How to Develop Healthy Boundaries in Codependent Relationship

We all are involved in relationships with our parents, siblings, spouses, children, and friends. However, sometimes we fail to have adequate boundaries leading to broken and unhealthy relationships. In order to understand this pattern, we need to first understand what is boundary and how do we define it.

The New World Dictionary defines boundary as “any line or thing marking a limit,” or a “border.”

In recovery, we refer to boundary to describe a very salient characteristic of codependency. Codependent people experience emotional abuse in relationships because they are not able to form firm boundaries and thus allow others to step in their boundaries and get manipulated by others. They are not assertive enough to express their feelings due to the fear of rejection and disapproval. They expect others to read their mind and hope that things will change without their efforts. However, they become angry when their barrel is full and they can no longer contain the scars of emotional and physical abuse. It is because of having very loose boundaries and not knowing where their boundaries stop and someone else’s begin. Having loose boundaries means that a person has difficulty knowing where he or she ends and another person begins. We have an unclear sense of who we are and may experience difficulty in defining the difference between our feelings and someone else’s feelings, our problem and someone else’s responsibility. Often codependent people take responsibility for others. It is because boundaries surrounding them seem to be blurred. People with weak boundaries seem to absorb other people’s feelings. Our boundaries define the individual self, also known as “me”. Our goal here is to identify and have respect for that line which marks off “you and me.”

One thing we need to know about boundaries is that no one is born with these boundaries. They are developed and taught to us by our parents. Unfortunately, many of us emerged into adulthood with damaged, bruised, and nonexistent boundaries. Some of us have no sense of boundaries, others have very rigid boundaries, and some of have holes in the boundaries. Poor or good boundaries depend on the kind of circumstances we grow up with. When parents are not able to model healthy boundaries to their children, when their rights are violated, and when they are forced into inappropriate roles with those around them, we tend to have poor boundaries. If children are emotionally neglected or physically neglected or abandoned, they may have nonexistent boundaries. If parents fail to nurture them and do not set appropriate limits and discipline, they form weak boundaries too. Due to having a void, they have difficulty forming a sense of “self.”

Research shows that abuse, humiliation, or shame cause a great deal of damage to boundaries. Also, inappropriate generational roles among family members, and inappropriate roles between our family and other families, can also damage boundary formation. People, who have been in the role of care takers, begin to believe other people’s thoughts, feelings, and problems are their responsibility. Care taking also damages boundaries. Controlling people also tend to trespass other people’s boundaries and the person who is being controlled, will fail to have rights to his or her emotions, thoughts, and privacy.

It has been found that how we bond with others is determined by the nature of our bond with our primary care givers. It could be our parents, foster parents or relatives. Our boundaries determine how we bond with others. If we have gaps in our boundaries, we become vulnerable to invasion by others. It is because we cannot set limits with the invaders and thus allow them to manipulate us. If our boundaries are rigid, we won’t let people get close to us. We can distance people from us when we have too many boundaries and without boundaries, relationships will cause fear. It is common experience that people feel most comfortable around folks who have healthy boundaries. So try to aim for having healthy boundaries.

The goal in recovery is to have healthy boundaries, not too rigid and not too loose. It is also important to note that it is our responsibility to develop healthy boundaries. We cannot put it on any other person. As we develop healthy boundaries, we develop an appropriate sense of roles among family members, others, and ourselves. We are then able to respect others and ourselves. We don’t allow others to trespass in our territory and stop controlling others. We take responsibility for ourselves and begin to know our rights. We begin to feel that we deserve to be treated well and with respect by people. We learn to say, “No” and set limits with others when others try to exploit us. Example could be of the victim of physical and sexual abuse. These survivors learn to grow from their experience and are able to understand the nature of invasion of their boundaries. As soon as they begin to become cognizant of their pattern, they learn what not to do, and become comfortable in setting appropriate boundaries. As long as they stay in abusive relationships, they continue to be the victim, but as soon as they get out of it, they begin to develop their sense of self again and begin to take care of their needs. They begin to mend their shattered self and become healthier. Writer would recommend the readers to read the famous books, ” Beyond Codependency,” and “Codependency, No More,”  authored by Melodie Bettie to learn more about boundaries in relationship, and codependent patterns.

Codependent people with loose and inadequate boundaries tend to develop too much tolerance for pain and insanity. Sometimes, it is difficult for them to notice that someone is hurting them, or they are hurting others or even themselves. It is important to build up on self esteem in order to be able to set boundaries. As we develop self confidence, we are able to set firm limits with those who are abusing us. Once we learn to take care of our needs, engage in self nurturing activities, make wise decisions and understand the difference between need and want, we are able to set boundaries in our relationships. Moreover, it is also helpful to be aware of our likes and dislikes, exercise our personal rights, value and listen to ourselves.

We need to exercise caution when setting boundaries. It should not be confused with building thick walls around ourselves. It is important to note that the purpose is to gain enough security and sense of self to get close to others without the threat of losing ourselves, trespassing, or being invaded. The key to loving relationships is having adequate boundaries, and ability to play, be creative, and spontaneous.

Some Helpful Hints to Set Boundaries

First of all, when you try to set boundaries, do not do it when you are angry. You are more likely to use lengthy arguments in this state of mind, and also attack the other person. It is helpful to use very few words and be specific when you communicate. Writer would refer the readers to read the blog post on Identification and Expression of Feelings, available on this website, for more details.  Avoid rationalizing, and apologizing. Do not feel ashamed or afraid when you set boundaries. Also, learn to listen closely to yourself. Do not let the barrier of shame restrict you from taking care of yourself. If you feel victimized, suffocated, or threatened by others, you need to pay attention to what your body is telling you. You may need to get angry to set a boundary but do not try to be resentful or stay resentful when you set boundaries. Sometimes, others may not like the new “You” because they feel defeated and may not be able to manipulate you or push your buttons.  Plan on doing it, anyways. Things will change eventually as you will stop attracting boundary invaders. Congruity is also another important prerequisite in setting boundaries. If your behavior does not match the boundaries you are setting, it will not work. Your behavior must be congruent with your boundaries.  For example, you may decide that you should not be living with an alcoholic but you end up living with one after another and do not respect your own boundary.

Sometimes, you may want to specify consequences and give ultimatums in order to enforce the boundaries. You need to have certain type of readiness to be able to set boundaries. If you are not ready, you will not be able to enforce it. It is connected to your growth and insight and as soon as you realize that there is a need for it and you cannot tolerate other people’s invasion anymore, you will be ready to enforce it. Learn to identify what you like and don’t like and what brings you pleasure so you will start engaging in self nurturing activities and will not feel guilty if you take care of your needs. Once you form a healthy boundary, you will notice that you will be able to enjoy and experience life more. You will not isolate yourself and have fun in the company of your family and friends. You will also indulge in self care and not waste time in idle worries about hurting other people’s feelings when you set a limit. Codependent people become depressed and fail to take care of their needs and thus deprive themselves from the pleasures of life.  Writer also recommends the readers to read the blog post on Codependency, available on this website to learn about this pattern of behavior.

In this way we see, that boundaries contribute to our growth and our sense of self. As we take risks and learn about our true identities, our boundaries will emerge and bring us closer to our Higher Power. It is good to have some balance in life to be able to develop a healthy sense of self and understand how you want to be treated by others. It is okay to give to people but do not allow others to rob you and trespass in your territory. Healthy boundaries make us strong and empower us to stand manipulation. In addition, they also empower us to determine how we will be treated by others. They also facilitate self discipline, maturity, and strength of character. They bring order in our lives. Above all, healthy boundaries help us have intimacy in our relationships.please visit to learn how hypnosis can facilitate the well being of the person, enhance esteem and make the person strong.
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  1. Thanks for your helpful discussion of boundaries. I liked what you said about balance and that lack of boundaries leads to fear. I’d add that many codependents aren’t in abusive relationships, but very reactive. Conflicts that are never resolved usually means the couple has poor emotional boundaries. Readers can learn more about boundaries in “Codependency for Dummies” and “How to Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits.”

    December 15, 2012
  2. Laurel S said:

    I agree it’s important to set boundaries, and I’m in the process of learning myself. One thing I discovered is that because of the kind of tension I grew up with, I didn’t actually know conversations had a beginning, middle and end! “Things” just sprang up out of nowhere, built to a peak and didn’t “end,” we just continued on – relieved it was over – like it never happened…

    It’s so important to have a plan, say what you need to say with as few words as possible, address only the situation at hand leaving out unrelated resentments – and end the conversation when you have met your goal.

    Also, to quote: “Do not feel ashamed or afraid when you set boundaries.” Not knowing where I leave off and the other person begins has lead me to “feel” they know what I’m thinking, and I kind of think I know what they’re thinking, It’s been very difficult for me to learn that while I may be scared and ashamed, I don’t have to show it. It just confuses the other person. If they “hear my fear,” they’ll be naturally inclined to discount my legitimate concerns.

    Thanks for this article!

    February 28, 2014
  3. Loretta Sandoval said:

    Thank you for this article. I just set boundaries with a very toxic long relationship and your article hit the nail right on the head. I am very codependent and I isolate, and do not take care of myself and have become ill from it. But I did it, and ended this relationship with a woman that was like family to me, replaced y neglectful family. And now I know what I have to do, work on myself, get into counseling and listen to my heart again. It had been so long since I have been happy and joyful, I feel so lost. But I see what I need to do, and am willing to do it now, for me. Thank you.

    December 28, 2014
  4. Jenna said:

    I would like to know more about the dynamic between fear of relationships without boundaries and the ability to be intimate with boundaries. That is so interesting! I’m just learning how all this works.

    June 7, 2015
  5. […] This is especially important for individuals with trauma histories and poor emotional attachment. Research suggests that a history of abuse (emotional, psychological, physical, sexual), domestic violence, […]

    July 16, 2015
  6. dale byers said:

    Absolutely fantastic artical will forward to my daughter, who is codependent. Want to learn more.

    August 5, 2015
  7. Married Man said:

    Great article. My wife and I have been married for a couple of years. We are great on ‘every’ single level ‘except’ communicating negative feelings. We have entirely different conflict resolution skills. Mine are much more developed. I say this because, when we argue, I personally try to see the light. Where is the conversation going? What is the goal of the argument? How do we meet this goal? With my wife on the other hand, she fights with me to fight. She may feel angry about something legitimate but can not ‘ever’ bring herself to drive the conversation to an end game. It can go for days. When she’s wrong, she is never sorry. I myself have my own flaws but my boundaries aren’t set here. I don’t have them. I let her treat me however (hating it of course) and it builds resentment on my part. I have a lot of resentment towards her. I don’t feel it though until the next time we are experiencing one of the episodes. They act as a reminder. My resentment keeps building and I have no idea what to do. If I set strong boundaries for myself, I feel like she will really start to be unhappy in our marriage because I don’t think she knows of any other way to communicate. Just downing me, playing off my past, playing off my buttons, always coming back with something to escalate the situation even more (probably just to make herself feel more dominant in the given argument or whatever the situation is). She can take ‘no blame’ and boundaries are hard when you want your relationship to work; but also knowing that by setting strong boundaries, it could spell the start of the end.

    February 15, 2017

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