Take Care Tuesday – Tips for Setting Healthy Relationship Boundaries


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From the time as kids we start dealing with that one friend who always appears when we open our lunch box to ‘share’ with us, but is never there when we need help or a playmate … we are learning about the need to establish boundaries in relationships. Exactly how we do that can determine our happiness in life.

Running is a great form of exercise to be sure, and also opens up for us the possibility to seek within ourselves a sense of peace while also pushing ourselves to extremes. Yet like anything else it also offers a form of escape – which can be a good thing or a bad thing.

Let me put this bluntly – running is almost always a lousy way of establishing boundaries in relationships, because it generally is used as an escape. The same is true about traveling for work, volunteering to work off-shift hours, working holidays to avoid family gatherings and so on.

Here are some ways to work towards establishing healthy relationship boundaries:

1. Identify the Problem

As noted here, it is critical to figure out when people are acting as a drain upon you. My wife referred to one relationship as ‘wanting to drag me down into the swirling cesspool of depression’. Hint: THAT is an unhealthy relationship.

So how do you know if a relationship is in need of boundaries? Do you have a hard time saying ‘no’ – even if you had other plans (sitting on the couch after a rough week drinking wine and watching bad movies DOES count as plans); do you do things to please others even if it puts you out financially or puts you at risk of meeting other obligations; do you do things out of a feeling of obligation or guilt? Do you never express yourself when someone upsets you … again, or are you constantly the one traveling for visits, driving, or picking up the tab>

If so … you have weak boundaries and need to strengthen them.

When our boundaries are weak, unguarded, or unclear, we let in all sorts of stuff that isn’t actually our stuff, and we give away our own personal energy unconsciously.

2. Decide What You WANT – And Ask For It

We also had an issue with one relationship as a young married couple where we brought a gift for the two kids with every visit to their parents. Lisa had started this before we were together, but the visits were infrequent. Now together we made more visits, and suddenly gifts were expected – an expectation reinforced by the parents.

Of course, one time we were unable to hit a store and came empty handed … the kids were upset – and the parents told them that we could take a trip to the store with the kids. It was during that trip we realized that we were acting out of obligation, and guilt, and it needed to stop. It stopped, just like we told the parents, and we heard about it (from the kids AND parents!) … but there were no more gifts.

When we were first together Lisa had no problem noting some asymetric relationships I was in – basically where I was being ‘used’. And similarly I could show Lisa the same behaviors. It wasn’t always easy to hear – especially when it came to family or close friends, but it was important.

Again it is important to back to WHY we need healthy boundaries – as noted here they are the basis of healthy relationship. With them we can not worry about the give and take, about feeling used or like we are carrying the emotional weight for someone else, or where we fit … instead we can enjoy the give and take.

So if you are feeling like you are always the one traveling to spend weekends together with old friends, suggest that THEY travel; or, that your friends drive that night or pick up the check or hire a babysitter so you can spend time with them rather than as their babysitter or whatever. Make the suggestions, ask the questions, broach the topic.

Guess what – it is entirely possible that your friends just assumed you like to drive, enjoy picking up the check or getting away from home to visit or spending time with the baby so they can go out, and will immediately change up their behavior and you will see the benefits of asking the questions.

Of course, you might also look out the window and see a unicorn farting rainbows .

My point – at the point when you feel compelled to ask the question, the pattern is almost certainly set; and the relationship has formed around the roles you and others have taken. Now we are at a point where there is the need for fundamental change. And as the Dilbert cartoon said once “Change is Good … You Go First”.

3. Determine What You Are Willing to Do

We are now at the point in things where it is like Sean Connery and Kevin Costner in The Untouchables – what are YOU prepared to do?

If you want a HEALTHY relationship … it is safe to assume that you want a RELATIONSHIP. But to go from unhealthy to healthy, one of a few things has to happen: you have to change, they have to change, or you both change. And only ONE of those is under your control!

Of course, you could just HOPE things would improve and that the other person would get the subtle hints you’ve been dropping … but as the saying goes, if you do what you’ve always done – you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.

So assuming you know where the issue is, and you are ready to change the situation … JUST DO IT. Just make a complete and total change, everyone will see the situation and recognize the problem and change and you’ll all have a great laugh!

Um, no. First, depending on the situation it is best to make measured changes, but BE FIRM. If everyone assumes that Friday night means movie night at your house, and you are responsible for renting the movie, supplying all food and beverages and then cleaning up after … the change could be to ask some people to bring drinks and others to bring food, and everyone to pick up as they go along and gather up trash before they leave. Sadly this simple thing can quickly become a ‘divide the universe’ moment – some of your ‘friends’ might view this as an affront, and consider your requests a betrayal.

The question is not ‘if’ but ‘when’ you meet up with resistance when you try to assert healthy boundaries … WHAT are you prepared to do?

In the case above, do you cancel your Friday nights? Depends – do YOU enjoy it? If so, and if some people immediately pitch in, then it is time to consider changing the invite list for Friday night … but expect there to be consequences.

4. Develop a ‘Check Engine’ System

If you drive your car frequently enough, you develop a decent sense of when something suddenly changes, when something is very wrong. But you might not notice something very gradually occurring … yet when you drive someone else’s car that you rarely touch, these things will be immediately apparent. But even then – you might not say anything, because you might wonder if it is just that you are used to your own car, or didn’t notice this characteristic and so on.

Several years ago we had the chance to reconnect with an old friend – and the reason for ‘reconnecting’ was that the relationship didn’t end well. This person was the type who was most happy when they had someone miserable around them. So they were a great friend while we were each single and apart, and felt good about us getting together … but as we became happier they became miserable – and it became clear they expected us to not last and then they’d get the benefit of being the shoulder to cry on for both. Worse yet … there were some active attempts at sabotage. At the end the person was in therapy and we talked for a while as they were ‘making amends’.

This is a fairly common example of an unhealthy relationship – the person who gains self-esteem through the misery of others, or by surrounding themselves by those they see as inferior in a key way. I was surprised to learn in hindsight how well my obesity in high school and college played into that for a number of people.

Years later we thought we could reconnect – we were all older, married, kids, etc. So we tried, both as couples, and also with Lisa and her as singles. And almost immediately the warning beacons were going off … and that was it. We were unwilling to assume those former roles.

Back to the car analogy, we need to develop a system of self-analysis for our relationships. We want the blaring beacon of imminent danger, but also the warning lights of things that need attention. We need to have our own system of ‘regular maintenance’ – maybe it is someone we can use as a check point, or a personal checklist. Just something to know we are OK.

5. Realize that Sometimes You Have to Walk Away

One of the hardest things to do when you have a relationship that has been part of your life for years is to walk away. It is even harder when that relationship is with a family member.

And quite often, outsiders will be very quick to tell you what you CANNOT do – they will say, you can’t walk away, that is your brother/mother/aunt/sister/father.

Guess what? You CAN … and sometimes you SHOULD.

As I said before, you cannot change anyone but yourself; you can modify behavior, limit exposure to certain situations, bring the problem to the other person’s attention, control how interactions occur and so on. And yet … if you still find that you are drowning in a swirling cesspool of dispair due to the interaction – walk away.

There is a reason this item is last: it is HARD.

You have to be prepared to say that I AM ENOUGH. I deserve better. I find the situation unacceptable, and unless you can change – I cannot tolerate this anymore.

There are a few possible outcomes: the other person will see this as a wake-up call and really strive to change; they will pretend to change to smooth things over; you will find the situation too difficult and simply accept the unhealthy boundaries; or perhaps through time there will be enough change that renewed interaction is possible – and more healthy.

Or perhaps you will never see or speak to that person again.

It is drastic and extreme, but ultimately you need to protect yourself first. And once you have stepped through all of the possibilities, it is your last line of defense, all that you have left.

The Running and Healthy Living Context

Run TOWARDS a better you, not AWAY from things or out of fear; Use eating to FUEL your future, NOT as a weapon against your body

Over at Miss Zippy yesterday, Amanda talked about how we should be running from a place of peace, not fear. As an aside, for great perspectives on what ‘older’ runners think, that and a recent post by Harold at Runnah.com are excellent.

But are running and eating ‘relationships’? Oh yeah! Think about it with running – we put in an hour or two daily, set aside part of our weekends, travel for ‘visits’ (races), spend bunches of money, alternately curse and praise it, and so on. Definitely a relationship – with all of the potential for unhealthy boundaries!

When I look at myself, I would definitely say that I am at ‘Runner 2.0’ status myself. ‘Runner 1.0’ was all about RUNNING AWAY, and based on fear … fear of being fat again. My running was running away from the obesity – but that isn’t a mentally healthy cycle. Now at ‘Runner 2.0’ status, I am running towards the fittest, healthiest, strongest, ‘finest’ me that I can manage. I am very happy with my relationship with running at this point – it isn’t the most important thing in my life, nor should it be.

I have talked about my ‘unhealthy relationship’ with food. One of the problems with eating? We can’t just ‘walk away’ – not if we plan to keep living, anyway. But while my relationship remains troubled – and will ALWAYS be troubled, it is SO much better than it used to be. Before, I would run to lose weight, and restrict my calories during breakfast and lunch to help. And WHAT I ate wasn’t always the best – I would restrict, then eat more junk than I would otherwise.

Now I have established a healthier relationship with food – I eat healthy, solid meals all day, limit my ‘junk’ intake, limit processed foods, and think carefully before I eat. Before I was a ‘social eater’ – I would eat stuff not because I wanted it or was hungry, but because others were – but now I will pass on things I don’t want … not being rude, just maintaining control. It is what I need to do.

So how do YOU maintain healthy relationship boundaries?

Note: note that everything I am talking about is with respect to establishing boundaries. For more serious relationship issues including abuse, please seek out a professional expert and get others involved and remove yourself from the situation immediately!

Also, I am not a professional, and none of this should be considered expert advice.

15 thoughts on “Take Care Tuesday – Tips for Setting Healthy Relationship Boundaries

  1. For a lot of reasons this was something that I really needed to read this morning, but the part that struck me the most was #5. I had to do that not long ago with someone who I considered a very best friend since we were young. The relationship was just so toxic and finally one day I had had enough of it. Walking away from that friendship was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do and sometimes I still miss it, but in the end I know I’m better off and I’m sure in a lot of ways she is too.

    • Thanks Lauren – it really IS a very hard thing. I didn’t use the word toxic in the post intentionally, but it is the perfect description of what it can be like.

      One of my problems has always been the ‘death of a thousand paper cuts’ … in other words, I will look at a specific thing and tell myself ‘this is not a big deal, I shouldn’t get upset’. But over time they add up and become a huge pattern and trend that I have allowed to happen.

  2. A very relevant post, I think most of us experience the need to set boundaries and it is not always easy to do because of social and familiar roles and expectations. Personally I found this task has become easier with age. Knowing oneself, being conscious about which relationships to engage in and at what level, and being honest I think are all key to healthy relationships. I like your point about running toward something instead of away from something. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • I agree it becomes easier with age – though I am seeing through my parents and their friends that as you get even older it seems to come around again and they are reaching out more to people they walked away from. Not how I feel about that …

  3. You truly write the most thought provoking posts of any blogger I follow, so thank you. I loved this post for so many reasons. I may be the outlier, but I actually have no problems walking away from toxic people and relationships. After a few situations early on in life, I realized that I deserve to have the kind of friends and family that I am to others (kind, supportive, always there when you need them and even when you don’t, etc) and when I don’t get that back and voice that concern and there is no change after time, I just wipe my hands clean of them and walk away. My mother gives me a really hard time for this, but I just feel like my time on this earth is far to short to waste it on people who are not deserving of my energy and precious time and who only bring or try to bring me down. All the of points you made, I wholeheartedly agree with.

    • Thanks so much Sara! That is exactly what SHOULD happen – we have an issue, make an effort to correct, then prevent it from doing us harm. As I commented before, I think perhaps our parents are starting to look around at how few of their friends & family are left and their process for making these choices is now different … or perhaps for them they were taught to ‘put up, shut up and do what is expected’ (a direct quote someone said to my wife about their expectations for me). Not sure – but the weight of toxic relationships is definitely a burden we shouldn’t bear.

  4. Interesting post and thanks for the shout out. I think that for me, having healthy relationships has only gotten easier with age. Part of it comes with the release of caring what others think–this is a definite gift from my 40s and one that serves well with relationship boundaries, whether human, food, or running!

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  6. Haha, I read this post fresh off a conversation with one of my very best friends who is struggling with a relationship she feels is toxic right now — unfortunately, it’s with her first-born who is about 2.5 mos old. The whole not sleeping and having to feed him so frequently is driving her batty, but probably shouldn’t walk away. But we agreed her plan is to try to pump some milk and either ask her MIL to watch him so she and her honey can go out, or if she can’t bear to leave him without a parent, just have her husband stay with him and let her leave for a few hours to see a movie or go for a walk or whatever. She’s not allowed to run yet, and I think that’s making her more unhappy than the lack of sleep and lack of quiet. Her life was pretty chill before. So walk away from the toxic relationship … unless you’re legally obligated to stay!

    • haha – so true! It may have been many years ago, but I remember coming home from work when we had two kids under two years old, and my wife saying … YOU deal with them now! And honestly I looked forward to it – she got a break and I got time with them. But it was often very, very hard and exhausting!

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  9. Creating good boundaries takes effort, it’s hard, and it doesn’t always go smoothly if your partner feels offended or he/she is being pushed away. You should also know that if you do not set up certain boundaries, problems always arise. This may lead to constantly arguing as one will feel like you don’t share the same interests. However, if he or she cannot respect the boundaries, it just won’t work. Relationships are a bit different, but we all know that in some relationships, talking to your partner about boundaries in a way that he or she understands, always works.

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