Recognizing and Responding to Teen Dating Violence Toolkit

4.1 Relationships and Boundaries

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We look to social media and the people around us to see whether our relationships and behavior are typical, because we want to belong and fit in. When looking at social media, television, or in friends and relatives’ relationships, we see what someone wants us to see. We tend to forget that we only see the highlights of a person’s life on social media, and that we do not know what happens in a person’s relationship behind closed doors. A girl at school may look like she has a great life because she posts pictures of her vacations, date nights with her partner, and activities she does with her friends. This is curated content. She is not posting about the fights she had with her family on vacation, that her partner made her cry during the date, and that her friends spread rumors about her. Social media does not show everything about a person and their life. It is important to remember this, especially when comparing aspects of our life to those online. We see what someone wants us to see. This is true whether it is a friend, family member, or someone we have never met.

We all have happy times and challenging times in relationships, including those with family, friends, peers, coworkers, and acquaintances. It is through these relationships that we learn how to trust others and ourselves. We learn that while conflict may be present in romantic relationships, it is not always a negative thing. The importance of communication is also a skill learned through relationships. We learn what is important to us, how to set boundaries, what we will and will not tolerate, and when it is time to end a relationship.

We can be friends with and date people who aren’t bad, but when we start asking ourselves how we feel when we are around them, we discover that we don’t like how we feel when we are around them, or that we become the worst version of ourselves when we spend time with them. Questions to ask include:

Identifying how we feel when we are around a person can alert us to things our body can sense that our brain is not yet aware of.

What are boundaries?

Boundaries are like fences. Fences can prevent unwanted people from coming inside property lines, but they also keep those inside the property line safe. Different relationships, for example, those with family members, friends, coworkers, classmates, and partners, will require different boundaries. Simply said, our boundaries tell people how they can talk to, be around, spend time with, and have access to us.

Simply said, our boundaries tell people how they can talk to, be around, spend time with, and have access to us.

There are different kinds of boundaries, but the two biggest ones are physical boundaries and emotional boundaries. Physical boundaries include how a person can touch or hug us, if at all, and how much personal space we require. Emotional boundaries include how much we share about ourselves and how we allow someone to speak to us. We are responsible for communicating (verbally and nonverbally) what our boundaries are and when they are crossed. This lets the other person know that if they want to continue to be around us, they must respect our boundaries. If someone chooses to not respect our boundaries, then we have to make the decision whether or not to allow that person in our lives.

Boundaries can be different from person to person. For example, we may feel comfortable front hugging one friend, and only side hugging another. Boundaries can also change over time. For example, we may feel comfortable talking to a friend about something that happened to us when we were younger, but over time, we feel less emotionally safe with that person and no longer want to talk about those things. Setting boundaries and recognizing and respecting other people’s boundaries are crucial elements in a healthy relationship.

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What does this look like in real life?

A boyfriend tells his partner that he does not share the passwords to his social media accounts with anyone, including his partners. His partner gets angry, threatens to leave him, and falsely accuses him of cheating to get him to share his passwords. He stays firm with his boundaries and says he will not share them. The partner continues to threaten and increasingly demand that the passwords are shared to prove that he isn’t cheating. At this point, the boyfriend has a choice. He can give his partner the passwords, which shows the partner that he will give into any demands in the future when the partner falsely accuses and threatens him, or he can choose to end the relationship.

It may be that we don’t want to end the relationship, instead we create very strong boundaries for that person. For example, a mother speaks poorly about her partner to her son. The son tells his mother that he will end the conversation by hanging up, not responding, or walking away if she does this again. He then follows through on his promise and ends the conversation every time she speaks poorly about her partner, therefore setting a boundary.

Setting and maintaining boundaries

It may be hard for us to know what our boundaries are when we have a history of abuse and trauma because our boundaries have been violated and ignored. We need to know how we want to be treated in our relationships with friends, family, and dating relationships, and we may need professionals to help us in this area. A licensed mental health provider, such as a licensed professional counselor (LPC) or licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) can help with identifying and setting boundaries and working through abuse and trauma.

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Some people may act as if something is a joke just to see how we respond. For example, our partner says, “I don’t like that you have guy friends. I want you all to myself” when we talk about our guy friends. Even if it is said as a joke or in a flirtatious manner, we can take the opportunity to tell our partner that we are not okay with anyone telling us who we can be friends with. Saying “I get to decide who my friends are. If you tell me I can’t have guy friends, then I will be spending even more time with them” sets a boundary. We need to maintain that boundary by repeating what our boundary is every time it is crossed, and following through with an action if it continues. If we don’t say anything to our partner, then our partner may think that we are okay with those comments, and they may demand more and more changes in our behavior. As the adage goes, “You give an inch, they take a mile.” A person who is insecure, for example, will never feel reassured by the actions we do or do not take. There will never be enough that we can do to help another person feel secure or happy. We keep giving, and they will keep taking.

  • Resources

  • Creating Boundaries in Romantic Relationships
    • Love is Respect offers guidance on establishing boundaries in romantic relationships and taking steps to increase personal safety.
  • Teen Dating Violence Awareness Digital Toolkit
    • Texas Council on Family Violence provides an interactive toolkit with guides, tip sheets, a dating bill of rights, and other specific resources for teens.
  • That’s Not Cool Initiative
    • Developed by Futures Without Violence in collaboration with the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women and the Advertising Council, this program aims to raise awareness and offer tools to combat dating violence and digital abuse.
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