One of the most confusing concepts about limits and boundaries is understanding that there is a difference between these two terms. Yet both are equally important in a healthy relationship.

A Boundary is a theoretical line that we define for others. Like a boundary on a map, in truth there is no line in stone on the earth that defines one state from another. But we have signs or words (limits) that indicate where one stops and another begins. An example of a Boundary is saying that I will leave a relationship that causes me or my child physical harm, or I will not tolerate disrespectful words from my child.

Limits are the behavioral manifestations of boundaries – we “set a limit” by telling our partner that we do not appreciate being talked to in a particular manner, or by following through and walking away from a relationship after we had set that boundary and still we were physically harmed, or we discipline our child after they cursed at us.

Most relationships, even healthy ones, still test limits. It is a normal process for individuals to push against limits in order to determine exactly where the line, or Boundary is. As I’ve written above in Parent’s Corner, pushing the limits helps us to determine our status in the world, and does so even in adult relationships.

What becomes problematic is when one person pushes the limits, but the partner does not reinforce the boundary. An example I have seen far too often as a therapist is where a woman will threaten to leave her partner if she is hit again. But then when she is hit again she does not leave. Or a parent tells their child that they’ll be “in trouble” if they yell at them again, but then yell back and don’t follow through on the agreed upon consequence.

A threat is not a boundary – it is only a threat. And most people can tell the difference. There are very effective ways to communicate our limits and boundaries to others so that we are completely heard.

Read next month on how to effectively set limits and follow-through on enforcing your boundaries…

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© 2011 Linda Chassman, PhD., LMFT. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to reproduce for educational or therapeutic use, as long as full copyright and contact information appear on the reprint. For all other use, please call or email Linda Chassman, PhD., LMFT at 720-266-4444 or