Borderline Personality Disorder,  Boundaries,  Resources

Boundaries and their effective use

Well, well, well… I don’t know why but apparently I continue to be a subject at WTO. Weird. I posted about this a few days ago. I’ve been out of touch with the blog for a few days, while I do family stuff and take care of my email list. I really admire the people on my list; they do a great job of being both honest and validating with one another – while at the same time providing constructive advice to one another.

Boundaries… I’ve posted about boundaries many times before. I think boundaries are one of the most misunderstood concepts in the non-BP/BP relationship. While it is difficult to be a parent of anyone (much less someone with BPD) and provide no guidance to your child – I mean, it is natural to want to provide some advice and guidance to children – boundaries in the sense that many people on the Internet understand them are not effective in an emotional situation. Now, WAIT! Actually boundaries ARE effective… OK, how can I say they aren’t effective and are effective at the same time?

The major problem with boundaries is that most of the Nons out there believe that boundaries are something to “control” or “moderate” their BP’s behavior. This concept is absolutely ineffective and untrue. Boundaries created for other people (whether they have BPD or not) are not effective – especially when the other person has a general fear of judgment like those with BPD. Those types of boundaries are not really boundaries at all – they are RULES for the behavior of another person. They will not work in emotional situations.

Boundaries that DO work are those you set for yourself with respect to other people’s behavior. In other words, boundaries that guide your OWN behavior are effective ones. If you say to someone, “I will not go to a restaurant with you if you are drunk” (for example), what you are really doing is setting a boundary that limits/affects your OWN behavior given certain conditions. That type of boundary is effective because you, as a non-BP, have complete control over it. You can choose NOT to do something given a set of conditions.

I would encourage you to examine what “boundaries” you have in place and see if they are rules for other people’s behaviors or if they are actual personal boundaries that manage your own behavior and reactions. If they are the former, I expect you will end up being frustrated quickly. If they are the later, then you can find some peace when they are applied to a given situation. This statement isn’t meant to imply that someone with BPD will automatically accept your application of personal boundaries (to yourself). No, they might rage at you or try and convince you to do otherwise (i.e. go to the restaurant even if they are drunk), but you are the master of your own behavior and you can always be firm and say, “No.”


  • Wandering Coyote

    I think you made a key distinction here – only you can control you, and that’s where the boundary must come in.

    As a BPD, but perhaps one that is a bit atypical, I find I’m the one who has to set the boundaries. I do this particularly around social situations involving my family. I can only take so much, so I give myself two hours, and if I feel I can go on, fine; if not, I leave. No one questions this anymore. The big one has been that I don’t participate in Christmas dinner/day. It’s a long story, but I’ve found that I just need to do this. It took a while for certain people to understand and accept it, and it’s been easier now that they get it a bit more. But it was hard in the beginning. I’m also going to bow out of other events like Easter and Thanksgiving for similar reasons.

    This is just one example, but it’s been important for me to learn how to set concrete boundaries. The more concrete, the easier they are to articulate to others, and the easier time I have not getting stuck in situations I don’t want to be in.

  • Bon Dobbs

    Yes, well, you are also providing an effective example of boundaries. If you know you limitations, in this case with your family, YOU control your behavior. You decide not to participate because it will trigger difficult times within yourself. Boundaries are for everyone – but in the end they are effective if they are for yourself. BTW, I don’t like family gathering with my family either. It makes me a bit nutty. That’s why I live 800 miles from my family.

  • Susan

    I love gathering with my family now (finally!), but ditto when it comes to my BPDH’s. Their expectations are just way too enormous for my little mind to grasp. lol! Really gave me a true appreciation for the laid-back style of my family… which is likely one reason why I enjoy them so much more now. ha!

    Bon, thanks for posting this about boundaries. Hope you don’t mind if I link to it on my blog. Will definitely save me some (I mean, A LOT OF) thinking and writing time. 😉

  • Bon Dobbs

    Of course you can link to it. I linked you yours! The more the better. I didn’t say anything in the group about your blog. I didn’t know if you wanted to point it out or not.

  • Anne Noebel

    I don’t think therapists have a clue about boundaries. I complain ( and maybe that’s the problem ) to my therapists that my BP husband is always in the bathroom when I’m getting ready for the day. He uses the bathroom the same time as me, or whenever I’m in there and never leaves. I’ve politely asked him for privacy but, surprise, surprise, he’s always in there. He has raged at me for even asking. It upsets him that, I “can’t share the bathroom.” She suggested that I lock the door and refuse to let him in. I think he would tear the door down. She tells me that it’s a boundary violation, I agree, but he’ll never get it.

  • Bon Dobbs


    What your husband is doing is not a boundary violation. It is not respecting your privacy yes, and it is annoying, but it is not a boundary violation. Boundaries cannot be used to affect your husband’s behavior – those are rules (even if they are about your own privacy) – and when it comes to BPD, rules are made to be broken.


  • V.S.

    There’s got to be some weird definition of “boundaries” going on around here, because most sources agree that rape is a “boundary violation” but by your definition it wouldn’t be unless, say, I made a boundary that said “if you try to rape me I’ll leave” and then didn’t leave. Then I would be in violation of my own boundary and the rapist wouldn’t be in violation of anything, which is kind of problematic.

    Or, are you trying to say that the only thing Anne can do is choose not to use the bathroom? Even if she says “I will wait until my husband is out of the bathroom before entering it and I will close the door when I use the bathroom.” that still affects his behavior (he now must choose to knock the door down, accept her boundary, etc) and there is no boundary she can make to ensure her privacy if he decides to “stalk” the bathroom and run in there every time she’s on her way there.

    One of the struggles I have with nearly all the support offered to partners of those with BPD is that it seems to advocate either holding them responsible for every little thing (not useful) or holding them accountable for *nothing*. Won’t let your partner use the bathroom in peace? That’s okay. Partner calling clergy/friends/etc to tell them that he’s terrified because you walk away from his rages, so that they’ll tell you to stay home and keep listening? That’s okay. Partner won’t let you sleep unless he is, and demanding you sleep when he does? That’s okay. Set a boundary saying that you will not go to sleep when he demands it, that’s controlling behavior, stop it!

  • V.S.

    It wasn’t that long ago that there was no such thing as legal rape between spouses. It was literally legally impossible to rape your spouse. The law held that if you were married your spouse had a right to sex from you, no matter what. Was it not a boundary violation back then?

    (I still suspect that there’s two different definitions of “boundary” here, and I’m seeing psych professionals and others use them interchangeably, but I’m not sure about this. If this is the case it might explain the boundary confusion)

  • V.S.

    I’ve put some thought into this one, and I think I can explain some of it better now.

    There are, according to most of what I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot of psych stuff over the years) two basic sorts of boundaries. I’ve never seen them split out that way, probably because when you’re dealing with basically healthy people (or people who have problems that don’t directly affect boundaries) they work together in a sort of harmony. People with borderline have their boundaries broken and break the boundaries of those around them to the point where this sort of break down becomes required.

    I’m going to call these two types of boundaries noun-boundaries and verb-boundaries. It’s not entirely grammatically correct, but as descriptives it works well.

    Verb boundaries are the sorts that you’re talking about above. They are boundaries that you set and defend yourself.

    Noun boundaries are harder to define. They are based on the physical boundaries of our skins, but a lot of them seem to be culturally based. People get into arguments over whether they are god-given or whether they are human social constructs, whether they are evolutionarily mandated or chosen. And there are boundaries that seem nearly universal (bathroom boundaries, oddly enough), some that are culture wide (eye contact, how much skin is appropriate to show, personal space) and some that each individual sets for themselves as part of who they are (*I* require a great deal of alone time, because I’m an introvert. *I* do not refer to people as sluts or whores unless they specifically request to be referred to in that manner. *You* do not refer to people with borderline as inherently evil or malicious. and so forth) However, if you don’t agree that they exist, go to a public bathroom and use the urinal right next to someone when there are other urinals open. For good measure look over at his urinal cake, his shirt or his nose. You just broke a boundary without breaking a law, even though the other guy never consciously said “If someone looks over at me while I’m using the urinal, I will …”

    Equally, when my borderline mother put six-year-old (and not fat) me on a diet because she was overweight, that was a boundaries issue. For some reason she misperceives her boundaries ending farther out than her skin or personal space. It was not “okay” or “not a boundaries issue” just because at six I didn’t have the understanding to say “If my mother restricts my food and tells me I’m fat, I will…”

    Another example, my borderline husband (back early, before either of us understood what was going on with him) made a boundary (in the verb sense) that went “If you try to leave this apartment, I will restrain you.” In his mind he was doing the right thing because we lived in a rough neighborhood and he was afraid that I was unable to take care of myself. In my mind at the time this was not a boundary violation because I’d grown up being physically restrained. So when we went to our clergy it was to ask him to show my husband a better way of restraining me, because my husband was using wrist pressure points which hurt like crazy and made it harder for me to calm down in a situation where I was already trying to leave because my husband’s behavior was scaring me more than the possibility of getting hurt or killed by a stranger outside. Our clergy was horrified that I didn’t see this as a boundary violation. And he’s right. Restraining someone, with a very few exceptions when someone’s life or physical well-being is in danger if someone isn’t restrained, is a boundaries violation.

    If Anne were to say “If my husband comes into the bathroom while I’m in there, I will kick him repeatedly in the crotch.” that might be a perfectly valid form of verb-boundary, but it’s definitely a violation of noun-boundaries. (Not that I really think Anne would say this.)

    In the current U.S. mainstream culture, it’s generally accepted that using or exposing another person’s body without their consent crosses a boundary. When we use their body for work without consent it’s slavery, when used for sexual gratification rape or sexual assault, when used to vent our anger, assault and battery, etc. But these things aren’t boundary violations because they are illegal, they are illegal because they are boundary violations that are severe enough that people felt they needed to be codified into law. If we make a law tomorrow that makes turning around and clapping your hands in the middle of a vacant field illegal, you might get arrested for doing so but it’s not a boundary violation in this sense. Also, there are boundaries that aren’t legally mandated, or only are in the most extreme cases. One of them absolutely is bathroom boundaries. Both women and men have their own bathroom etiquette, and one of the reliable rules is that two adults should not be in the same stall or room (if there are no stalls) while using the bathroom. If for some reason this is not possible then people space themselves (like the urinal spacing “rule”), don’t look at eachother, don’t make eye contact, etc.

    So Anne’s husband absolutely is violating boundaries, in the noun sense.

    There are two big reasons that noun-boundaries get short shrift in non-space. The first is that slipperyness. When you’re dealing with someone whose boundaries are completely whacked (like with borderline), that slipperyness is nasty. I still can’t explain to my husband why, when we are in that situation where he’s been out all day and wants to reconnect and I’ve been out all day and want to go hide and be alone for awhile (extrovert vs introvert, and this happens at least a few times a week) proper boundaries say I get what I want before he gets what he wants. Even though I recognize that it has to do with what I want requiring me to do what I want and what he wants requiring both of us to do what he wants, he sees it as what I want requires both of us to do what I want, as I want him to do without me for a few hours. I explain in term of practicality (if I don’t get my alone time I become less functional, and as I go downhill so does he, so I do this to avoid the chaos that happens otherwise, which is true but not the root reason, which is noun-boundary related) .

    The other reason is that as far as dealing with a borderline partner/spouse/significant other of any stripe noun boundaries aren’t generally very useful and using them as a guilt or shame inducing tool (i.e. “You’re a bad person because you won’t let me use the bathroom in privacy.”) is absolutely counterproductive. It’s also probably noun-boundary-violating once one realizes what it is. (I see this as a gray area — in a healthy relationship you say “Dude, I have the right to go to the bathroom in privacy,” once, or at least once every three or six months for the forgetful person who doesn’t care themselves. They mutter “sorry” or “okay” and life goes on. With the borderline you can say “Dude, I have the right to go to the bathroom in privacy,” and get raged at for being a prude, selfish, whatever other thing they can come up with, because the feelings that statement brings up in them are different than for most people. For the majority of my adult life I’ve used Suzzette Elgins idea of “it doesn’t matter what you say, it matters what they hear” to guide my communication. It works for most people. I say something, listen to the response to figure out what they heard, use that to alter what I say next accordingly, listen to figure out what they heard this time, repeat until they hear the thing I’m trying to say. I’ve had failures due to people getting sick of the conversation or having to do other things, but generally not if everyone perseveres to the end. It utterly fails for people with borderline in freak out mode or when trying to avoid it. i.e. Simply asking to be left alone for a little bit is a huge insult, but it’s not just the words [like for someone with PTSD triggers] it’s the entire concept, yet never having time alone is unacceptable. So my typical ruleset completely breaks down here. Normally I will do my best to use the words that convey the meaning to the other person, rather than the words that will convey the meaning to me, but when my concept of “I need alone time” mean “I’m going to abandon you and you’re going to be all by yourself” to him, it’s hard to adhere to that)

    Which is fine as far as it goes. Noun-boundaries aren’t directly useful in dealing with a borderline SO’s behavior. Verb boundaries are.

    Where noun-boundaries are necessary for nons are for checking our own behavior (i.e. you’re not allowed to kick your spouse in the crotch, except in immediate self defense) and for understanding and validating our own needs. The thing about real noun-boundaries are that they are needs and not wants. One of my struggles with the non-lists I’ve been on (not yours, which I”m avoiding because I doubt that anything run by someone who only sees rape as a boundaries violation because it’s illegal is going to be healthy for me) is that the underlying message seems to be that the only need you have is for a therapist and that there is something wrong with me because I can’t validate the anxiety behind my husband calling me a whore. I’ve had to drop out because I started truly believing that I deserved my husband’s abusive behavior towards me as reaping the consequences of choosing to stay, and the only place I was hearing that message was on the boards. It wasn’t the only message there, but it’s common enough and nobody challenges it.

    Failing to recognize noun-boundaries leaves nons at risk of abuse and at risk of abusing.

  • Bon Dobbs


    Thanks so much for your long and thoughtful response. I’m sure I agree with all of it, yet it is elucidating of boundaries. I do believe there are some inherent boundaries in a person’s life (noun boundaries), yet I think, perhaps, these are more like inherent rules of culturally (or humanly) proper behavior. If in a different society it’s ok to stand six inches from a person’s face (and perhaps even exhibits respect) then are one’s noun boundaries violated when one goes into that culture? It’s definitely a “slippery” question. I try and focus on what you CAN control vs. what you can’t. With that I believe that nons can “take the power back” – although I don’t think BPD is about power plays… as much as some nons believe that it is.

    Anyway, thanks for your comments!


  • laura merritt

    i was recentaly dignosed with borderline.. I have a 22 year daughter who has 3 kids, i let her walk all over me, i have no boundaries when it comes how she talks or treat me. I get my grand kids every other weekend for a night so she can go out and now that is becoming a problem for me to do.. i am not mentally , emotionally able to do that right now.. I am in the process of trying to set up boundaries and make her understand what i will allow and what i am not putting up with anymore from her or her husband. and I dont know where to start with her at. she cares nothing about my health mentally or physically..

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