Defending Boundaries

The following post is an excerpt from John Lee’s new book “24  Things To Increase the Emotional Intelligence of Your Man.” To find other books by John Lee visit his website and

An important part of setting good boundaries is being able to stick with them and appropriately defend them when necessary. A few months ago I was teaching a workshop on Boundaries and Limits. About three hours into the presentation, after hearing me say for the third or fourth time, “A boundary that can’t be defended is not a real boundary but just a really good idea,” Tom raised his hand and said, “I set good boundaries with my mother when I go to see her but she refuses to acknowledge them. But it’s not because I don’t have them, she just ignores them.”

“Then they’re not really boundaries because real boundaries can’t be ignored. Think of the fence around your house. If you don’t open the gate, or tear down the fence or let your neighbor tear it down then they can’t come into your space. Do you agree?” I asked him.

“No, I don’t. Let me give you a personal example and you’ll see what I mean. I set a boundary and she ignores it and then I get very angry. Well, no, to be honest I get enraged. See, I go over for dinner every Sunday. She’s all alone now that my father is dead. We sit down and I put on my plate what I want and then she puts food on my plate that she wants me to eat, like Brussels sprouts, which I hate.  I tell her I don’t want them and I don’t want her to put food on my plate, that it’s my plate!” He paused.

“So what happened?” one of the workshop participants asks.

Tom continued his story. “She puts the food on every time. I set a boundary and she ignores it every time so it’s not that I don’t make boundaries clear.”

I asked this man, who owned his own auto repair shop, how old he was?

“I’ll be thirty-two next month. What has that got to do with anything?”

You could hear the irritation in his voice.

“What do you want me to do?” he said, his face red with anger, “Throw the food in her face? She’s my mother for Christ’s sake.”

“No, that would be rage not defending a boundary.”

Another workshop participant offered this suggestion. “How about saying something like, ‘Mom, if you keep putting food on my plate, I’m leaving.’”

From all the nodding in the room, I could tell most of the workshop participants liked that idea, but it wasn’t the right choice either.

“No, that’s a threat,” I said.

Most of the men I’ve worked with over the years that have boundary issues tend to think there are really only two ways to defend a boundary. One is to leave the person who tends to ignore their boundaries or do something like what Tom said, “Throw the food in her face” or some other violent or aggressive act.

So what would be a good way for Tom to defend his boundaries with his mother? Next time he speaks to her he could say, “Mom, I won’t be coming home for Sunday dinner anymore. I’ll be coming over on Sunday afternoon for tea only.”

Or, “Mom, I’ve already eaten, I’ll sit here and watch you eat.” If she asks him why not, he can answer, “When I’m eating with you I don’t feel respected.”

There are other options than just fight or flight, but Tom’s vision was clouded and obviously his issue with his mother was long standing.

QUESTION: With whom have you tried to set boundaries and found they were ignored?

John Lee

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John Lee has been a leader and author in men’s health issues for over a decade. Lee began his career as a professor at Austin Community College, the University of Alabama, and the University of Texas. He has written 18 self-help, psychology, recovery, creativity, or relationship non-fiction books that explore men’s health issues, like alcoholism and co-dependency. In addition to literature, Lee has advocated for the maintenance and improvement of men’s health in magazines, like Newsweek and on shows such as Oprah and 20/20. In 1986, Lee co-founded Primary, Emotional, Energy, Recovery (P.E.E.R.), a training program for counselors, social workers, and psychotherapists. Two years later, he founded and directed Austin’s Men’s Center, a counseling center that specializes in men’s issues. In the late 1980’s, he opened his own private practice in Austin, Texas specializing in men’s issues, relationships, adult children of alcoholics, and co-dependency. His latest two books, The Anger Solution and When the Buddha Met Bubba, are on sale now on More information about John Lee can be found on his web site and on his daily blog at

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