Couples Without Boundaries |

5 min read

While some couples are warm and welcoming to others, some couples make people feel uncomfortable—often the result of insufficient interpersonal boundaries. Perhaps they share with you intimate details of their relationship or ask you to share intimate details with them. Enmeshment occurs when a third party, or parties, is drawn into an intimate relationship and compelled to take responsibility for transactions.

A very common example of this process is triangulation. This occurs when three individuals become polarized: two against one. This can occur with regard to a single issue or it can be based on aspects of identity, such as gender (for example, two boys against a girl), parents against a child, accountants vs. non-accountants, and so on. The triangulation can also be overt or covert.

Overt and Covert Triangulation

A basic form of triangulation is when it is presented directly. For example, Rand visited his next-door neighbor to borrow a tool. Before he had the chance to ask for the tool, his neighbor, Bessie approached him and said, “Oh Rand, I’m so happy you came by! Glenn and I have been arguing all morning and you can help us. I want to homeschool our children and Glenn thinks they will get a better education in public school.”

Rand was very uncomfortable. He knew that he was being asked to take a side. He was compelled to choose the perspective of one of the neighbors while opposing the other. He knew that at least one of the pair would be angry or disappointed with him and that this could mar his relationship with his neighbors forever. He was also concerned that if he expressed an opinion and things did not go well with the children’s education he would be blamed.

As Rand was told upfront that he was being asked about schooling as a way to settle a conflict between Bessie and Glenn, he recognized it as a trap and wisely responded “I don’t know anything about homeschooling,” thus effectively defeating the triangulation. He might not have recognized the trap if it had been presented covertly.

Covert triangulation occurs when the third party is enmeshed without realizing it. The triangulation is sometimes intentionally hidden to encourage participation. For example, if Bessie chose to engage Rand covertly, she might have just asked him, “What do you think of homeschooling versus public education?” She might have chosen to ask Rand when Glenn was out of earshot. If he answered “homeschooling is better,” she might say later in front of her husband, “Rand thinks homeschooling is better” to support her argument with Glenn at Rand’s expense.

Sometimes the couple without boundaries band together and gang up on third parties. Shelly had this problem with her parents. She went to visit her parents and have dinner with them and the following typical interaction occurred. She arrived to find her father yelling at her mother about spending too much money.

Shelly: Dad, please stop yelling at Mom.

Dad: You don’t tell me what to do.

Shelly: I hate it when you and Mom fight in front of me.

Mom: Stop lecturing your father.

Shelly: But I’m defending you!

Mom: I don’t need to be defended from your dad.

Dad: Who are you to criticize me, anyway? I’m your father.

Image by 鹈鹂 夏 from Pixabay

Image by 鹈鹂 夏 from Pixabay

In this example, Shelly’s parents triangulated her as a way of ending their own conflict and bonding together for a common cause. They sacrificed their daughter to benefit from commiseration.

Healthy relationships are supported by healthy boundaries. Healthy couples relate to third parties, including other couples, by sharing selectively. They share their time, joy, intelligence, sense of humor, sympathies, respect, and so on. They do not share their dirty laundry: their conflicts, resentments, and personal business.

Boundaries Essential Reads

Couples without sufficient boundaries involve others in their intimate struggles. They fight in front of others and often ask others to mediate their differences rather than resolve their own issues. This behavior effectively enmeshes others into their relationship often resulting in hurt feelings or alienation.

Couples with healthy boundaries do not discuss their problems with others. They resolve their problems together or suspend their conflicts while they are with others. They do not depend on others to support their intimate transactions.

Bring Your Own Boundaries

When socializing with couples without boundaries, you need to bring your own. Having realized that he was being set up for triangulation with his neighbors, Rand declined to answer their question about homeschooling, thus neutralizing the enmeshment.

Shelly, on the other hand, will hopefully learn not to interfere when her parents argue with each other. If the arguing is too troubling to her, she might choose to only see her parents when others are also present, whose presence might serve to inhibit their marital conflict in public.

The Egg: A Healthy Boundary for Couples

Healthy and effective boundaries for couples can be modeled after an egg. This model of a healthy relationship with boundaries features the egg’s qualities of opacity and fragility.

The quality of opacity refers to treating intimate topics as private and confidential. Healthy couples do not share their disagreements and decision-making methods with others, which protects the relationship from enmeshment. The fragility of the egg reminds intimate partners that their relationship must be protected from others who do not have sufficient boundaries and involve themselves in the intimate matters of others.

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