Boundaries. The word means "something that marks a limit or border." The concept of boundaries is a simple but vital one when applied to relationships and can aid you in relating in ways to significant others that can keep both you and your relationships healthy.

Envision a marital relationship and imagine the couple, who have committed to each other, being inside a circle. Now draw a solid line - a firm boundary - around the edges of the circle. This puts the couple in the circle - alone - and everyone else, including children, on the outside.Expressing the concept of a marital boundary, one woman says: "My husband and I consider ourselves an item. Everyone knows that we come first, including the kids, and it's a form of security to them to know we care so much about each other. The other day my husband surprised me with tickets to Hawaii for our 17th anniversary and commented, `It's because we're worth it!' "

When a couple agree they want to be "boundaried" (which their marital commitment to each other implies), they can then work on guidelines for relating that flow from this concept. For example, they can decide that:

- when they have something good to say about each other, they'll tell the world; when they have something bad to say, they'll say it directly to each other with the objective of working out the problem.

- they'll preserve the privacy and integrity of the relationship by keeping confidential vital details of their intimate life and their partner's personal life.

- they'll refrain from making the other partner the brunt of jokes or in other ways embarrassing that person in front of others.

- they'll commit sufficient time to enhance their relationship and keep it in repair.

- they'll act as an executive unit in making important financial decisions.

- each will ensure his or her loyalty to the partner and that neither will allow himself or herself to be pulled into an alliance with an outsider against the other.

- the welfare of the partner will be as important to each person as is his or her own welfare. An investment in the partner is thus viewed as an investment in oneself.

- if there are problems with "outsiders," that they will act together to solve the problems in the best interest of everyone concerned. The focus will be on "what will help," rather than on "who's to blame."

To be boundaried, however, does not mean that a couple is to be one undifferentiated ego mass. Though there is a firm boundary around the couple, it needs to be permeable - that is, each partner must be free and even encouraged to have appropriate interests outside the relationship.

The key is to find balance between a marital and a personal life.

The way for a couple to protect the integrity of their relationship is by committing ample time to nourish that relationship - not by monitoring, measuring and judging the personal movements of the partner.

The concept of boundaries can be extended to parent-child relationships. Couples can preserve the integrity of relationships between family members by agreeing to:

- not fight in front of kids; or to draw kids into disagreements against the partner; or to form lasting political alliances with a child against a partner.

- not criticize or talk negatively about one family member in front of another. This includes not complaining to a child about the partner or burdening a child with problems belonging to the marital relationship.

- not let one child help "parent" another child.

- not form an alliance with one child against another.

- not reveal confidences of a child to "outsiders."

- not insist that one partner "side" with the other against a child.

Other agreements that will help:

- allow each partner to manage his or her own problems with a child without intervention - unless the partner is being truly hurtful to a child. Critical differences in style need to be ironed out in private conferences.

Follow the rule that discipline needs to be firm, but gentle, positive and protective of the fragile egos of children.

- manage problems with a child privately as often as possible, which protects each child's privacy and the integrity of each parent-child relationship.

- insist that all family members refrain from name calling, labeling, screaming or otherwise emotionally or physically abusing each other. Aim to be as respectful to each other as you would be to any important visitor staying in your home.