It’s better to establish some essential boundaries at the first meeting with a prospective client, than to wait until a problem arises.

A boundary is a limit that applies to the relationship between you and your client.

Three types of boundaries found in the therapeutic relationship:

  • Fixed boundaries, meaning non-negotiable
  • Firm boundaries, to be observed in all but exceptional circumstances
  • Flexible boundaries, around which we’re willing to make some concessions

Let’s say we’re working with a client referred by the Courts because of a charge of domestic violence. What might be some boundaries to establish early on?

A fixed boundary might be ‘no recurrence’ of domestic violence or abuse of any kind, for any reason. We would want to make it abundantly clear that such behavior would elicit a swift response from us. No excuses.

A firm boundary might involve a therapy group for perpetrators. We make it clear that we expect perfect attendance but also let the client know to call in advance in a special circumstance.

We might be flexible, however, around scheduling future appointments with us. We expect him to show up but are willing to help him fit them into his schedule with some convenience.

This process has three purposes:

First, to make sure the client is absolutely clear on what will happen if he tests those fixed boundaries. That eliminates later excuse-making.

Next, to show the client what is important to the process and therefore could affect our evaluation of his progress. That has particular impact with Court-referred clients.

Last, to show through our willingness to make some concessions that we’re not unreasonable.

We expect the client to test the boundaries, especially firm and fixed. Be prepared for it. With a fixed boundary, do exactly what you said you would, pointing out to the client his responsibility. With a firm boundary, treat it as a learning experience, but make sure there are some consequences attached.

For some clients, particularly those with problems with rules and authority, their experience with boundaries is probably as important as anything that happens in counseling.

And I’ve come to believe that by showing flexibility in some situations, we actually make our position stronger when in others. It’s the contrast.