Unhealthy Boundaries in Relationships

The development of boundaries begins early in life and is reinforced by the relationships we form during the remainder of our lives. As a child, you expect your environment to provide you with your wants and needs. The child has an expectation of safety, nourishment, love, trust, and security. As the child matures through adolescence, young adulthood, and adulthood, they learn to differentiate between their wants and needs. They learn to have realistic expectations of themselves and others.  There is an intra-dependence that flourishes and they rely more and more on themselves for identity, accountability, and affirmation. The adult nurtures affirming and loving bonds because they have affirmed and loved themselves.

However, for some, this does not occur. Their home environment does not fulfill their wants and needs due to domestic violence, alcoholism, or detached, rigid, or enmeshed family systems. The child never learns how to differentiate between their wants and needs. The maturity is distorted and unhealthy ways of relating with self and others develop. The adult continues to rely on their environment to fulfill their wants and needs. The relationship between self and the environment becomes parasitic rather than symbiotic. In clinical terms, we call this external locus of control.

Locus of control establishes the foundation of the healthy versus unhealthy boundary system. If one has external locus of control, they rely on their intimate relationships, friends, job, etc., to provide their sense of identity and worth. In contrast, one who has internal locus of control has a sense of wholeness and completion regardless of job status, relationship status, and environmental conflict.

External locus control can be especially impactful with how the individual relates and interacts in relationships. Below are common unhealthy belief systems:

1. Lack of self-identity: This individual has difficulty recognizing themselves outside of the context of a relationship. This person takes sole responsibility for the happiness, well-being, and comfort of their intimate partner or familial relationship. This is especially prevalent with women within relationships. Women are socialized as nurturers and caregivers. Women are guided to an existence of care-taking. As a result, there can be much validation, affirmation, and interdependence in the happiness and well-being of their partner or other relationships. This could lead to unhealthy boundaries of not knowing where their relationships ends and they begin. It can create a phenomenon of them living two lives. This is manifested in individuals who have serial relationship patterns, abusive and exploitative relationships, workaholics, low self-worth, depression, addictions, and high risk behavior.

2. Over responsibility and guilt: This is a continued unhealthy belief system with lack of identity. The individual takes responsibility for the success and failure of their relationship. For example, if an individual is a workaholic, they may say, “I can’t take a vacation. The place will fall apart without me.” Or, “I haven’t had a vacation in 20 years.” Some people may misconstrue this as “a good work ethic.” Actually, it can create depression. A suicide risk factor for men ages 55-65 is the loss of a job or retirement from job. Guilt is another faulty belief system. However, this is more about avoiding the uncomfortable feeling of guilt. This individual has challenges saying “No.”

This individual will over-commit, sacrifice self-care, and act out of a distorted sense of obligation that the other person does not have another option except them which leads to the “savior” or “martyr” identity of this belief system. The paradox of guilt is that the individual becomes resentful and angry at the person who asked which further reinforces the “martyr.”

3. Fantasy versus reality: With this belief system, the reality of the unhealthy relationship is overshadowed by the fantasy of what the person wants the relationship to be. For example, if one’s partner continues to have affairs and monogamy was agreed upon within the relationship, the individual will believe that if they change their hair, lose weight, or some other external change that the relationship will magically transform to their desired dream. This can be especially dangerous with violent relationships. The individual always hopes for the potential that their partner will not harm them further.

There are 10 unhealthy belief systems that drive unhealthy boundaries within relationships.
These will be discussed in a later blog.


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