Intimate love — 28 October 2003
Boundaries that will enhance life

Respecting each other’s boundaries within a relationship helps prevent
abuse and fosters intimacy. Yet boundaries are poorly understood by most

Pia Melody, one of the leading authorities in the field of codependency,
defined boundaries as the “invisible and symbolic fences” that keep us
from being abused or abusing others, while experiencing “who we are”. I
see boundaries as the symbolic space, like a dome, where each individual

resides with his or her body, thoughts, feelings and conduct.

We know that each individual in our society is entitled to think, feel,
act and manage his body as he sees fit, providing that he does not
violate the same privilege afforded to others. While this concept is
clear, the specific ways in which we need to honor these boundaries are
often very unclear.

Boundaries are divided into two categories -physical and emotional.

Physical boundaries secure our sole ownership of our bodies. No one has
rights to make physical contact with you without your permission and
violators do get prosecuted.

Most people intuitively honor other people’s physical boundaries. We all
know that a certain physical distance, (usually about three feet) is
comfortable for conversation with others. We also know, without having
been taught, not to invade other people’s space. For example, when one
enters a sparsely occupied movie- theatre, it is highly unlikely that
she will sit next to an already seated person. She will most likely
select at least a two-seat distance, if that row is her first choice.

People get within very close proximity only when space demands it such
as on a crowded elevator, subway, bus, etc. Otherwise, physical
closeness is either invited or illegal.

I call it the Law of the Three “H”s. People enter another person’s
physical boundary, for only one of three reasons: to Heal, to Hug or to
Hit. The former two are done by permission and the latter is against the

Your dentist gets very close to your face, by contract to heal. Your
physician is the only person in the world who can order you to disrobe
by prior permission from you for medical care.

A hug and more intimate closeness need to be negotiated and acceptable
to both parties, or else it is abusive. When my aunt used to grab and
kiss me forcefully when I was a child, I remember feeling violated, not
loved. Even young people need to give their permission to any bodily
contact. Parents and others sometimes tickle children. Beyond the point
of fun for the child, this action may turn into abuse of the children’s
physical boundaries.

We advise children of their sole ownership of their bodies. We instruct
them what to do in the event of unwanted approaches. We inform kids who
are the designated adults allowed to initiate physical contact with
them. Yet, we sometimes forget to restrain ourselves and honor their
right to claim their physical separateness.

Hitting (with the exception of contact sports) and other forms of
non-negotiated touch are illegal and punishable by court of law. We are
often very uncomfortable when a stranger follows us too closely in the
street. Since it is not by permission, we fear a possible physical harm.

Physical boundaries are understood and heeded much more so than
emotional ones. People do not realize that telling another what to
think, feel or do is a violation of that individual’s emotional
boundaries. People engage in this type of behavior rather frequently.

The following sentences are examples of emotional boundary violations. ”
You voted for that person, how could you do this- what is wrong with
you?” “How could you not like this movie, it is so wonderful”. “How can
you go without a jacket, it is so cold, who are you trying to impress?”
“You think the Welcome to Santa Cruz sign is attractive? What is wrong
with you?”

These statements are critical of another person’s views, tastes, and beliefs
and conduct. They are not intended to be vicious or mean. Yet the
speaker symbolically entered another individual’s space and criticized
her for living by her own standards. . Essentially, what the speaker is
saying is “how can you think, feel and do differently than I feel,
think, or do”. “How could you be you?”

As much as we foster people’s right to be themselves, to have differing
perspectives, tastes and wants, and as much as our economy is based on
personal differences, in our relationships we act with great intolerance
of these variances.

When people respect each other’s boundaries, they avoid intruding on
other people’s emotional and physical space and are able to claim their
own. They understand that each individual chooses the options of
thinking, feeling and acting for self-enhancement and success.

Healthy couples honor each other’s interests, opinions, actions and
feelings. When differences are inquired about with curiosity rather than
criticized- love reigns. They may say; “Tell me what you didn’t like
about that movie? ” or “What made this candidate worthy of your vote?”
or “I am surprised that you feel cold, it feels very comfortable to me,
but I’ll get your sweater for you.”

Truly accepting your partner’s right to her opinions, thoughts,
feelings, and behavior rids you of criticism, which hinders intimacy.
You are then enriched by two versions of reality, yours and his.

The best tool for honoring other people’s boundaries is to: ASK, –DON’T TELL -others about their thoughts, feelings, actions,
tastes and preferences. Accept the differences as fascinating, not wrong.

The best tool for having your boundaries honored is:
TELL, –DON’T ASK- others about their opinions of your thoughts,
feelings and actions, unless you truly need guidance. State your
position comfortably, expecting others to honor your view, not
necessarily match it.

When we learn to be more aware and respectful of our own and other
people’s boundaries, relating will become safe, comfortable and truly

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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