A recent study from Bumble found that 63% of modern daters report being clearer regarding their boundaries and needs. And to ensure they’re protected before the relationship even starts, many are going into relationships by “guardrailing” – setting boundaries that protect you from giving too much time, energy, or devotion to someone you won’t get all that back from. Is this a good way to approach relationships, or will putting up guardrails just end up off the rails?
What Are Boundaries?
To know what guardrailing is, we have to define the word “boundaries,” which is an integral part of the process.
“I would define boundaries as a physical, emotional, or mental line that protects me,” says Dr. Mario Rocha, PsyD LMFT, a licensed couples therapist. “To quote Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend ‘A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins.'”
While setting boundaries in a relationship off the bat can be helpful, Dr. Rocha says, one needs self-awareness and an understanding of the difference between healthy and unhealthy boundaries. Boundaries that are too rigid or particular might protect the boundary-setter. But they can also be leveraged as an excuse to justify selfish behavior or keep an unnatural emotional distance.
“I have a well-respected colleague who once said, ‘There is a difference between a boundary and a barrier,'” he adds. “Sometimes we can think we have strong boundaries when, in fact, we have barriers.”
“Having healthy boundaries does not automatically mean we exit the relationship because we are unhappy,” Dr. Rocha says. “The biggest problem I see is not knowing when or how to set a boundary – which includes strong communication skills, self-awareness, saying no, saying yes, conflict management, and dealing with our own ‘baggage.'”
Do Good Boundaries Lead to Healthy Guardrailing?
To Dr. Rocha, “guardrailing” sounds like it aspires to describe healthy boundaries – and the phenomenon has some good points.
“I agree that we need to have clear boundaries, communicate our boundaries, and allow each person to feel safe in the relationship,” he says. “But we do run the risk of oversimplifying or misinterpreting what it means to have boundaries.”
By jumping into a relationship already limiting the amount of time, energy, or effort you’re spending on the other person, Dr. Rocha says, you can forget that those are the things a good relationship will take. And while you don’t have to be obsessive or put yourself out for someone you don’t know too well, you shouldn’t be putting guardrails on a relationship before knowing more.
“Being in a relationship also means learning how to handle and overcome conflict,” Dr. Rocha says. “A problem that I see sometimes in therapy is that someone with strong, rigid boundaries can push people away, or they can be very confrontational when they feel threatened in any way. This can be harmful to relationship building because people can perceive a normal relationship conflict as a threat.”
What to Do With Guardrailing
If you go on a date with someone who mentions that they’re guardrailing or start to hear that work floating around your own relationship – and even if you’re thinking about guardrailing yourself – Dr. Rocha says that the first thing to do is think about why.
“We could be defending against the feeling of vulnerability; if we have had trauma or dysfunctional relationships in the past, we can be resistant to feeling vulnerable.”
If one wants to have a healthy relationship, Dr. Rocha adds, whether you’re guardrailing or not, it’s vital to take the time to have meaningful conversations that ensure everyone involved is “on the same page.”
“As we get to know someone and they have earned our trust, the guard should slowly start to come down,” Dr. Rocha says. “This is not always an easy process. And if you have had trouble with boundaries in past relationships or your family of origin, I would suggest discussing these issues with a qualified psychotherapist.”