Setting Boundaries In Relationships – Insights from the Wilderness #169

When You Set Boundaries In A Relationship Is That A Form Of Blackmail Or Resorting To Threat?

Setting Boundaries In Relationships Are you comfortable setting boundaries on another person’s behaviors?

I recently received a question from a reader asking me if setting a boundary in a relationship is a form of blackmail or resorting to the use of threats. His psychologist said it was. How would you respond to this question?

Here is how I answered him.

I encouraged him to picture himself inside a transparent bubble that completely surrounds his physical body. Everything inside that bubble is his personal space.

I then reminded him that we all have the right and the personal responsibility to set boundaries to protect our personal space when another person is violating that space; physically, psychologically, or emotionally. In fact, if we fail to set a boundary to protect ourselves, we are choosing to accept the role of a victim. We are tacitly condoning the other person’s behavior and giving them permission to enter our personal space—– even when that behavior has become abusive.

Stated simply, we always have the right to say no, enough, and stop when another person is not behaving in a way that is respectful of our personal space.

For example, “I understand you would like a cup of tea. But it is three o’clock in the morning and you are capable of getting up quietly and making your own tea. So no, I will not get up and make you a cup of tea. This is the second time this week that you have woken me in the middle of the night to make you tea—-two hours before I have to get up and go to work. If it happens again, you will be making your own breakfast for the next month. Good night”.

I told him that a boundary does not have to be established with anger, it does not have to be an implied threat, nor does it have to be aggressively stated as a form of blackmail. A boundary can be made after we have had multiple discussions with someone to change a disrespectful behavior. Or we can set a boundary immediately if the behavior is severe or threatening to ourselves or to someone we need to protect such as a child.

Setting Boundaries In Relationships

A boundary is simply affirming the basic reality or universal principle that every choice and every behavior we choose to make, or choose not to make, will always create an outcome or a consequence.

When we set a boundary on another person’s behaviors, we are simply telling them that they have entered our personal space, or the personal space of someone we need to protect, with an unacceptable behavior. And we are being clear with them what the consequence of that behavior will be if they choose to do it again. We are not blackmailing them, nor are we threatening them. We are quietly and simply affirming their right to make a choice, and reminding them what the consequence will be if they choose to repeat the unacceptable behavior. It is always our right to set a boundary whether the other person agrees or disagrees with our boundary. A clearly stated boundary is simply affirming their right to choose what outcome they would like. It’s their call; their choice.

I also reminded him that we should never establish a boundary that we are not prepared to follow through on. The power of our boundary is based on the knowledge that we always follow through on them. In the case of the example above, the other person will most certainly be making their own breakfast for the next month if they choose to ignore the boundary.


Follow through is especially important when setting realistic and respectful boundaries on children. We need to choose our boundaries carefully and then always follow through on them. This will help them internalize the concept that their choices will always create an outcome. Children need to know they can trust that the boundaries are real. Over time, that trust will help them to make more responsible choices. In other words, never get in the way of an outcome or consequence a child has chosen. And never lecture them after a bad choice. The consequence of a reasonable boundary will teach the lesson—not our lecture!

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One Response to Setting Boundaries In Relationships – Insights from the Wilderness #169

  1. Linda Deakin October 24, 2013 at 5:59 pm #

    Very good article Dick and somewhat timely I feel. Okay, so you set a boundary with someone who is verbally abusive ie….. “If you keep yelling and being verbally abusive I will have to leave for a while until you cool down”. So then you follow through with your boundary setting. So now two years later, it happens way less often, but it is still happens occasionally. I’m aware change takes time, so how much time do you give a person to change their behaviour?

    Many thanks

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