Boundaries in relationships are the parameters that we set for ourselves around what is comfortable, safe and acceptable. Boundaries can be physical, mental, psychological and spiritual in nature and can involve criteria such as communication, physical touch, and behavior. All of us know someone who maintains good boundaries. Think of a person in your life, who begins a relationship with stating clearly what they like, dislike, will accept, won’t accept and what the deal breakers are. That’s a person who can set strong boundaries. Many of us, though, are poor in the boundary department with our relationships. When a relationship deteriorates or becomes disappointing, the first place to look should be how we are setting and holding our boundaries with that person.
In my personal work, when I reviewed my relationship history, I saw a common pattern. I certainly had the idea of boundaries in my head and I might have even communicated them out loud to my partner. But that is where I stopped. From that initial point, I assumed that if my partner loved me, then they would know how to treat me and would know that certain behaviors would hurt my feelings or make me uncomfortable. I didn’t hold my boundaries due to a fear of seeming “bitchy” or “needy”. I preferred to be accommodating and easy. Inevitably, my partner would cross a boundary. I would feel hurt and surprised. But instead of reiterating my boundary with my partner and communicating how it hurt me and why, I would push it down and make an excuse for him to justify his behavior. Sound familiar?
But, what did I just do? I just demonstrated to my partner what I was willing to accept and taught him how to treat me. The next time, crossing that boundary was easier and over time he would cross it further and the cycle would continue: I would take the behavior, along with the pain it caused, push it down, tell myself that my feelings are not that important, and reinforce the behavior even more.
This cycle could go on for months or years before my hurt self got sick of being mistreated. When I reached that breaking point, I would explode at my partner, citing all the ways he’s hurt me, disrespected me and so on. Meanwhile, he is sitting in shock, not knowing what to think, because his experience has been that in the past, I didn’t make a peep about this behavior. He may look at me as unreasonable, accuse me of being “hormonal” or crazy, and dismiss me; or he might get hurt and confused and become insecure, wondering “What the hell is going on?” Frankly, no matter what the behavior was that caused my reaction, he should be confused! For months or years, I allowed him to conduct a behavior that was unacceptable and hurtful to me. I didn’t communicate or hold my boundary around that behavior. I essentially taught my partner exactly how to treat me and what I would accept. He was following my lead. So, it is no wonder, that when I reached my breaking point and exploded with a new response, he felt betrayed, hurt and deceived. I did deceive him. I deceived him into thinking that his behaviors were okay, when they were destroying me inside and destroying my love and trust in him and in our relationship. Do see how not holding boundaries is an act of sabotage to your relationship?
The lesson here, people, is that boundaries, although they may feel scary and feed our fears of sounding bitchy or needy or rigid are not just ways of self-advocating for ourselves, but also ways of protecting our relationship. By setting and holding clear boundaries, we create a safe environment for our relationships to relax into. There is nothing safe about one individual in a relationship staying quiet and then one day exploding with rage about how unhappy they are.
It is vital in all our relationships whether they are romantic, family, friendships or work related to be clear and clean and consistent with our boundaries from the beginning and ongoing. It is not our partners job to remember what our boundaries are. It is our job to remind them what they are, and it is our partner’s job to remind us of their boundaries.
When you think of this type of relationship of honesty and openness, how does it feel?
For me it feels safe. It feels good and it feels like a place where I can be seen, accepted for who I am, what I want, what I like and what I need. It feels like a place where I can be supported by my partner, as well as support him and to see and hear him.