Boundaries, Boundaries

stacked stone wall

In the poem “Mending Wall,” by Robert Frost, the poet describes two New Englanders  going out in the spring to put the rocks back on top of a rock wall that forms the boundary between their two properties. The frost heave and blizzards of the winter have knocked some of the stones off, and vandals have trashed the wall in places. The narrator isn’t sure why it’s important to have the wall, but the neighbor says– and later repeats– the famous line, “good fences make good neighbors.” The narrator, on the other hand, gets the other famous line, “something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” and wants to know why there needs to be a wall, what it keeps in, or keeps out. Here’s the whole poem:

Great poem for anyone doing couple or family counseling.”Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”– fights with “Good fences make good neighbors.” The idea that when I know where you stand, and you know where I stand, and we each have our own place to stand, things go better goes against the idea that there’s no reason to have an artificial barrier separating us when, hey, we’re already good neighbors, right? But in life as in the poem, a well-marked boundary helps us. Counseling folks generally describe the invisible demarcation zones between people as either diffuse/fuzzy boundaries, permeable/flexible boundaries, or impermeable/rigid boundaries. If my boundaries are too diffuse, I may not even be sure where my rights begin and yours end, or where my emotions end and yours begin. If my boundaries are too rigid, I might not have much in the way of relationships, because nobody knows me and I don’t know anyone more personal than the checker at the grocery store. And even that relationship might be pretty cold.

Clear communication is one of the ways to have good boundaries. This is so important that one spiritual teacher went out of his way to talk about it:

Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. (Matthew 5:37, English Standard Version, Jesus tells his followers not to swear oaths)

I make no claims to theological acumen, but a way to take this is as a warning to be straightforward: if I say I’m doing something, I’m doing it. If I say not, then I’m not. End of conversation.

Shakespeare has the famously misquoted line, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” spoken by the queen in Hamlet (act 3 scene 2) which has turned into “methinks thou dost protest too much.” Talk about a dysfunctional family with bad boundaries. But when you have dirt to hide, other people are going to push hard to crash your boundaries, because there’s no trust. Within the family, people may pretend they don’t know what is going on, but they usually do– there’s just the unspoken agreement not to talk about it. In some families, there are so many elephants in the room that there’s no room for people.

It would probably be a fun and instructive exercise to do a literary survey on families, boundaries, and drama. But Frost’s narrator gets to the nub of the issue, I think:

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.

When we get into relationships, we need to know what they’re about. How close do I want to be to a particular person? What kind of relationship is it? How is it likely to change, or how do I want it to change? What are the deal breakers that will end this relationship? To answer those questions and all the others that come up, I have to determine, within myself, the answers to those questions for  my end of the relationship. And I have to be able to communicate clearly to understand the other person’s answers to the same questions, and I have to be able to think about and compare our answers.


About jamesmatter

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in private practice in San Francisco. I work with adults, adolescents, and couples, with focus on substance use and abuse and co-occurring disorders (having both a mental illness and an addiction).
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