October 18, 2017
by Thom Masat @ The San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center
Don’t cross that line!?
The idea of setting boundaries with someone you love might seem mysterious, frightening, or even counter-intuitive. Why would you want to set a boundary with someone you’re close to? Don’t you want the “opposite”…openness, trust and flexibility? What is a boundary? Isn’t a boundary just a “new age” term for a wall?
Walls prohibit connection
Walls can stop the flow of communication and connection between two or more people. Very little passes in or out. Walls often promotedifference, mistrust, and isolation. Walls are divisive…”bad feelings” are outside. The “good feelings” are inside. Walls are an unconscious and convenient way for us to expel our fears into a mythical “someone else.” You might feel better thinking all the danger is somewhere outside you. More likely, this fantasy leaves you feeling lonely, isolated, and disconnected. You were trying to protect yourself…but something went wrong.
What kind of wall am I talking about here?
“He’s late again. He told me he’d be on time to pick me up. Here I’ve been waiting in the cold for 30 minutes. I must not matter to him. Maybe he doesn’t really love me. Or he doesn’t respect my time. I’m going to give him the silent treatment in the car. Punish him. Make him feel badly.”
Seems like you have every right to feel angry. You don’t feel respected or cared for. He’s doing something that triggers a feeling of not being valued. So right there, there’s a great deal of valuable information that needs to be processed and communicated, but instead, a wall goes up.
It might feel uncomfortable or even impossible to let someone know we are angry, feel dismissed, or that more vulnerable feelings are being evoked. So instead, you protect yourself with a wall. He’s wrong--he’s bad. You’re right--you’re good. When the wall goes up, though, communication stops. Feelings aren’t expressed or shared. No one knows what happened, but everyone senses something went badly. No one feels good. With a wall up, connection is broken. No one knows what happened…and that won’t likely change.
Boundaries promote connection
Boundaries are permeable. Information and feelings flow through…in ways that you control, limit, and are comfortable with. Boundaries teach others how you want to be treated. They are helpful to those around you…they can understand, and give you, what you want. Boundaries allow others to engage with you in a meaningful and connecting way. Boundaries bring you closer, and allow others to get closer to you in ways that feel comfortable, understandable, and nurturing.
What would a boundary sound like in the example above?
“He’s late again…I must not matter to him. Maybe he doesn’t really love me… This is going be awkward…but he needs to know this is a boundary for me. He needs to know that being on time is important to me. I care about him and us. I also care about my needs and my time. I’m going to ask him how we can create a commitment to each other that respects both our needs.”
It’s a substantially different thought process. There’s less division and more consideration for your feelings, wants, and desires. The valuable information, how you feel and what you want, can be communicated. And you invite input and create space for what’s going on for your partner. Feelings are expressed or shared. Limits are set in a way that invites engagement. You don’t want to be kept waiting—you DO want to feel closer to your partner because you care. Your partner knows what’s going on for you, what you want, and can begin to understand if and how he can provide that to you. Most likely…he wants you to be happy and loved. If he only knew what you really wanted.
My favorite boundary of all
“No, thank you.” It’s simple. Direct. Effective. It doesn’t need much else. In fact, the more that follows it, the weaker the boundary becomes. The more people want to negotiate your answer. Consider the following two invitations, from a co-worker that you’re not interested in spending time with.
Wanna grab a drink after work? “No, thanks. I appreciate the offer.”
Wanna grab a drink after work? “No, thanks. I’ve got to do laundry tonight, and I haven’t called my mother in three weeks, so I’m feeling guilty. And I don’t like going out on work days.”
In the first example, there’s not too much to say after that. It’s kind. Considerate. And most of all, considerate of your wants and needs. It also communicates that you recognize offering is sometimes risky and vulnerable.
In the second example, there’s a lot of “tap dancing.” The communication is confusing. The door is left open. Would you want to go on a non-work night?
Learning to set boundaries, for some people, is uncomfortable and new. Practice. Perfection is not a goal. Ask your friends how they set boundaries. You might begin to see that some friends do and others don’t. Notice how you experience them. Practice with a close, significant other and invite feedback. (Let them know you’re practicing ahead of time. It can decrease some of the performance anxiety.) How was it for them? What did they hear and feel? And, importantly, how did you feel afterward? I have discovered that setting boundaries, when done with compassionate and care, connects me to others—I want to be with. Sounds good to me!