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Unconditional Love & Setting Boundaries in Relationships

by Anna Green

Unconditional love is a type of caring affection that endures no matter what type of behavior one exhibits. It is a common among family members, but can occur in romantic partnerships, explains Jeremy Nicholson, M.S.W., Ph.D. in “Psychology Today.” While unconditional love can be healthy, such strong feelings may require individuals to set boundaries -- or guidelines for appropriate actions and interpersonal connections -- in order to preserve their own emotional well-being.

Healthy Boundaries

Although everyone has different comfort levels when it comes to personal boundaries, a good boundary allows both you and your loved one to function as autonomous individuals. Likewise, even if you love someone unconditionally, having a healthy boundary means that one individual does not abuse another, take advantage of their kindness or take them for granted.

Enmeshment

Enmeshment is a boundary problem that may come with loving someone unconditionally. In enmeshed relationships, individuals struggle to distinguish their own identities from the identity of a loved one or even an entire family, states clinical social worker Marla K. Ruhana in "Coping with the Enmeshed Family". The Family Center. While close, loving relationships are valuable and can be positive, when unconditional love turns into enmeshment, this can lead to numerous social and psychological difficulties. “Enmeshment leads to shame and shame often leads to depression, anxiety, alcoholism, drug abuse, eating disorders, compulsive gambling, sexual addiction, and other addictive behaviors as well as family violence,” explains licensed clinical social worker Beth Watson in her article "What is Enmeshment?"

Defining Comfortable Boundaries

If your unconditional love for a partner or family member makes you feel used, ashamed, angry or hurt, figuring out what type of boundaries you need can be a good step toward preserving your loving relationship without compromising your basic needs. “Boundaries aren’t just a sign of a healthy relationship; they’re a sign of self-respect,” explains Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. of Psych Central. Thus, it is important for you to define what you need to meet your own needs: for example, recognition of your efforts, respect or space to pursue your own hobbies and interests.

Setting Boundaries

If you have few boundaries in your relationship, starting the process of establishing limits -- while still expressing unconditional love -- may be difficult. Because of this difficulty, start with small steps, first explaining to your loved one what you need. For example, if you feel like your loved one is intruding on your life, start simple, for instance, by asking this individual to call before he comes over to your house. As you begin to feel more comfortable setting boundaries, you can set more limits. This is not always an easy process, however. Feeling guilty is normal at first, reassures Tartakovsky.

About the Author

Anna Green has been published in the "Journal of Counselor Education and Supervision" and has been featured regularly in "Counseling News and Notes," Keys Weekly newspapers, "Travel Host Magazine" and "Travel South." After earning degrees in political science and English, she attended law school, then earned her master's of science in mental health counseling. She is the founder of a nonprofit mental health group and personal coaching service.

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