Sage advice tells us “Good fences make good neighbors,” and those who believe the aphorism may put up a fence, hoping to keep the neighbors out. It’s true, good fences indeed make good neighbors, but not because fences keep neighbors out, because fences make sure our neighbors will be welcomed in.
Fences are literal boundaries that divide a neighbor’s space from our own. The fence tells the neighbor where they can trod as they please, and where they need an invitation to trod. Imagine your neighbor crosses into your yard and starts planting strawberries in your garden, picking the peaches off your peach tree, perhaps even digging a hole for a pool. You’re going to feel rather disconcerted if he picks your peaches, and totally miffed if he puts a pool in your yard.
However, if you put up a fence (or a boundary that differentiates the two yards) the neighbor knows where he can or can’t plant his strawberries and dig his pool. Fences make good neighbors, not because they keep others out. Fences make good neighbors because they protect us from being violated. When we have confidence our neighbor won’t violate our boundaries we will invite him in.
A neighbor who violates our boundaries, one who takes without asking, will engender resentment. We will be wary of him, cautious, and keep him at a distance. On the other hand, a neighbor who respects boundaries won’t take something that does not belong to him. He will ask before coming in our yard. When we have nothing to fear from him, we will have no need to keep him at a distance.
We all have boundaries that are less literal than a fence between properties. We have personal space that is our very own. Personal space includes, among other things, the space around our bodies. If somebody stands too close to us while talking, or puts their hands into our space, or on our bodies uninvited we may feel like our boundaries have been violated. If somebody reaches over and picks food off your plate, you may feel like your boundaries have been violated. That’s your plate, your food and if they want some, they need to ask. Personal space also includes our time. People who drop in unannounced or overstay their welcome while visiting may be violating our personal space.
Boundaries are different for every individual. Some people have “loosey-goosey” boundaries, and some have firm boundaries. For example, one of the little boys in our neighborhood likes to walk in our house without ringing the doorbell, run upstairs and start playing pool. I don’t mind sharing our pool table, but I mind that he walks in my house unannounced. He needs to knock. When I revealed my boundaries to the neighbor boy he began to respect them, and now I am no longer wary of the young man. The secret to remaining close and avoiding hard feelings is respecting others’ boundaries even if they are different than your own. Some people don’t mind if others pick off their plate. Some people stand very close to your face when they talk. That works for them. But in order to have a close relationship, boundaries must work for you both.
Who Sets Boundaries?
Imagine you were trying to grow a banana tree close to your property line. You have no fence, so the neighbor doesn’t know where his yard ends and yours begins. The tree you planted while in its nascent stage looks like a weed, and your neighbor doesn’t know you planted a banana tree so when he’s cutting the grass, he mows a few rows beyond the usual and cuts down your banana tree.
Luckily, banana trees are resilient, and the next year the tree tries again to survive in your yard. The neighbor doesn’t know it’s a tree, and again he mows it down. Who’s to blame for the tree’s demise? Your neighbor thinks he’s being helpful. He doesn’t know he’s crossing the property line because you have no fence. He doesn’t even know he’s violating your boundary.
The little boy who liked to walk in my house unannounced had friends who didn’t mind if he walked into their houses unannounced. How was he to know that I had different boundaries than his other friends? The only way he would ever recognize my boundaries is if I established the boundaries. If I resented him because he violated my boundaries, and he didn’t even know what my boundaries were, it was my own fault if I didn’t trust him and wanted to keep him at a distance. Because I was willing to establish boundaries, I was able to genuinely like the kid.
Fear of Boundaries
Many people are afraid to set boundaries because they fear they will offend someone. This is particularly common among family members. A wife is afraid to set boundaries with her mother-in-law for fear the mother-in-law will take offense. The mother-in-law barges in her house, tells her how to run her home, discipline her children, and cook the peach cobbler. The wife wants to keep the mother-in-law away because she doesn’t like the boundary violations. If the wife would simply set boundaries, and the mother-in-law courteously respect the boundaries, they could actually be close.
Family members too often consider it an insult when another family member sets a boundary. They mistakenly believe that, when you’re “kin,” boundaries are inappropriate. If “kin” feel insulted it is because they misunderstand the purpose of boundaries. They fear the family member is trying to keep them “out,” when in reality, the family member with the boundaries wants to feel safe having them “in.”
Even married couples can violate one another’s boundaries. If a wife doesn’t want a husband throwing spices in the soup she is cooking, she needs to set a boundary. If a husband doesn’t want a wife to chatter to him when he’s working in the shop, he needs to set the boundary. Boundaries do not mean the couple is not close. Boundaries allow them to be closer than ever because they can let their guard down.
If people invade our boundaries, we feel violated, or intruded upon and we may avoid them. On the other hand, people who respect our boundaries will be welcomed into our lives because we trust they will respect our personal space. Thus, we feel safe and relaxed in their presence.
JeaNette Goates Smith is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a Licensed Mental Health Counselor practicing in Jacksonville, Florida. Her most recent book, Unsteady Dating: Resisting the Rush to Romance, along with her other books on relationships are available at www.amazon.com.