Cleverminds psychology

Last week two of my friends where having an argument and I thought it would be a great example of the sometimes murky water of what is and isn’t ok within certain relationships.

The Tale of Two Friends

The context of this argument, was that one friend who we call Sarah and the other Anita, were friends who had previously met through a mutual friend. Their friendship had developed to an extent where Sarah had invited Anita to attend her engagement party with her boyfriend. Sarah and Anita also worked together. Anita had experienced success being a network marketer and had brought Sarah into the industy, to help her experience the same success that she had. Sarah readily took up this challenge and began building her network, with the hope of eventually giving up her full-time employment to pursue a successful network marketing career. Anita’s role in introducing Sarah to the industry involved being a mentor for Sarah and subsequently receiving dues for Sarah’s success. To cut a long story short, Sarah and Anita had a personal and a business relationship.

This is where it gets messy.

Sarah and Anita both assumed that each understood the meaning of personal and professional boundaries. They both believed black and blue about what was appropriate and what was not.

Unfortunatly there were on completely different wavelengths.

Anita attended Sarah’s engagement party. At the party Anita and her partner met a man, who we will call Dan, whom was a friend of Sarah’s that Anita had not met before. Sarah and Dan began discussing their business interests, vision and their chosen industries. At the end of the conversation, Sarah and Dan that it would be great if they could meet again over a wine and discuss their business ideas further. Anita then gave Dan her business card.

A few days later, Sarah found out that Anita had handed her business card to Dan whilst at the engagement party. Sarah confronted Anita and angrily said “where you at my engagement party for me, or to build your business network?”. Anita was taken aback and felt that Sarah was challenging her integrity.

What actually happened here?

Sarah’s idea of what constitutes a personal and professional boundary is clearly different to Anita’s version of boundaries. Neither is right in their approach, but rather they had not communicated with each other about what was ok and appropriate in terms of boundaries. There simply is no “normal” way of behaving here, even though both Anita and Sarah felt there were completely justified in their position. This is particularly pertinent when they were working within two boundary systems – personal and professional.

What Is A Boundary?

A relationship boundary is much like a property boundary, you know where the line is of what is and what isn’t your land. In relationship terms, this means what are the hard and fast boundaries of your relationship in terms of behaviour, roles, physical touch, type and timing of contact, language used etc. This is the same for all relationships – personal, family, professional, acquaintances the list goes on. For example, it may be ok to hug and kiss your friend, but not you boss.

Some boundaries need to be negotiated and clearly discussed within the relationship. Others are more subtle and are assumed, for example what is appropriate behaviour for someone who is your superior (i.e., boss, doctor, teacher) versus someone who is your inferior/junior (i.e.,  student, child). These boundaries are dependent on the culture and context of the situation, but also the power roles within the relationship. There are however some boundaries that are so important that they are enforced by law (i.e., it is crime to have a sexual relationship with a child) or enshrined in a code of ethics (i.e., psychologists cannot have friendships or sexual relationships with their past or present patients).

Bottom line is – assuming something is ok within a relationship can leave you open to relationship problems like Anita and Sarah, or more seriously inappropriate relationships.

How Do I Form And Develop Clear Boundaries?

I like to think about relationships as an onion with multiple layers. The core of the onion is where you sit, surrounded by the layers. The closest layers represent the position of the most personal and intimate relationships that you have and the most distal layers the most distant, impersonal and acquaintance type relationships. I encourage you to draw this onion and start to place your relationships as dots on the different onion rings. Once all your key relationships are on the onion, you can start to visually see how your relationships differ. The key here is to try and develop a firm understanding in your mind of the different boundaries in these layers. Take a different pen and draw a line the differentiates the intimate from personal and another from personal to professional and another from professional (i.e., work colleague) to power relationships (i.e., doctor-patient relationship). Sometimes you will find that one of your relationships will sit in two domains, like Anita and Sarah. In this instance it is extremely important to communicate with this person about how your relationship works so there is no miscommunication.