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Issue 89, June 2005

Emotional Support for Carers

Adam McLean, Counselling Co-ordinator, Carers NSW
Setting Boundaries in Your Relationships

Setting limits in relationships is not easy at the best of times. In a healthy relationship we strive to have a relationship with our partner that is based on those things that are important to both. The goal in an intimate relationship is to feel calm, centred and focussed. The intimacy needs to be safe, supportive, respectful, non-punitive and peaceful, so that you feel part of something important and not alone. In a healthy relationship you experience forgiving and being forgiven without revenge or reminders of past offences. In a healthy relationship, you are free to be who you are rather than who you think you need to be for the sake of your partner. When limits or boundaries are not set or keep changing without open communication or discussion, difficulties can arise.

You may remember from last month’s Carers News , the young couple at the bus stop. Although we didn’t know the content of their argument each responded differently. One withdrew and in response the other moved closer, until the one withdrawing moved closer to join the other to comfort and support them. You can imagine that both have their own boundaries in the relationship, but there is also a third boundary at play, the boundary of the relationship itself. When one part of the relationship changes it can challenge the existing relationship boundary and in effect, challenge the relationship. Boundaries in any relationships with partners, children, family members or workplace colleagues are constantly under threat of challenge.

Relationships in the caring context can become empty, filled with deep resentment and hurt. Resentment can build on the part of the carer because they give so much that they have nothing left for themselves or for a healthy relationship. In a recent survey of carers and their health and wellbeing, 67% of carers reported that their overall mental and emotional wellbeing had been affected, one way or another, and 85% of those affected reported that caring had made their mental and emotional health and wellbeing worse. In comparison, only 10% of carers reported satisfaction or fulfillment from their caring role (CAA 2000). These results show that carers’ relationships can and do suffer

In the Commonwealth Carer Resource Centre, we hear about relationship issues that carers face. We hear that in the caring role it is not always possible to maintain clear boundaries. There are many reasons for this, but it’s clear that some carers don’t realise that they have lost their sense of self and their boundaries. Carers show anxiety when we discuss boundaries and setting limits; and fear of the changes to the existing relationship boundary that this could bring about. The individual boundaries have blurred, and one party is more dominant or powerful than the other, while the relationship boundary has become fixed. This dynamic was set up for good reason - an unchanging relationship can offer safety and security, for example - but over time and as the caring role continues it can prevent change. Those individuals within the relationship boundary are reluctant to challenge the boundaries and run the risk of being stuck.

You can challenge unhealthy boundaries in relationships by setting aside time to nurture and care for yourself. Decide how much time you will give, set limits on how much you will emotionally invest in your relationships by recognising the emotional hooks, which keep you stuck in your relationships. An example of an emotional hook might be the fear of being judged or criticised, or never saying no for fear of upsetting the other person. You need to open lines of communication so that all problems are openly discussed and creatively resolved. Learn to say ‘NO’ without feeling guilty by saying it over and over again until it becomes a habit. Then you can begin to give up the need to control your relationships with partners, family members and other people. This will include identifying controlling behaviours, which weaken boundaries such as, the need to fix; the need to be a caretaker; and that you are powerless to control and change your relationship.

Regardless of your stage in caring or life, it’s never too late to build a healthy relationship. By recognising the control issues which weaken your boundaries, you can begin to change your relationships with yourself, the person you care for, as well as family and friends, for the better.

1. Results of the 1999 National Survey of Carer Health and Wellbeing. Warning - caring is a health hazard. Carers Association of Australia, (2000).
2. Tools for Coping with Life’s Stressors. Source: http:// www.coping.org

“Carers News” The Newsletter of Carers NSW Inc, December 2004/January 2005.
“Gateway “ Australian Huntington Disease Assoc (NSW) Inc Vol 8 No 2 March/April 2005

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