Updated: Apr 6
A lot of people find it difficult to stay consistent with their boundaries and that is where boundary contracts can be useful.
As a lawyer, I find that applying legal skills and critical approaches to parts of my life that are usually governed by emotional thinking helps me think more clearly and allows for more effective problem-solving.
Boundaries in relationships are one of those areas that can benefit from more precision and logical thinking. Considering a relationship as a contract, with boundaries as terms of that contract, helps us pre-define areas which can cause confusion or which may be prone to future misunderstanding.
I came up with this way of thinking about boundaries when I was putting together my self-care course in 2020, because I realised that boundaries are just a set of terms with consequences, just as in a contract.
A boundary contract is a written document which helps define both parties' obligations and clearly specifies what happens when those obligations are breached.
Every relationship we have with a person or thing is governed by an unwritten contract - a set of terms, obligations and expectations. However, problems arise because we never really verbalise them and we never actually know the contract we are signing up to!
We can use boundary contracts to hold ourselves accountable to our own boundaries (for example, a contract with yourself when embarking on a new fitness regime). But even if they involve another person, even if we never share the contract with the other person, they serve the same purpose; of getting clear and honest with ourselves on how we will treat ourselves, and how we will let other people treat us.
In an intimate relationship, it is a really useful way of opening discussion on key areas and clarifying the terms of your relationship. It's always better to have these kinds of negotiations in advance rather than getting to a point in any kind of relationship where one party says, 'But I never knew that's what you wanted! Or, 'You never said that is what would happen if I did that!'
These kinds of conversations happen because what is acceptable to one person, may be a deal breaker for another, and what is fine in one relationship, may not be not fine in another. This is why we need to communicate and we need a structure for that communication to enable negotiation to occur, and this is where the usefulness of boundary contracts can be seen.
Boundary contracts, therefore, provide a great jumping-off point to get clear on key issues and open the door for clear and honest communication.
In a previous post, I compared boundaries with fences, and while that is a helpful analogy, it has its limitations for, in reality, personal boundaries are not as clear-cut. We can't physically see them and so we have to define and create them to make them more obviously visible to other people. That is the main challenge we are tasked with when creating and upholding boundaries: firstly to know for ourselves what they are, and secondly to let others know what they are.
I had to create a boundary contract for myself when I was in a relationship that not only lacked boundaries, but also did not provide me with anything of what I needed.
I made myself a hypothetical relationship contract at that point, setting out what I expected, would not accept and how to resolve conflict, so that I knew going forward what my red lines were. But perhaps, most importantly, it gave me an opportunity, when I was at my most calm and rational, to decide what my standards were and what I would do if they were not met.
Without actually thinking about these things in advance we are at risk of making up rules inconsistently and sometimes we may find ourselves being over-reactive and harsh, and sometimes, we go the other way, and are far too lenient.
Most people do this when they are novices and just starting to be more assertive and test out their new ability to set boundaries and enforce them. But it takes practice to become proficient at being more assertive.
Sometimes boundary newbies fly off the handle at the smallest slight (probably because of built-up resentment) and sometimes they let terrible transgressions simply slide. Having thought about our boundaries in a logical and reasoned way ahead of time helps avoid this tendency towards either extreme.
If we write out a contract we can hold ourselves accountable and we can consult the contract to know whether a boundary has been violated without the temptation to talk ourselves out of it as we are so often prone to do in the heat of the moment
If it's in writing, and we have thought about it in advance, what we're basically saying is that this is a rule for our life, and it also spares us the agony and inefficiency of making decisions, which are similar, again and again.
You can create one of these for anything - from relationships with a specific person in your life or more generally how you're going to deal with specific situations or groups, like your family or your work colleagues.
So here is a very quick template you can use when doing your first boundary contract.
You can always rewrite these as you gain more insight into how and where your boundaries are being tested, and you may learn more through trial and error on the best ways for you of dealing with these issues.
However, you need to start somewhere - so here goes!
A simple boundary contract
Name the person or thing with whom you want to have a better, healthier relationship.
Your Red Lines
Now write out in list format what you will not, under any circumstances, accept going forward in this relationship or situation.
These are not just 'nice to haves' - these are things that are absolutely unacceptable. These are the things that, if they happened, would cause you to immediately terminate the relationship.
For some, this may be cheating, for example. Any kind of abuse should also be in this section. But it can also be something very specific to you, which goes against your core values.
Really think about this section, and what your red lines actually are, because you don't want to have to constantly revise this or backtrack and talk yourself into giving people a second chance. Be honest with yourself, because a red line for one person is not a red line for another. Cheating is a good example - some people can forgive, and some people absolutely cannot.
This is the section of no negotiation! So be extra careful and specific about what goes into this section.
Your Grey Lines
In the next part of the boundary contract is a section where you will write about other unacceptable behaviours. If these happen, they won't make you end the relationship immediately, but they will still have consequences for the other person or for yourself.
This is the part of the contract that tells us when enough is enough. How far we let something go before calling it a day. And what do we do to prevent things from escalating to the point of no return?
These are the small daily irritations, the marks of disrespect, which don't seem that serious taken individually, but which add up to the gradual encroachment of your boundaries and eat at your self-respect over time.
If you're doing one of these for your dating life, then it might be that something you include in this section is something along the lines of your partner being a little too flirtatious, or maybe having a wandering eye for women that walk past your table at dinner.
This section of the contract represents the famous grey areas - areas of life where everyone has different standards of what they consider acceptable.
The problem is, as they are a little more open to debate, these are those areas in which we frequently allow people to get away with things far too much.
The boundary contract helps turn these grey, blurry areas into something more black and white by setting up what we will do when these events occur using a simple, staged resolution process
In a legal contract, for example, you don't go straight to court when you have a problem with someone.
You first issue a warning, maybe then send a letter, then maybe send another letter, then you might have an informal sit-down or mediation, and then, if you still haven't resolved it, you may have to go to court - but this is usually a last resort.
Similarly, having a procedure in place on how to deal with these grey area violations of our personal boundaries means that we get to deal with things at an early stage, in a logical and measured manner.
It also encourages realism in relationships, because too often people can tell us to deal with these types of transgressions in an overly dramatic way. This is when your friend tells you to dump him when he was really late for the first date, or when he was rude to your mum.
Having levels of escalation helps keep emotions in check.
Boundaries are not always designed to shoot and kill the other person at the slightest error, they are not just for keeping everyone out, but to help choose the right ones to let in. When we get over zealous about defending boundaries, and patrol them like we are in military service, we do ourselves just as much harm as not having any boundaries at all!
For example, if you are doing this for your dating life then perhaps something in this section could be if the person you were dating is more than 30 minutes late. Not a red-line deal breaker for most people, but definitely cause for concern.
The first time it happens you may simply bring it to their attention in an informal way, the second time you may have more of a serious conversation, and the third time you may decide to walk away from the relationship.
A good way to figure out what should go into this area of the contract is to think about what kinds of things you have dealt with in the past in this area of life or this kind of relationship that has caused arguments or resentment in you, and include them here.
Remember each boundary contract is unique to the person or situation you are dealing with - for example, the ways in which you will deal with problems in a marriage you have already been in for 10 years will be different to how you deal with a brand new relationship. You wouldn't file for divorce if your husband was late three times in a row, but you may walk away from a relationship if it was a brand-new one
The point is, I can't tell you what should be in your contract because everyone's values are different. What one person thinks should end a relationship, another person would not be as bothered by.
But what I do want to show you is that whatever your values, however personally forgiving or lenient you consider yourself to be, writing your standards down will hold you accountable and ensure you enforce the standards you've decided on earlier.
And this is the start of having effective and workable boundaries.
Finally, the last section is for behaviours that you actively want to happen. You can't force someone to adopt these behaviours, but it is okay to have expectations from someone if they want to have a relationship with you.
For example, if you did this one for your ideal job situation, one of your requirements might be that you have a boss that gives you credit for your work and gives you regular feedback.
These 'green flags' are things that, if they didn't happen, are not deal breakers, or even things you view as a violation of your boundaries, but positive expectations that signal what could be better or improved
As your level of self-care and self-love grows, you will start looking, not just for the minimal, i.e. eliminating or handling toxic people, but you will want people and situations that actively add to your life.
In this way, the boundary contract is not just about holding ourselves to certain set standards but also serves as a wish list of an ideal reality to work towards.
I love boundary contracts. I love the clarity and certainty they provide. They can be used in so many ways and help you achieve a new level of accountability which can help escalate you to more personal power and self-awareness.
Writing your first contract can be a little complicated, and it does require some careful thought, because you'll realise that you haven't ever actually thought about how to deal with these situations before, or questioned yourself in such a deep way on your personal values and standards.
As such it's quite an enlightening exercise, but one which will, I promise, make a notable difference in your life.
Let me know how it goes ... and what you will put in your boundary contract.