Is Total Freedom the Goal?

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Is Total Freedom the Goal?


© 2024 by Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

Setting Boundaries in Relationships at Home, at Work and Online

As we celebrate Independence Day and the freedoms that we enjoy, the question of “how free can we be and still get along” keeps coming up. This applies to relationships in families, at work, the online world, and politics. While there is a lot of talk of freedoms and rights, there also has to be talk of boundaries and responsibilities. One thing is clear: Where there are no rules, only bullies will rule.

Unfortunately, boundaries in today’s world can be very fuzzy and often need open discussion. In years past, roles were clear and everyone knew what the basic boundaries were. Today, boundaries are more subject to negotiation, so people need skills to assert themselves enough to feel safe while also feeling free as much as possible to grow and be themselves. This article addresses setting boundaries in various settings and how we can do that with confidence and mutual respect.

Romantic Relationships

It used to be obvious that romantic relationships only work when people mutually agree that they won’t date other people once they have committed to a partner. Yet this isn’t always clear-cut today. Some people have “open marriages,” in which they date other people. Nowadays, some people are “polyamorous,” which means they each may have two or three people who are ongoing “part-time lovers.” There is also the “Big Love” of a polygamous family with one man and several wives and all of their children. Then there are some people with narcissistic personalities who believe that they need to go out and get more love from several people, while their partners should stay home and only need them.

Overall, this means that people need to be clear about what their needs and expectations are and need to say them out loud at some point when developing a romantic relationship. It also means that people need to know themselves and their own needs before taking big relationship risks. Multiple partners often turn out to be fantasies that can’t be sustained and sometimes people get hurt deeply. On the other hand, research shows that young adults today are avoiding sex, marriage, and children more than prior generations, which isn’t good either. Assertive skills can help make the world and relationships less scary, as explained below.

Young Adults (and High School) Sex

Young people have to navigate a far different world today from their parents and grandparents. While no sex before marriage was the standard decades ago, the issue of sex comes up early in dating or “hooking up” without even a dating relationship. Unlike in the past, young people have to learn to protect themselves because the culture, religious communities, peers, and even families are less involved in these very individualized decisions today.

Two key boundaries seem important here:

  1. Know what you want and don’t want. These are boundaries for yourself. If someone doesn’t want what you want or doesn’t respect what you don’t want, then they aren’t for you. High school and college students should never feel so desperate for love that they sacrifice their sense of self, what they want, and what they don’t want. They still have lots of time to find what they are looking for in today’s wide-open world. Finding like-minded groups of people who share beliefs and interests is one of the best ways to meet people who will respect you.

  2. Say what you want and don’t want. Only “Yes means Yes!” It used to be that you could do whatever you wanted with a partner unless they said No! (the old “No means No!”) But that turned out to be insufficient because people (often girls) felt pressured to do things they didn’t want to and they didn’t feel comfortable saying No. Instead, “Yes means Yes” means that you have to get permission first before you engage in each form of physical contact. Without a Yes, there is an automatic boundary. The problem is that not everyone knows this or follows it, so you have to be ready to be very assertive about saying “Only Yes means Yes!”

Abusive Relationships

Unfortunately, some relationships include physical (and sometimes sexual) violence. This catches many people (primarily women) off-guard and they come to believe that this is a part of most relationships—but it’s not. All partners should respect each other’s health and safety, and domestic violence is a violation of one person’s body for another person’s freedom to abuse. In today’s society, there is a generally accepted boundary against domestic violence (it’s illegal), but it still occurs in approximately 20% of couple relationships, with perhaps half of them including what is called “coercive control,” in which one partner lives in fear of the other partner.

Early in a relationship look for warning signs and even discuss agreed boundaries against all of these behaviors and more: no slapping, hitting, pushing, shoving, knocking down, blocking from leaving, taking a phone away, choking, cutting off from friends and relatives, controlling finances, etc. If you can’t discuss this and agree to such boundaries, then the relationship may already be unsafe.

Divorce and Parenting

This is an area where all the rules are changing in terms of roles, parenting time, and responsibilities when a relationship ends, but the parents continue on as business partners in the business of raising their children. For a detailed description of relevant boundaries, see the article “Top 12 Tips for Co-Parent Boundaries” in the May 2024 High Conflict Institute newsletter. 

Workplace Rules

Boundaries in the workplace can be particularly confusing nowadays, especially with dramatic changes within companies, with employees and managers coming and going regularly, and with both genders working closely side-by-side. Much of today’s work world needs to be negotiated, so assertiveness skills are critical. From the start of employment, companies and employees should feel free to itemize what the expectations, behaviors, and responsibilities are for everyone. It helps if there are regular opportunities for feedback and questions. (For more on workplace boundaries, see our book It’s All Your Fault at Work: Managing Narcissists and Other High-Conflict People.)


The internet essentially has no rules. It lacks a conscience, which is necessary for healthy relationships. It’s good to be skeptical of information and individuals who are found there. Where there are no rules, only bullies will rule—and that is a significant problem online (our modern “Wild West”). Therefore, the burden is on each of us to set our own boundaries on what we will absorb and believe that we find online. We need to check out information from reliable sources before we repeat it.

Companies, organizations, and individuals need to set limits on the amount of time and the nature of the commentary that we will expose ourselves to online. Websites that are moderated (someone screens content before comments are posted on their site—essentially they act as the “conscience”) are much healthier because the extremes are avoided so that people can feel safe to have meaningful discussions.

One of the simplest ways to tell if someone is a bully online (or anywhere) is if they start making it personal. Do they challenge your intelligence, sanity, competence, appearance, etc.? That’s making it personal and that’s not part of problem-solving or creativity. It’s just bullying. No point in criticizing or arguing back, because bullies don’t accept feedback and won’t change their behavior except when realistic consequences are threatened or imposed. Just stop participating in those conversations.

Being Assertive About Boundaries

The need to be assertive has been raised throughout this article. Being assertive is between being aggressive (when you try to dominate or destroy the other person) and being passive (when you allow someone else to push you around). Assertive means that you protect yourself without trying to harm the other person. Often this simply involves calmly setting limits (telling someone the behavior you expect) and informing the person of the consequences you are willing to impose if they violate the limit you set. This consequence must be under your control and realistic, otherwise they will ignore it. (For more on being assertive about setting limits (boundaries), see my article from last month’s newsletter: SLIC Solutions: Setting Limits and Imposing Consequences in 2½ Steps.) 

Being assertive takes practice so coaching and role-playing your responses to situations can be very helpful. Our High Conflict Institute coaches and trainers frequently include role-play exercises in our work, which builds confidence and mutual respect. Our New Ways for Families® skills training method for parents and New Ways for Work® coaching method for employees and managers include practicing setting boundaries in whatever situation the client is facing. It is possible, even in today’s world, to set limits respectfully and calmly.


Setting boundaries is an essential skill in today’s world, especially in close relationships. Knowing what your boundaries are and then saying what they are turn out to be important skills that anyone can develop. These are more important than ever, as our modern world develops rapidly in new gray areas of boundaries and responsibilities. This is also made more urgent by the increasing presence of bullies everywhere, especially in families, in the workplace, and online. Yet it is possible to learn the skills of setting boundaries. The more people that learn how to do this on a regular basis, the more free we will all be to develop ourselves in a safe and exciting world.

Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. is a lawyer, therapist, mediator, and worldwide trainer for professionals managing high conflict situations and personalities. He is the author of over twenty books, including Our New World of Adult Bullies: How to Spot Them – How to Stop Them, released in June 2024, which emphasizes successfully setting limits and imposing consequences in many of the 60 examples described. 

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Is Total Freedom the Goal?   © 2024 by Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. Setting Boundaries in Relationships at Home, at...