance levels associated with any challenge, moderation, or infringement of their boundaries and their willingness to compromise.
All relationships have boundaries. And these boundaries provide important guidelines.
They act as an “invisible line that defines acceptable behavior” (a favorite description from the Wellness Center, University of Illinois, Chicago). They shape the scope and content of engagement, and create the foundation from which interactions form, grow, solidify, and evolve anew.
Whether cognizant of them or not, everyone has boundaries related to all the different aspects of themselves and their lives — e.g., physical, sexual, social, financial, emotional, intimacy, trust, communication, and material comforts.
Knowing what your boundaries are and how to authentically and respectfully negotiate them — as well as those of your partner — is fundamental to building a lasting relationship of any kind.
How can you build a successful relationship by making boundaries a priority?
1. Start by discovering which boundaries are important to you
In the dating stage, don’t just create a laundry list of what you would like to have in a relationship. Rather, sort out what’s fundamental versus nice and why.
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Next, decide whether your boundaries are flexible and, if so, with whom and under what circumstances. Typically, words such as like, want, need, and dislike point to a boundary. In fact, they each imply a degree of flexibility.
But needs are rigid. Wants, like desires, are somewhat elastic. And likes are the most negotiable. You might interpret these words differently. If so, develop your own lexicon and monitor how you speak about your expectations for a partner and partnership.
2. Get clear on your beliefs before initiating a relationship
Some boundaries can be rigid. For instance, if your family of origin is paramount to you and they would likely abandon you for dating someone of a different faith, religion is likely a deal breaker for you. That means it’s a rigid boundary.
On the other hand, if you’re agnostic but tolerant of someone who attends the church, mosque, or what-have-you, religion matters less, or maybe not at all. In this case, you have a looser boundary related to faith. All else equal, this alone is not necessarily a relationship-building red flag.
Think about whether or not you have fixed boundaries. That means surveying your beliefs before initiating your dating search. For example, “I won’t tolerate lies.” Or, can you tolerate some little white lies in some situations? If so, what are the exceptions? Get clarity now.
3. Always be transparent
If your boundary is less than rigid, be honest. Decisions within partnerships are not necessarily zero-sum games. In addition, if you don’t know, just say so. Give yourself time to figure it out. This way you won’t need to go back on your word.
And, if you’re not honest with yourself, you could open yourself up to an endless sequence of boundary infringements. Or, alternatively, claiming too many fixed boundaries could lead to discord, dysfunction, and ultimately a painful breakup.
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Whatever you do, don’t get into the habit of expressing inauthentic tolerance because you want to be nice or you feel the need to say yes. Furthermore, make sure you don’t drop important boundaries and create personal rationalizations (e.g., he means well or his possessiveness means he loves me).
Failing to appreciate the importance of transparency will surely erode trust, respect, and tolerance, and may ultimately sever the bonds. These behaviors can only lead to relationship quagmires, violations of trust, and some serious regret.
4. Articulate and defend your boundaries
It’s one thing to define a boundary and another to communicate what it is, especially if the circumstances when you need to declare them are fraught. To avoid this situation, articulate your boundaries for yourself and be prepared to communicate them to others.
Consider if and when you would declare an ultimatum. And, be mindful, it’s not going to be just about what you might lose, but also what you might gain.
Although it might sound hokey, reading up on communication styles, collaborative language, non-violent communication, and negotiation skills can help you avoid unnecessary turbulence and, in fact, facilitate a flow toward a mutually comfortable and acceptable enduring solution.
Boundaries change, so you must adjust them to maintain a lasting relationship.
Relationships are not static. Your or your partner’s boundaries can shift over time. In fact, they can change from one relationship to another.
But the template you create serves as a benchmark. Fortunately, the time and effort you dedicate to exploring your boundaries will ground you and offer important benefits when you assess or negotiate your relationship as it progresses and the stakes rise.
Therefore, establish boundaries and engage with your partner in ways that cultivate a space that contains these attributes.
If both you and your partner define authentic, clear, and articulate boundaries, and the two of you are right for each other, your boundaries will cultivate a successful partnership.
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Patricia Bonnard, Ph.D., ACC is a certified International Coaching Federation (ICF) leadership coach, certified Martha Beck life coach, and Master/Instructor Energy Healer.