©2017 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
We continue to get requests for suggestions for setting boundaries in relationships—especially when there is a high-conflict person involved. (See past article: Boundaries in Separation and Divorce) The most recent question involves what to do when your boundaries are not respected, even when you’ve made them clear.
First of all, this is a very common issue with high-conflict people. They tend to “push the limits” of most relationships they are in, because they lack self-management skills, are driven by their upset emotions, lack empathy, and are so absorbed in their own needs and chaos that they can’t see the effect they have on others. Yet individuals and relationships need boundaries to survive, so this is a very important issue.
Be prepared for setting boundaries to be an ongoing problem with a high-conflict person, rather than a one-time thing (“Hey! I don’t like it when you do that!” And yet they keep doing that.) So here’s several choices or tips:
You may have to keep reminding the person. If you’re getting something positive out of the relationship, then just be prepared to regularly say: “Remember, I don’t like it when you do that!” And: “Let’s stay focused on the subject we’re talking about. Or the project we’re working on right now. Or our plans for dinner.”
Keep it simple. “That’s enough Joe.” Then change the subject. That may be all you need to say. Don’t bother going into a long explanation of why you are setting a limit, or why the person should change, or how frustrated you are with the person. It’s not about logic and insight for a person who repeatedly violates your boundaries. It’s about stopping the behavior right now.
Reduce your relationship contact. This may be someone you can’t be around as much as you had thought. Yet there may be some good qualities to the relationship, so find a new balance that you can feel more comfortable with. For example: “My time is really crunched right now. I’m not going to be able to get together this week after all.” Or: “I’m not willing to talk about that subject. Let’s talk about something else.” Or: “I’m not willing to do this with you, if you’re going to be inviting other people along. I had hoped we could spend this time together ourselves.” Or: “I’m not willing to get together with you, unless so-and-so can join us too.” It’s all about telling yourself you have the right to set limits on when, where, how and with whom you do things.
End your relationship contact. If you have a friend, relative or partner who repeatedly violates your boundaries, it may not be beneficial for you to continue in that relationship. If you’re staying in it because you hope the person will change, you may need to forget about it. Of course, do this carefully if you think the person has a high-conflict personality. They may feel intensely abandoned, belittled, dominated, ignored or betrayed when you say you want to end it. It may help to slowly distance yourself from the person in steps, rather than dramatically and suddenly ending the relationship. Also, don’t blame the person or blame yourself. Just recognize that your styles and needs are different, and try to go away in peace. When people dump a long, angry statement on the person when they want to leave, it tends to escalate the relationship intensity, rather than reducing it. That’s when things can get dangerous.
Get help, if necessary. Get help if you are afraid of the person or believe he or she may do something harmful to you or your reputation, if you end the relationship or simply set strong limits. Speak to a counselor or lawyer or respected friend or family member who may be able to assist you in setting limits. This can be hard and sometimes dangerous. Get advice and possibly have someone with you when you set limits. In some extreme cases, it’s best to have someone such as a lawyer be a go-between and communicate with the other person for you, so that you are not in direct contact at all. This is a common practice in high-conflict divorce cases where there is a restraining order for no contact, so all communication goes through a lawyer.
Setting boundaries is a bigger issue these days, because relationships no longer have the social standards they used to have. Everything has become much more flexible and negotiable. This has a lot of benefits in the modern world, but it also means we need to strengthen our own skills at saying “No,” making choices and expressing what we want and need—including boundaries.
BILL EDDY, LCSW, ESQ. is the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. He pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is viewed globally as the leading expert on managing disputes involving people with high conflict personalities. He has written more than twenty books on the topic and has taught professionals in the U.S. and more than ten countries.