The importance of boundaries in love – to avoid the ‘tragedy of the commons’
Many psychologists, pop and serious, write about ‘boundaries’: at work, in relationships, with children…for everything. (The undisputed kings in this discipline are probably Cloud and Townsend http://www.cloudtownsend.com/) The essence of a boundary is to appropriately protect oneself, body and mind, from unwanted intrusion. It ensures that each individual is responsible for his or her actions without unloading their consequences on others. The boundary can be established by saying No, by removing oneself from a situation, or by bringing in observers, for example. It turns out, find the psychologists, that establishing boundaries is an important prerequisite for healthy relationships. They are essential to define one’s personality, to ensure a fair and equal communication and to conserve vital energy.
From an Economist’s point of view, these boundaries are nothing other than….property rights! Their existence is crucial for prosperous investment, and their absence results in over-use (read: abuse) of resources. The phenomenon was first mentioned in the ‘tragedy of the commons’, an essay based on the discovery that the commons, common property pastures in the middle of a town, were usually over-used and ill-treated, to the point of endangering their sustainability. The reason is that one co-owner of the commons could unload the consequences of his actions (economist’s say ‘externality’) onto other co-users. Over-harvesting the grass so that new peasants couldn’t harvest any more. Who cared. The commons were everyone’s property. There were no individual property rights and no…boundaries.
Turns out the same can happen in relationships. A person without boundaries, who readily absorbs the other’s ‘externalities’ (eg putting up with constant lateness, rude and put-down remarks, or otherwise respectless behavior) will find him- or herself over-used to the point of exhaustion. Such an interaction can be very subtle as well as grave. The importance is to spot the disrespect of a natural boundary (emotional, physical, financial…), to name and shame it, or exit, if the naming has no effect.
Empirically, if boundaries or property rights are well enforced, investments will blossom. The owning individual will be able to reap the payoffs of his/her own efforts without others stealing from them or imposing unwarranted costs. Therefore, making efforts in the first place becomes more attractive.