So what exactly are healthy boundaries?
This is a question (and concept) that I think many of us struggle with in general–but especially after coming out of a narcissistically abusive relationship. Many people (myself included) tend question what is normal and what is problematic, and what is appropriate trust and what is us being paranoid or hyper-vigilant?
Here are some of my aha moments as far as healthy (and unhealthy) boundaries go.
Here is an image that I created that comes from the book “Healing the Child Within” by Charles Whitfield in which I think he gives a fantastic explanation of what healthy and unhealthy boundaries are:
The first four types of boundaries are what the progression of healthy boundaries looks like. This progression is made over a prolonged period of time in which trust is slowly built by sharing appropriate information with a person and then observing how they react or respond to that information.
If the person that we are sharing info with proves themselves to be trustworthy with the small amount of info we give them, then we can give them more–but if they take the info we tell them and then use it against us, make fun of us, belittle us, or tell other people things personal things we’ve told them (aka gossip about us), etc. then we need to back up our boundaries to the level of trust that is appropriate for us to have based on their actions.
And keep in mind that boundaries are not set in stone. They are continually being defined and refined as our dynamic with that person changes.
Where so many of us go wrong (again, myself included) is that we tend to think of boundaries being based on our relationship with that person and not based on their behavior. Meaning, that people tend to think they need to be open, honest, and trusting with a person because they are a parent or a significant other or what have you, but not focusing on whether or not that person has actually proven themselves to be trustworthy. Or worse, they’ve proven that they can’t be trusted, but yet we try to convince ourselves that we need to “learn to trust them again” after they’ve broken trust because they are a parent or significant other. Trust is something that is earned and not something that is blindly given–and we get into trouble when we forget that!
So for example, according to this diagram, healthy boundaries between two people in an healthy intimate relationship, let’s say between two married people, overlap by about 50%. It would only be appropriate to have a 50% overlap if that level of trust has been earned. Which, in theory, it would have been earned before two people got married. But if that trust has been damaged, then it’s a mistake to continue treating them with that level of trust when they’ve already shown they can’t be trusted.
It would be inappropriate (and unhealthy) to continue a 50% overlap if the person has not earned that level of trust. If a person has broken trust, let’s say cheated, then our boundaries need to be backed wayyyy up with this person–beyond that of a total stranger because not only can we not trust this person, but they working in their self-interest at the expense of us and our relationship with them! This is not a person who is on our team or who is looking out for our best interests–and it would be wise to distance ourselves and proceed with extreme caution and to move slowly when having them rebuild trust–because they are the ones who need to be making the lion’s share of the effort to rebuild trust–not us.
Notice how in the above image, when trust has been broken, the one person distances themselves farther away from that person than they would from a total stranger. This is important to realize (and to do) because our boundaries with a stranger are cautious but neutral, our boundaries with someone who has shown that they are actively working against us, need to be to stay much further away from them–either making their behavior deal breaker stuff, or having them work towards rebuilding trust.
Instead, what most people who struggle with healthy boundaries do (especially when in a relationship with a narcissistic partner) is that the partner has made the narcissistic partner their whole life (or the narcissistic person has insisted they be their whole life) and then when they lie, cheat, steal/siphon household funds, etc., the partner backs up a bit, but not nearly enough to get themselves to a place where they can be safe or sane. The narcissistic partner then gets defensive and angry when their partner isn’t quick to trust them again, or to start having sex with them again, and generally uses a lot of guilt, obligation, and overall manipulation into being allowed full access to their partner. …It would be appropriate and reasonable if a person cheats on you to want to talk to the person they cheated on you with, having them get a tested for STDs, or for them to be home on time, or even for them to quit their job if they cheated with a person they work with. (Frankly, I would also insist on having separate bank accounts, pulling a credit report, and having their passwords to everything, because if a person lies to such an extent in one area, odds are this is the tip of the ice berg, and they are lying in other areas too.)
This might sound extreme, but this is all part of doing the work of rebuilding trust. It’s like when a teenager gets caught sneaking out and doing something really problematic like getting drunk, or using drugs, or staying at their boyfriend’s house when his parent’s aren’t home. Trust needs to be rebuilt between them and their parents. Many parents want to know who they are going out with and when they’ll be back, talking to the parents of the other teenager that they snuck out with, and potentially monitoring their grades and/or other online activity. The teenager who broke trust would need to prove through their actions that they can be trusted again, and that takes time–at a minimum several months.
And my take on what it would need for me to rebuild trust might be very different from yours–and that’s okay. Everyone’s boundaries and deal breaker behavior is different. What’s important is that you get clear with yourself what you need to do to stay safe and sane, and where your boundaries are in all that.
My goal is to educate, empower, and inspire other abuse victims in understanding more about what happened to them (and how to prevent it from happening again), as well as how to go on and rebuild an amazing life.
Even though I have had a lot of "in the trenches" experience with highly manipulative people of all kinds, I consider myself to be a student of Narcissism, mindset, motivation, healing, and life in general, and am by no means an expert on any of these topics.
It's for these reasons, that when you are reading my information that I encourage you to hold to what helps, and let the rest go.