“The purpose of having boundaries is to protect and take care of ourselves,” writes Robert Burney, in “Codependence: The Dance of Wounded Souls.” The term “boundaries” has been around for some time, and if ever a term needed an adjective before it, it would be “boundaries.” For instance, we want “healthy” boundaries, not “permanent” boundaries. We want “semi-permeable” boundaries, not “rigid” boundaries.

In other words, we want to be able to protect and take care of ourselves, but to also be able to enjoy healthy relationships. We want choice. What is appropriate for an intimate relationship is different than a work relationship, and what we ‘allow’ from our child is different than what we would allow with a peer or partner.

Let’s take a look at these two terms – boundaries and codependence – in terms of the new field of Emotional Intelligence.

A boundary as “something (a line, point or plane) that indicates or fixes a limit or extent.” We could look at it, in interpersonal relationships, as “the line between you and me.” Knowing where you leave off and the other person begins, but not just physically but emotionally and mentally as well. “Co-dependence” is apparently what happens when those lines get blurred.

And recalling back to Government 101 and the definition of “freedom” – “Your right to extend your fist ends at my nose.”

It’s for sure we need to be able to protect and take care of ourselves, but we also need to allow people into our lives intimately. The boundary can serve as a protection, but if not used properly, it becomes a prison.


A Line

Probably this happened to you at one time or other in your life, particularly if you shared a room with a sibling. You drew a line down the room and declared “This is MY side. You stay on YOUR side.” It may have been a real line, or it may have been imaginary. It was territorial – a way to take care of your things, and lessen fighting.

A Wall

Hadrian’s Wall is a famous boundary. One of the greatest monuments to the power that was Rome, it ran for 73 miles across open country between what is now Scotland and the UK (http://www.aboutscotland.com/hadrian/wall.html ). Ordered by the Emperor Hadrian, it was designed to keep the Celts back, to separate the “barbarians” from the Romans. It was a ‘line’ between the two territories and people, but being 10 Roman feet wide, and about 30 feet tall (as best I can tell), it was far more substantial than a line in the sand, or a piece of string across a bedroom.

A Picket Fence

Now, in terms of interpersonal relationships and “boundaries,” I prefer something more like a picket fence. Why? Because I don’t want a Hadrian’s wall in my life. The good guys couldn’t get across it, but it’s not likely to stop the bad guys.

The line? Well, I roomed with a sister, and she could still yell at me across the line, and torment me in other ways. In fact it was great fun for both of us to reach across the line.

A picket fence appeals to me because it has intervals, and could be protective “enough.” It would be a nice pleasant sign that I wanted to be treated well. I always picture it with red climbing roses all over it. Also it would take just enough effort to get “through”. As far as fences goes, it can’t really keep anything either in or out. It would just make them think (if a person) or slow down (if a dog or a person). It’s “symbolic.” Therefore, assertive rather than aggressive. It says “I want respect,” rather than, “I’m afraid you’ll disrespect me.”

But the main problem with all these analogies is they’re fixed, and relationships are not. There are times we want and must have a boundary. There are times when we want to be permeable and vulnerable, as in intimate relationships.

The Flood Gate

Now here’s a great analogy for letting things “in” and “out” – the floodgate. In emotional intelligence, we use it in terms of emotions. If we are “flooded” by an emotion, it overtakes us. It keeps us from thinking and responding. We are either paralyzed, or act immediately, as a reaction, whereas, except in truly life-threatening situations, a reasoned response is nearly always the best course of action.

It would be nice, as with a floodgate, to let the emotions in, but with care, and to let them out, but with care. To regulate it, yes?

For most of us, it will be the unwanted emotional and mental assault from others we need protection from. (If you are under threat of physical harm, please get help.)

Let’s say we’re tying to work on a project at work. It’s fairly unlikely someone at work will assault us physically. Instead, they might interrupt us and cause of to lose focus, or a boss might demean us, or a colleague might cry or have a temper tantrum in order to try and manipulate.

Unless you are truly an abused person, in which case please get therapy, it’s likely that this idea of “boundaries,” the floodgate, is more in line with getting some management into your life. Letting your partner know that right now you can’t have that deep conversation, but that you will when you can, and managing the emotions on both sides. Using the floodgate to release anger slowly before it builds up and/or causes problems in the valley below. It is difficult to function well when flooded with emotion (including being in love!) and it is difficult to function well when our emotions are dammed up.

Our relationships with people are our emotions. When you develop your Emotional Intelligence, you are learning to have a functioning floodgate for those emotions.

We don’t want to eliminate emotions (as if we could), or even tamp them down permanently (because then we’d be robots), but we do need to be able to identify them, understand them, use them, and regulate them. Learning how to put a floodgate in place, slows thing down enough for you to identify, understand, manage, and eventually regulate.


Co-dependence is an unhealthy blurring of the lines, and having no floodgate for emotions. Something happens to your loved one, and you react as if it had happened to you. You take responsibility for someone else in ways that aren’t appropriate.

But “dependence” is healthy for human beings. We weren’t designed to live alone. In fact isolation – and by this I mean lack of connection – has been shown to be more injurious to our health than smoking, obesity and other high-risk factors. Being in healthy connection with others is vital to our health.

Healthy interdependence means being able to let others in and out as you wish, when you wish, letting emotions flow, neither flooding, nor dammed up. Your emotions and the effect of the other person’s emotions upon you. The floodgate regulates the flow. It’s the sense that you can have your emotions and experience them and your relationships and manage it at the same time. This is Emotional Intelligence.

Author's Bio: 

©Susan Dunn, MA, The EQ Coach, http://www.susandunn.cc . I offer coaching, distance learning courses, and ebooks around emotional intelligence. EQ is more important to your success, happiness and health than IQ, and it can be learned. Mailto:sdunn@susandunn.cc for FREE ezine. Significant experience with midlife transitions, career and relationships.