The Guide to Strong Relationship Boundaries

Poor Boundaries and Intimate Relationships

I believe boundary issues are the most difficult to deal with at the family level. You can always dump that ass-hat of a boyfriend/girlfriend, a divorce is always but a phone call or twelve away, but you can never dump your parents.

If you have boundary issues in your family, then it’s very likely you have them in your romantic relationships as well. And your relationships are the best place to begin fixing them.

Chances are at some point you’ve been in a relationship that felt like a roller coaster: when things were good, they were great; when things were bad, they were a disaster. And there was an almost-predictable oscillation between the two—two weeks of bliss, followed by one week of hell, followed by a month of bliss, followed by a horrible breakup and then a dramatic reunion. It’s a hallmark of a codependent relationship and usually represents two people incapable of strong personal boundaries.

Couple arguing while she is driving a car in a dangerous situation

My first serious relationship was like this. At the time, it felt very passionate, like it was us against the world. In hindsight, it was incredibly unhealthy and I’m much happier not being in it.

Poor Boundaries and Neediness

People lack boundaries because they have a high level of neediness (or in psych terms, codependence). People who are needy or codependent have a desperate need for love and affection from others. To receive this love and affection, they sacrifice their identity and remove their boundaries.

(Ironically, it’s the lack of identity and boundaries that makes them unattractive to most people in the first place.)

People who blame others for their own emotions and actions do so because they believe that if they put the responsibility on those around them, they’ll receive the love they’ve always wanted and needed. If they constantly paint themselves as a victim, eventually someone will come to save them.

People who take the blame for other people’s emotions and actions are always looking to save someone. They believe that if they can “fix” their partner, then they will receive the love and appreciation they’ve always wanted.

Predictably, these two types of people are drawn strongly to one another. Their pathologies match one another perfectly. And often, they’ve grown up with parents who each exhibit one of these traits. So their model for a “happy” relationship is one based on neediness and poor boundaries.

Ironically, they both fail completely in meeting the other’s needs. In fact, they both only serve to perpetuate the neediness and low self-esteem that is keeping them from getting their emotional needs met. The victim creates more and more problems to solve and the saver solves and solves, but the love and appreciation they’ve always needed are never actually transmitted to one another.

Poor Boundaries and Expectations

In Models, when I talk about authenticity, I explain how in relationships, whenever something is given with an ulterior motive, with the expectation of something in return, when something is not given as a “gift,” then it loses its value. If it’s self-serving then it’s empty and worthless.

This is what happens in these codependent relationships. The victim creates problems not because there are real problems, but because they believe it will cause them to feel loved. The saver doesn’t save the victim because they actually care about the problem, but because they believe if they fix the problem they will feel loved. In both cases, the intentions are needy and therefore unattractive and self-sabotaging.

If the saver really wanted to save the victim, the saver would say, “Look, you’re blaming others for your own problems, deal with it yourself.” That would be actually loving the victim.

The victim, if they really loved the saver, would say, “Look, this is my problem, you don’t have to fix it for me.” That would be actually loving the saver.

But that’s not exactly what usually happens…

The Vicious Cycle of Poor Boundaries

Victims and savers both get kind of an emotional high off one another. It’s like an addiction they fulfill in one another, and when presented with emotionally healthy people to date, they usually feel bored or a lack of “chemistry.” They’ll pass on healthy, secure individuals because the secure partner’s solid boundaries will not excite the loose emotional boundaries of the needy person.

From an Attachment Theory perspective, victims tend to be anxious-attachment types, and savers tend to be avoidant-attachment types. Or as I like to call them: crazy people and assholes. Both often push away secure-attachment types.

For the victim, the hardest thing to do in the world is to hold themselves accountable for their feelings and their life rather than others. They’ve spent their whole existence believing they must blame others in order to feel any intimacy or love, so letting that go is terrifying.

For the saver, the hardest thing to do in the world is to stop fixing other people’s problems and trying to force them to be happy and satisfied. For them, they’ve spent their whole lives only feeling valued and loved when they were fixing a problem or providing a use to someone, so letting go of this need is terrifying to them as well.

It is only when both start the process of building self-esteem that they can begin to eliminate needy behavior and make themselves more attractive. Later in this article, I will show you how to break out of this vicious cycle. Read on.

Man kneeling at the feet of woman, white background

(Side note: I state in my book that needy behavior makes you unattractive to most people by limiting you to people of a similar level of neediness, i.e., the adage that you are everyone you end up dating. If you end up only attracting low self-esteem slobs, then you are likely a low self-esteem slob yourself. If you only attract high maintenance drama queens, then you are likely a high maintenance drama queen yourself. Oh, you queen, you.)