Navigating life after you decide to end your marriage can feel messy, especially if there are reasons you need to stay in contact, such as co-parenting duties, business activities, or even simply a shared friend group. Even if you resolve the legal aspects of your divorce amicably, the emotional aftermath can still prove challenging.
How do you keep things civil and drama-free as you craft a new life together but apart? While no one solution works for every relationship, most divorced or divorcing partners can benefit from establishing thoughtful but clear boundaries.
What are boundaries, and why are they important?
Boundaries can be physical (think fences) or emotional (refusing to talk about certain things with certain people). They separate one sphere from another.
In relationships, boundaries help to define where one person ends and the other begins. Boundaries help you figure out how you want to be treated by others and the kind of support you are willing and able to offer someone else (for example, emotional, physical, financial, etc.).
The boundaries you hold with different people will differ based on their involvement in your life and how they’ve treated you in the past. For example, you may have different boundaries for physical contact with an ex than with a parent (one you don’t hug, the other you may). You may talk about deeply personal things with a sibling that would be off-limits with co-workers or neighbors. (Or, depending on the people in your lives, it could be completely the opposite!)
Boundaries also exist in romantic and intimate relationships, although they may be unspoken, complex, and shifting. They can change as you get to know yourself—and your partner—better.
Boundaries can have negative connotations, but even healthy relationships involve boundaries. In fact, boundary setting is often what makes those relationships healthy in the first place. Anger, resentment, miscommunication, and unmet needs are actually more likely to plague relationships that lack boundaries because neither partner knows what the other needs to be happy.
Whether you’re hoping to stay friends with your ex or you just need to maintain an effective co-parenting relationship, it’s possible to set firm boundaries without being disrespectful or unkind. Creating boundaries can protect your mental health and help you feel more comfortable in new relationships while giving you space and time to heal.
Setting boundaries in nuanced situations during divorce
Keep in mind that your goals may differ depending on your relationship with your ex.
If you’re in the midst of a painful-but-amicable divorce, your boundaries will differ significantly from those of someone who is separating from someone with narcissistic personality disorder or another mental illness, ending an abusive or toxic relationship, or experiencing a high-conflict divorce.
In complex cases like these, it’s even more important to work closely with a divorce attorney (and other related resources) to understand your options and the protections you may need to support your well-being. This could look like establishing a parenting plan that supports parallel parenting or coming up with strategies for documenting violations of boundaries in case you need to take legal action.
Three steps to creating effective boundaries with your ex
Boundaries don’t magically appear in a relationship. Someone has to communicate, implement, and enforce them. As overwhelming as that can feel when you’re getting a divorce, it’s important to do because, ultimately, setting boundaries is about acknowledging and accepting that your needs are important.
Following these five steps can simplify the boundary-setting process for you.
1. Define your goals
It’s a good idea to spend time thinking about your goals for a relationship with your ex. Questions you might ask yourself include:
- Is it important that both of you maintain relationships with your mutual friends?
- Are you comfortable with your ex following you on social media?
- Do you want to maintain relationships with their family or vice versa?
- Do in-person conversations make you feel uncomfortable?
- What is the most comfortable way to communicate with them?
- What do you want conversations about issues with the kids to look like?
When relationships end, it’s normal to be really firm with establishing or maintaining the easiest or most obvious boundary, which may not be the most important boundary long-term.
If you know your goals, it’s easier to set healthy boundaries from the start rather than trying to get the cat back in the bag further down the road. This doesn’t mean your boundaries can’t change in the future, but protecting yourself during a vulnerable time should be your priority now.
Keep in mind that if you are leaving a relationship with an abusive or narcissistic partner, or one who has another personality disorder, mental illness, or untreated addiction, goals for your boundaries may be informed by guidance from your legal team and/or mental health professionals.
2. Set expectations
Once you know what your goals and related boundaries are, you need to communicate them to your ex. How and when you do this will vary based on how contentious (or not) your relationship is, but it’s best to explain what your expectations are and the consequences of not meeting them.
Don’t get dragged into a fight about the whys behind your boundaries—the point isn’t to re-litigate the past but rather to set up new rules for moving forward in the way that feels right for you.
For example, say your ex still calls you for support every time something goes wrong at work or on a date, but you have a boundary of not providing constant emotional support. It might be tempting to say, “You can’t keep calling me every time something happens to you. That’s not my job anymore.” While true, “you” statements are prone to make your ex angry and defensive.
Instead, you could say, “I don’t believe I’m the right person for this type of conversation based on where our relationship is at this stage. Please call someone else for things like this.”
Managing your boundaries throughout your divorce
Your boundaries may be informed by where you’re at in your divorce process, your relationship with your ex, and the guidance of your attorney and support system. For example, if you’re in the middle of a high-conflict divorce, you may work with your attorney to identify productive boundaries to establish and ways to communicate them so your legal matters can proceed as smoothly as possible.
If your relationship allows it, and you (and your attorney) think it could be helpful, meeting with your ex to establish your individual boundaries is an option. Other professionals can help you communicate boundaries as well, such as therapists who specialize in divorce processes.
Whether you have a joint conversation to establish your boundaries at the outset or explain your boundaries to your ex as issues arise, avoid getting dragged into an emotional argument.
Your ex may get upset when you communicate and enforce your boundaries, but if they try to pull you into a power struggle, remember that you are under no obligation to manage their emotions. You don’t have to justify your boundaries or respond to every unkind or untrue statement they make. You can stay calm and simply remove yourself from the situation.
3. Enforce consequences
When people say setting boundaries is hard, what they really mean is that enforcing boundaries is hard. But a boundary without consequences is ineffective.
Again, your ex may react badly when you make the proposed consequences a reality (like not answering their calls). Consequences aren’t about getting revenge or punishing your ex. Instead, they’re about protecting yourself from mental and emotional stress and distinguishing your new life from your old one as much as possible.
Enforcing a boundary one time likely won’t be enough to make it stick. But don’t lose hope. As hard as it feels at first, consistently following through on communicating and enforcing your boundaries means you’re prioritizing your well-being. And it does get easier with practice.
As noted above, there’s a difference between setting rules for being friends with an ex and exposing yourself repeatedly to an abusive situation or one where you are trying to extricate from someone with narcissism or another personality disorder. In the latter situations, it’s best to distance yourself, follow your team’s recommendations, and, if necessary for your safety, take full advantage of legal protections to keep yourself and your family safe.
A New Jersey family law attorney can help
It can be difficult to communicate and enforce boundaries and even to identify the ones that will best support you throughout your divorce and beyond. At Jacobs Berger, we recognize that every situation is unique and that our clients thrive when they have the right tools to plan for their future beyond the divorce decree. We’re here to help you navigate it all. To get started, schedule your strategy session with our team.