Ask Dr. Jackie:
Sometimes in a relationship there is a sticky dynamic where one party tries to set a boundary that is comfortable for them, but it feels exclusionary to the other person. As if they are being shut out or exiled. This can feel painful for the person who feels shut out. And of course it feels totally dysfunctional for the person who is setting the boundary. I would wager that quite a few relationships run into unexpected trouble around this issue. What’s your perspective on how to handle this? How would you recommend that someone in a relationship set a boundary without hurting the person you love most?

Dr. Jackie Answers:
One of the most problematic dynamics in a relationship occurs if I need or want something that doesn’t match for you; or worse, that negatively impacts you in some way.  Because you are not me and I am not you, there will be times in our relationship when we need or want different or divergent things.  Couples should expect this.

The problem isn’t that this happens.  The problem is that most couples don’t have the skills to work through these events when they occur.

Let’s take a step back for a moment and clarify two things:

1.  One of the basic underlying assumptions that is at work in our relationship all the time is that each of us will act with good will and with good intention. 

NOTE:  When I say–basic underlying assumptions–I am referring to the specific agreements related to beliefs, behaviors, attitudes and values that we carefully craft and that we both agree to as we build our relationship; and that we both reasonably expect and rely on from each other.

2.  A boundary is NOT a barrier.  Remember:  Boundaries define our deepest sense of self. Setting boundaries makes others feel safe around us and allows us to feel safe in our environment; and take good care of ourselves.

That said, in a relationship between adults who are invested in the well-being of each other; one partner wouldn’t set a boundary in a vacuum or without sitting down and having a conversation with his or her partner before setting the boundary or after setting the boundary; especially if the partner might be or is in fact “hurt” by the boundary.

Here are a couple of the things I know about my partner in a healthy relationship between emotionally intelligent people:

  1. My partner is committed to being present with me with good will and with good intention.
  2. My partner is interested in how I am affected by him or her.
  3. How I am affected/negatively impacted by my partner matters to him or to her.

My wonderful husband and soul-mate, Mark, died in the summer of 2005 after a courageous battle with colon cancer. About a year earlier, he noticed he wasn’t sleeping well and that he had become hypersensitive to the ambient noise around him at night, especially Sophie’s snoring (our 110 lb. Bernese Mountain Dog). He carefully considered all the “good options” (barring Sophie from the bedroom wasn’t an option at all–good or bad) and he decided to try earplugs.

He researched all the earplugs and decided to test some that were supposed to have the best noise barrier, be the most comfortable… He bought them and that fateful night put them in his ears to test them out. They worked very well. So he “tested” them out a second night and they were fabulous again.

Except, that I didn’t know he was “testing” earplugs. When we were cuddling before we fell asleep and as we are waking up he wasn’t responding to the soft nothings I was whispering in his ear. It was very curious and it felt terrible, if I tell the truth about it.

I was taking some time that second morning to figure out exactly what I wanted to say about what I perceived to be a change in our intimacy; and he announced that he found these stupendous earplugs that deadened all the noise around him and created a peace and quiet he had longed for months.

Quite spontaneously I burst into tears.  He had found Nirvana and I felt completely closed off from him and in the worst kind of no-win situation.

It was clear we needed to talk. We set a time to talk later on that day; a time when we could both be absolutely present without distractions and the pressures of outside obligations.

When we sat down in our favorite place to have “heart-to-hearts” I told him what it was like for me being on the other side of the earplugs and how utterly rejected and abandoned I felt.

Here’s what I knew about my husband:

  • Mark was committed to being present with me with good will and with good intention.
  • Mark was interested in how I was affected by his choices and behavior.
  • It mattered deeply to him how I was affected/negatively impacted by his choices and behavior.


  • I was committed to being present with Mark with good will and with good intention.
  • I was interested in how he was affected by my choices and behavior; and my (legitimate) needs in this case.
  • It mattered deeply to me how he was affected/negatively impacted by my choices and behavior; and my (legitimate) needs in this case. So, the container that we had created (as we were building our relationship) for this and many other difficult conversations served us very well.

Because I knew with clarity and certainty that my needs and my feelings were important to him; and because he knew with the same clarity and certainty that his well being was a priority to me, we were able to discuss our conflicting requirements to (Mark) hear nothing during the night; and (DJB) be heard deeply during the night.

We were able to create – together – a very do-able way to honor and respect each other’s (legitimate) needs and take good care of ourselves; and do so in a way that was not at the expense of the other.

So in closing let me make the point very directly:  Setting, honoring and maintaining a boundary is FOR us, NOT against anyone else.  In an emotionally literate relationship, there are always acceptable options that honor the requirements, needs and wants of BOTH partners.

Before you try to problem solve a conflict, repair a hurt, or decide that you are the big, bad wolf for setting a boundary, explore the underlying assumptions of your relationship (the agreements and commitments that are the soldier beams of the relationship structure) and be sure they are clear and solidly in place.

Without them your deepest fears will be running the show!  Remember, its ADULTS ONLY in relationships!!

Remember, only YOU can make it happen!

Go Back