The Limits of Boundaries (2024)

"Good fences make good neighbors," remarks the neighbor in Robert Frost's poem "Mending Wall." This is often cited as a piece of folk wisdom, but the character in the poem is not portrayed as very wise at all. Rather, he is a familiar kind of curmudgeon: closed-off, rigid, and obsessed with the enforcement of the finest details of his property rights.

But, these days, most therapists seem to be on the side of the neighbor. We hold that a good relationship is one in which each person has a good sense of where one person begins and the other ends. We advocate clear expectations and open communication about the kind of behavior that the individuals in the relationship will, or will not, tolerate. We favor taking responsibility, showing respect, and above all avoiding "codependence."

This way of thinking about human relationships has become nearly inescapable in recent years. Beyond its application to romantic relationships, it is thought to extend beyond that to family, friendship, and the workplace. In the manner of Frost's neighbor, our first instinct in diagnosing relationship troubles is to return to the question of boundaries, which is to say: "Good fences make good neighbors."

I want to emphasize, first of all, how valuable an emphasis on boundaries can be. Some people suffer greatly from unstable and volatile relationships, where the boundary between themselves and others becomes dangerously blurred. In these cases, the clear recognition and articulation of boundaries can be a valuable intervention. Furthermore, the language of boundaries is a powerful way of expressing something that none of us should doubt, namely the authority of each person over their own body.

But, judging by contemporary discourse about boundaries, their reach is far greater than this. Boundaries are not proposed as a possible intervention for particular kinds of unsteady relationships, or as a recognition of bodily rights, but as a kind of structure for relationships generally, as a picture of what a good relationship is supposed to look like. And here I think we should somewhat temper our enthusiasm for boundaries.

Where did boundaries even come from? In an important recent essay, Lily Scherlis observes that this seemingly evergreen theme is in fact of quite recent origin, being popularized by self-help authors in the early 1990s. One scarcely finds talk of boundaries in classical works on psychotherapy. Indeed, part of the point of psychoanalysis was to call purported boundaries into question. Scherlis even notes Norman O. Brown's admittedly radical perspective: "the proper outcome of psychoanalysis is the abolition of the boundary."

So boundaries are not eternal. Neither, I want to suggest, are they universal. If some people need clearer boundaries, some people may need ones that are more flexible. One way of manifesting especially rigid boundaries is by a withdrawal from relationships and social life altogether, a withdrawal that has become more comfortable than ever before, with the profusion of technologies to offer distraction and companionship in the absence of real human connection. For some people this may indeed be the kind of life that they want, but for others it is something to be resisted. Indeed, some spiritual traditions—be they traditional religions or the secularized spirituality of contemporary advocates of psychedelics—see their goal as the softening of boundaries between self and world, and between self and self.

I do not want to advocate any particular one of these worldviews or interventions, but only to note their diversity and to make the modest point that what works for one person may not be what works for another. When we advocate boundaries as the solution to every purported problem, we are apt to neglect this point.

In fact, I think our fondness for boundaries is an instance of a more general tendency in contemporary psychotherapy, a certain fallacy of generalization. There are certain interventions that are doubtlessly good for some people, in certain situations, with a particular set of values. Seeing the success of the intervention in these cases, there is a tendency to project it to still others, taking a soft recommendation for what a certain kind of person might do and turning it into a broader framework for what people are, and how they ought to be.

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But there is no such framework, at least no substantial and broadly valid one. Negotiating boundaries is as hard as everything else: some boundaries are clear and necessary, and others are excessive and invasive. If there is some general truth about boundaries, it is perhaps only the banal claim that everyone should set the boundaries that suit their values, so long as they are not unduly encroaching on the boundaries of anyone else. That is not really advice that one can act on, and it lacks the simplicity and punch of "good fences make good neighbors." But it at least acknowledges the deep subjectivity of therapy, and the fact that our values should shape our boundaries, and not the other way round.

References

Lily Scherlis (2023). Boundary Issues. Parapraxis.

The Limits of Boundaries (2024)
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