UNDERWOOD: Friendships and boundaries in work and personal life

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By Rick Underwood

One of the things that make life more meaningful and or more complex is the way we negotiate the boundaries in our friendships. Whether in our personal lives or at work, if we are vigilant about setting and renegotiating good healthy interpersonal boundaries life can be richer and more fulfilling.

On the other hand, if we aren’t clear, don’t communicate, or don’t reinforce our needs and wishes, others will take advantage of us and silent or overt conflict will result. In this brief article we will explore the nature of friendships, the importance of boundary making and some tips for avoiding problems.



Since the beginning of time friendships have generally been characterized as mutually intimate, loyal, reciprocal, and caring bonds between two people.

Since the Greek philosophers began to write about the nature of friendships, some things have remained. For example, there are three reasons we establish friendships. First, we develop relationships with certain people for what they can do for us. Second, friendships emerge because we discover we enjoy spending time with another person. And third, we tend to be drawn to others whose values and or character we like.

Modern psychology has added some additional reasons why we are attracted to particular friends.  First, we may be unconsciously attracted to a person who possesses temperament traits similar or opposite to ours. For example, a person who is introverted or shy might be drawn to a more outgoing or extroverted person. Additionally, since we are all searching for a soul mate, we might be unconsciously attracted to a person who represents the worst and the best of our early nurturing. We become attracted for some of the reasons already mentioned and then because there is an initial connection we believe that this person will make us whole. Unfortunately, many times the opposite occurs. For example, if we had a care giver who was emotionally distant and this new friend initially at an unconscious level reminds us of those early interactions we might feel close to them. As we spend time together conflicts of unmet expectations begin to emerge. Some typical examples would be as follows. Women who are drawn to men who need to be taken care of;  women who hook up with men who are distant, neglectful or abusive; or men who pick nurturing women who they think will take care of them. These kinds of patterns get played out most often in close personal friendships but the same dynamics can also emerge in work relationships.

Friendships typically move through predictable stages: acquaintance; friend, good friend, close friend, best friend, and in some cases romantic friend. The huge challenge is balancing each person’s needs for distance and closeness. Typically, we move between one of two extremes: emotional cut off and enmeshment. As the above mentioned dynamics play out in the development of a friendship, conflicts and anger often arise. Studies show that the most frequent way of dealing with these conflicts is passivity. Rather than confronting or trying to discuss the underlying feelings and or needs that are related to boundary setting, we simple allow the friendship to fade away or cut them off. Certainly there are times when one or the other person moves on or away and the distance makes it impossible to maintain the same level of friendship.



An interpersonal boundary is the emotional or physical space between two people or two departments that provides a feeling of safety, respect and comfort. When this space is violated intentionally or unintentionally, it creates potential problems. When this space is honored the opposite occurs.

Physical boundaries are easier to negotiate. A person for example who isn’t comfortable being touched or hugged can make that explicit without being offensive.  Certainly, physical or verbal abuse should not be tolerated. Other kinds of physical boundaries that may get violated in the workplace are issues related to work responsibilities, to whom you report, who gives you feedback about your performance, who sets the priorities for work, and how personal or company information is kept secure.

Emotional boundaries are more complex for some of the reasons already discussed and because they can be very subtle.  A few examples:

  • Feelings – telling another what to feel or claiming we know how they feel.
  • Intentions – assuming we know what another thinks or wants or expecting another to know what our unspoken wishes are.
  • Beliefs – speaking for another person or telling a person who they should believe or think.
  • Conversations – talking about sexual, religious, or political subjects that the other person has indicated no interest in discussing.

These subtle but non-the-less potentially damaging boundary violations are very difficult to negotiate.


Some tips for setting clear interpersonal boundaries

The conventional way to establish boundaries in the work place are to be sure that each person has a detailed job description that addresses the issues mentioned above and much more.  Moreover, there should be on-going discussions about responsibilities, goals, priorities by all parties involved.  We need to know our limits and our abilities and be able to communicate what we are able to do within proper time frames.

Good communication skills are essential in resolving conflicts that arise from encroaching upon other’s boundaries.  A balance between given enough information, thoughts, wants, needs, and feelings with a willingness to actively listen can enhance relationships and help resolve misunderstandings and conflict.

Friendships in our personal lives are more difficult because we don’t have written job descriptions or the holding power of family or marital ties.  The most important thing in managing the space in our friendships is to know ourselves.  If we don’t know what we value, want, feel, and need in relationships, it will be very difficult to have healthy friendships.

Courage is the next quality that gives us the strength to say what we like and dislike. Unless others know where we stand then they will have a difficult time decided where we end and they begin. In the midst of negotiating boundaries and how close or distant we want to be in a friendship it is very important we know how to soothe ourselves when stress and tension arise.

Otherwise we will either want to fight, run away or freeze up. It is also helpful to be able to reflect on our past behavior and try to discern which of our behaviors or healthy and which or unhealthy. Insights gained may help us avoid the trap of repeating unhealthy patterns in relationships discussed earlier. Talking about how we feel with our friends must be an on-going process whether with friends at work or in our personal lives.

Even though friendships and boundaries are hard sometimes, life without friendships would be void and dull.


Rick Underwood is minister at Hempridge Baptist Church and a performance consultant and managing partner of the Leadership Management Institute. He can be reached at nextlevelinstitute@insightbb.com.