THE BLOG
10/12/2013 07:00 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Relationship Boundaries: Separate but Equal

There is no shortage of books and experts (legitimate or self-appointed) that espouse the secrets to having a healthy relationship. They are quick to highlight better communication, hotter sex, shared values and managing conflict as the characteristics of a successful couple. And although these are certainly necessary components to coupling (who doesn't want hotter sex?), they miss a larger point: The healthiest relationships comprise individuals who do not need the other but want the other. There is a difference between needing and wanting. One connotes desperation, the other desire. And what differentiates the two? Boundaries.

When I was growing up, my mother would always tell me that I "end where someone else begins." Honestly, I never really grasped this concept until I was in my mid-20s and in graduate school studying marriage and family therapy. It was then that this abstract "me ending/you beginning" thing started to click, although it is something that I still work on in my own relationships. As I studied relationships and the coupling process, it became clear that boundaries, the psychological kind, play a crucial role in the creation and continuation of meaningful connections.

Psychological boundaries, like physical boundaries, represent both a beginning and an ending. But unlike physical boundaries, the terrain behind the psychological boundary is the private landscape of your feelings, thoughts, memories, hopes and sorrows. And the kinds of boundaries we construct around ourselves, be them rigid or invisible or somewhere in between, help define who we are, both in and out of a relationship. Within a relationship, boundaries tell us how far is too far and when it's time to risk a little more. They also serve as the protectors of our stories.

One thing that continues to amaze me is how people will share incredibly intimate information with me so quickly. Telling me at a party, after knowing me for less than 15 minutes, that you struggle with a sexual dysfunction is probably not the best way to introduce yourself. Disclosing during our first lunch that you are currently in therapy for using every drug on the planet is not necessarily the best way to keep my attention. Or while we're having dinner for the first time, please do not launch into a story about how your father beat your mother, or how you purposely set your home on fire when you were a child and also witnessed the murder of your stepfather. Check, please! Yes, all true stories!

What these good folks have in common, I think, is a very desperate need to be fully known and accepted from the get-go. But pump the breaks! Honestly, I am quite comfortable hearing some heavy stuff, but context (you don't really know me yet, and by the way, I'm not your therapist!) and timing are everything. Respect yourself by protecting your stories. And respect the person you are with by not sharing too much too soon. Go slowly. No one wants to feel like they are drinking from a fire hydrant. That old adage of "all history, no mystery" has some truth to it.

Boundaries are difficult endeavors, especially in intimate relationships where emotions can run super-high super-fast. But it is within these very types of relationships where we must keep our boundaries intact if we are to maintain a sense of self and keep our anxieties in check.

I remember seeing the movie Jerry Maguire and watching Tom Cruise speak that breathtaking line, "You complete me." The line took my breath away too, but not for sentimental or romantic reasons. You complete me? Really? I can respect the dramatic intent behind the movie line, but that approach to real-life relating can be crazy-making for sure. Who was I before I met you? And who will I be if you leave? Half of me? A third of me? When it comes to relating, I adhere to the separate but equal policy: I complete me, and you complete you, and together we can have a more whole relationship.

As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke so eloquently wrote, "[W]hen two people both give themselves up in order to come close to each other, there is no longer any ground beneath them and their being together is a continual falling." Another poet, Robert Frost, summed it up quite nicely: "Good fences make good neighbors."