What are rightful boundaries?
Updated: Mar 22
Relationship conflicts can be confusing and distressing. Everyone involved tends to feel wronged in some way. When they can’t agree on what is “right” and what is “wrong” we tend to ask, “What do we owe the other person and what do we have the right to control for ourselves? Do we have a right to expect certain things from others?” When addressing conflicts in relationship counseling, I often find myself explaining healthy boundaries.
Shortly into this topic, one of the clients is sure to object, and ask, “But in a relationship, aren’t there some things we have a right to expect from the other person?” Yes, there are. But some expectations are healthy and some are unhealthy. The challenge becomes explaining what is healthy, what is not, and why.
"The Guide to Strong Boundaries" by Mark Manson (author of Unf*ck you Life) says that good boundaries mean “taking responsibility for your actions and emotions while NOT taking responsibility for the actions and emotions of others.” He also says that good, strong boundaries are essential for a clear personal identity and healthy self esteem. I agree with both of these points.
It’s important for individuals to have strong, clear boundaries when in relationships with others. Poor boundaries are like weak fences, unwanted things get through, and the things we want to protect are left unprotected. When we have poor boundaries, we may either push our will unethically on others, or we may have others unethically pushing their will onto us. Often interpersonal power is leveraged to make this happen, which is by definition - coercion.
Allowing ourselves to be coerced or pressured is damaging to our self esteem and self respect. And when we lack the interpersonal power to successfully defend our boundaries, this can be damaging, and in extreme situations, it can be traumatizing.
Therefore, I believe it’s VERY important that we learn what we have a right to, what we are responsible for, what our ethical boundaries are, and how to defend them.
I believe healthy boundaries begin with personal rights. I call boundaries built around our personal rights – Rightful Boundaries. This is not an exhaustive list of personal rights, but rather what seems to me to be important for negotiating healthy relationships.
Each person has the right to:
full bodily and sexual autonomy
be safe from physical, mental and emotional violence or the threat of violence
have access to adequate food, water, air, and sleep
the privacy of their thoughts and personal space
determine their own interests and values
decide how they want to spend their time and energy
decide with whom they wish to be friends and whom they love
be spoken to respectfully and treated with dignity
express themselves, as long as while doing so, they speak to others respectfully and treat others with dignity
control and to protect their possessions, livelihood, money and assets
consent (or not consent) to be in a physical space, to interact, to have sex, and to engage in relationships
withdraw those consents at any time
the information needed with which to engage in INFORMED consent provided in a timely, clear and honest manner
It’s clear that these rights require certain behaviors from other people. In order to be in a healthy relationship, we need the other people in our lives to respect our rights.
With personal rights, come responsibilities. First, of course, we have a responsibility to provide the things in the above list to others when we engage in relationships with them. This is the heart of ETHICAL interactions and ultimately, to healthy relationships.
These personal rights are a rough outline of what we have a right to make boundaries around (rightful boundaries). But we still need to know ourselves to actualize specific boundaries. For example, I have the right to full bodily and sexual autonomy when applied can become:
I have a right to tell someone to never tickle me
I have a right to say no to any sexual invitation, even from my spouse
I have a right to get any tattoo I want
I have a right to have multiple sexual partners if I choose
I have a right to smoke, drink, and eat junk food if I choose
I have a right to eat organic, free range, locally sources, or vegan if I choose
We need to spend the time getting to know ourselves and our values so that we know what we want, who we are, what we need, and where we want our lives to go. This helps build a strong sense of self and identity and will help us to know what’s important to us and what we will not, or should not, compromise in order to engage in a relationship.
When it comes to respecting the rights of others, we need to develop emotion regulation skills* to be able to hear our partners express themselves, even if the truth is difficult or painful for us to hear. And we need to have the skills to accept their truth, when it is built on a rightful boundary of theirs, even if it means we will have to give up something we want.
We need to develop the courage to provide honest, timely, clear information when it’s relative to their ability to give informed consent, even if we believe or fear our partner will withdraw their informed consent if we do.
It’s important to know our rights and identify our boundaries and learn how to defend them. We need to be careful who we allow into our lives, and what behaviors we accept from others. People who tend to be controlling or manipulative can do a great deal of damage and it helps to identify them early. If possible, I suggest either learning how to interact with them in a way that does not allow them undo control, or removing such people from our lives. When we seek to shape our lives into what we want our lives to be, this includes actively rejecting the things we don’t want, and that includes unethical and damaging behavior from other people.
[This does not absolve controlling people from blame. When people are manipulative or controlling, especially if they are threatening or bullying in their controlling behaviors, they are perpetrating a form of violence and they are morally and ethically responsible for the harm and damage they cause to others.]
The concept of personal rights helps clarify the concept of boundaries. It’s important to know that for a boundary to be ethical, it must be a rightful boundary.
In the next post, I’ll explain why making someone else responsible for your emotions is coercive.
*Emotion Regulation Skills are the skills that allow us to calm ourselves in difficult or upsetting situations so that we can continue to speak in a respectful manner, treat others with dignity, and refrain from violating their personal rights. This may involve taking deep breaths, taking a cool-down break from a discussion and more.
(c) 2018, Sander T Jones, LCSW, LISW-CP, CCH, All Rights Reserved