Boundary Basics

In the previous posts, we’ve covered communication, motivation, and balancing needs & rights. The focus has been about seeking to honor the other in our relationships. Today’s post will shift to drawing lines in the sand. It may seem difficult, but we do not honor the other in our relationship by becoming doormats.

How do we set boundaries without guilt?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe have to begin by recognizing the value of boundaries. We don’t always do well with boundaries in our relationships. We tend to do one of two things, trample the other’s boundaries or fail to set any for ourselves. We honor the other in our relationships when we respect their boundaries, and we honor them just the same by setting our own boundaries.

It can seem easier to go with the flow, letting the other person have their way. Problems arise when we cross lines we are not comfortable with or we allow our identities to become lost. These breed resentment and bitterness. They keep us from truly being able to engage fully in the relationship, offering the gift of ourselves. We cannot add the richness of our perspective and unique gifts to the mix of a relationship if we allow them to be broken down , buried under layers of compromise.

Boundaries are beautiful.

Ask any gardener about the necessity of creating boundaries between planting beds, they will tell you that boundaries allow the plants to flourish. The invasive species are given their own space, but those vulnerable to being overrun are protected.

Photo by emilina

Photo by emilina

Boundaries allow us to retain our beauty, our individuality. This does not mean we don’t grow and change because of our relationships, we do and we must. It does, however, keep us from becoming the creature of the other.

I believe we have a creator, already. As a Quaker, I recognize that each individual bears the image of the creator in a unique and glorious way. To allow another to so shape your person that you cease to be who you are meant to be is a sacrilege. It is a desecration to remake someone in your own image.

Boundaries are not a rejection.

Boundaries preserve sacred elements of your personality and the personality of your loved one. They are not a rejection, but an embrace of everything that makes each of you unique. Boundaries keep you from being consumed and from consuming the other. They can only offend if the intention is to love you like dinner instead of a work of art.

When we set boundaries, then, we must do so in love, with patience and good communication so that our intentions are clear. This keeps the guilt fairies at bay, and reassures the other that we are seeking the health and preservation of our relationship.

Setting boundaries must be intentional. It does not work well to set them in the middle of a conflict. Be pro-active, thoughtfully decide where you are unwilling to bend. Contemplate your words carefully. Warn your loved-one in advance of the content of your conversation. Invite them to consider their own boundaries and set a time to discuss them when neither of you is feeling pressed for time. As much as possible, schedule this conversation when you are not under external pressures. Sometimes it is inevitable, stress does not always follow our timetables, so do your best to focus your attention on the task at hand.

Boundaries set us free.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOddly, there is freedom in knowing where the limits are. No more tiptoeing, feeling for the line, or suffering disappointment or confusion by being vaguely redirected. It is helpful to know what is off the table, and where we can play freely. We are each set at liberty to be ourselves, to rejoice in the individuality of the other. We can have the other’s back and trust that they have ours.

Balancing our needs and desires, communicating clearly, being set free.
How Refreshing!

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Is Communication the Solution?

We have been looking at the issue of balancing give and take in relationships. The first post covered balancing needs and wants, the second exchanging patterns of power and control for love and service. In this third post, we’ll explore how communication can help and hurt the balance we are trying to achieve in building a healthy, balanced relationship.

Communication is the nail that often gets hammered in relationship articles. It does not take long to find information on active listening and giving feedback. Every counselor and therapist will tell you that communication is important, but often there is a spike in communication in the year before a couple splits up. Obviously, then, communication is not everything. It is important to be clear about what you really want and need, but it is important to also examine the motives behind the message you are sending.

Can you say “no” too much?

My friend who inspired this series stated that she had been accused of saying “no” too much. It is possible to say “no” too often, but the key is why the answer is “no.” Sometimes we use “no” to punish, or to distance from our partner. They are not meeting my needs, why should I meet theirs? Sometimes there is a physical or biological reason for saying “no.” Whether to sexual intimacy or to a walk in the park, illness or fatigue or even depression can present seemingly insurmountable obstacles. At times “no” comes from a place of fear or lack of trust. All of these “no’s” have solutions.

Photo by linder6580

Photo by linder6580

If you are saying “no” to punish or distance, it needs to stop. Clearly communicate your needs that are not being met. Talk about how it makes you feel. Let your partner know that it makes it easier for you to say “yes” when other areas of your life feel secure.

If you or your partner is saying “no” because of illness, see a doctor. Get a consult. Don’t let physical limitations define your relationship. Most illness can be treated, sometimes the solutions are simple, other times a deeper underlying cause can be uncovered and dealt with to improve overall quality of life.

If there are trust issues in your relationship, maybe it is time to bring in a mediator or trusted counselor as a sounding board. See them alone, or go together, there are issues from the past that can make it difficult to trust in intimate relationships. It is never shameful to seek help. Your relationship is worth it.

Can you overstate your needs/desires?

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Photo by plrang

When your partner is resistant to an idea, suggestion, or activity you would like to engage in together, repeated requests can make the situation worse. Continuing to ask when your partner has declined places pressure on them that can trigger a fight or flight response. Which means that you could be starting a fight, or prompting them to either dig in their heels or distance from you. Unless you are asking for a vital need to be met, it is probably not worth pushing.

Stating your needs and wants clearly is important, as well as where they rank in importance. If you present your deepest desires and your most trivial wants with the same intensity, how is your partner going to know which to prioritize? Because let’s face it, your partner cannot meet all of your needs. And you cannot meet all of their needs. These are facts, no matter who you are with. By letting your partner know what is a big deal and what will have less impact on your well-being, you are helping yourself since it will be more likely that a loving partner will attempt to meet what is perceived to be an important need.

How do we express our needs without manipulation?

Implied threats, constant bargaining, and feigned helplessness are all marks of manipulative communication. They indicate that we feel vulnerable and do not trust our partner to meet our needs simply because they love us. We feel the need to push them or pull them toward our goal of satisfaction. This can be avoided by accepting that intimate relationships require vulnerability. If your partner is really not trustworthy, then maybe it is the relationship itself that needs to be questioned.

Most people who are in a relationship have at least a modicum of desire to see good things happen for their partner. Over time, with poor communication and allowing self-interest to lead our interactions, we can begin to convince ourselves that the other does not care. Choosing to be vulnerable, to communicate openly is risky because it will reveal the heart of the other person. Either they will reciprocate with vulnerability, or they may try to use the openness for their own advantage.

Photo by Eastop

Photo by Eastop

While hoping for the first outcome, we need to be prepared for the second. Many times they are stuck in the same trap of only seeing their own needs and it may take some time and many tries before they understand that you are not trying a new manipulative trick to get your way. Stay open. Be vulnerable. In the end you will have either a stronger, more honest relationship, or you will find that perhaps it is time to let the other person go.

Watch for the next post in the series that will cover Setting Boundaries without Guilt.

Power and Control, or Love and Service?

Friday I posted the first in a series discussing how we balance Give and Take in Relationships. We looked at the very valid question “How do we balance needs of one individual with the rights of the other?” Today we continue with issues of motivation and patterns of behavior.

How do we set aside models of power and control for models of love and service?

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
C.S. Lewis (The Four Loves)

True love and service involve risk. There is never a guarantee that the loved one will offer love in return, or if they do, that their love will last forever. We don’t like uncertainty, and often we turn to patterns of power and control to get what we want. “If I can’t control their affection, I will control their behavior.” We settle for conquering the other instead of working to win at life together.

Cover Image graur razvan ionut  FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By graur razvan ionut, published on 05 February 2010 Stock Photo – image ID: 10012149

Unfortunately, winning all the arguments does not make us happy. It might make us feel good for a little while, but no lasting joy was ever brought by always being right or getting what we want. And sacrificed on the altar of winning are heaps of relationships that otherwise stood a real chance.

In order for me to win, my love must lose. By always insisting on being the winner, I make my lover the perpetual loser. I may be superior, but I cannot ever claim to be a lover. Lovers do not seek to destroy the object of affection. Enemies do. I may always win, but in the process I slay love and make my lover my enemy.

Power and control may make us feel safe, but we end up shutting the door to real fulfillment that only love can bring.

How do we begin to set aside the patterns of power and control to embrace love and service instead?

We begin by accepting that there are battles we will lose. We cannot always win, mostly because we are not always right. Trust me, if you have been in a relationship any length of time, your lover already knows that you are imperfect and will not be taken by surprise at this revelation.

DSC00889Knowing that we will lose sometimes enables us to pick our battles. Decide what is worth fighting for and what you can let go. Are you fighting over needs or wants? Learn to fight fair. Ask yourself if your partner is fighting for a need or want. Learn to set aside your wants for their needs. Then become a champion of their needs, fighting on their behalf.

There will be times when we will experience pain because of our vulnerability. Your partner is not perfect either, and they will say and do things that will hurt whether or not they are intentional. As such, you will need to prepare yourself to offer forgiveness. In cases of big hurts or betrayals, it may take some time before you are able to fully extend your trust and return to a place of openness in that area, but be willing to try. (I am absolutely not talking about patterns of abuse. If you suspect you are in an abusive relationship, please seek help from a qualified counselor.)

Love seeks what is best not only for me, but for my lover. This is not the job of one partner, but both must be working toward a partnership that benefits the other. This being said, it often takes one partner to begin the journey toward love and wholeness.

Look for the next post in this series asking: How do we honestly communicate our needs, including saying no, without manipulation?

Give and Take in Relationships

A friend asked a good question on social media a few weeks back and I have been chewing on it ever since. She was musing about give and take in intimate relationships and from her original query, I have derived a few clarifying questions of my own. My attempts at answering these questions are by no means prescriptive, just my own thoughts on how to achieve balance in long term relationships whether friendships, family relationships, or spousal relationships. In this four-part series, we’ll explore questions of needs and rights, power and control, communication, and setting boundaries.

How do we balance the needs of each individual with the rights of the other?

It is only human nature to want our own way. Ask anyone over the age of 2 and they will tell you the response to not getting their way is pretty much the same, at least on the inside. Not all of us throw ourselves on the floor to kick and scream, but whether we are conscious of it or not feeling deprived (and avoiding that feeling) fuels many of our interactions with those around us.

Here is the problem with balance: it requires us to intentionally experience deprivation on behalf of someone else. We can’t always do that cheerfully. I’m not sure it is necessary to embrace it cheerfully. What is necessary is making that choice to set aside our desire to get what we want and avoid feeling deprived so that the other can feel fulfilled. In order for balance to be achieved, all parties must be actively engaged in this practice.

Photo by dlnny

Photo by dlnny

Here is a second problem with balance: you can only control your own actions. It is impossible to require someone to sacrifice for you, no matter how small. You can only choose to engage the practice of self-denial yourself. Which means it is risky. Which means it is scary. Which means we don’t often want to be the first one to give.

Our most vital right as human beings is to make our own decisions. No one can force something upon another without violating that right, whether the method is physical force or psychological manipulation. This is the right that must be balanced with the need of the other in a relationship. If you or your partner sacrifice without making the choice freely, that right is violated.

Sacrifice can be a beautiful thing, but only if it comes from a place of love and care. Forced sacrifice only damages relationships. It leads to bitterness in the least and hatred at the most extreme. This is why the key to finding balance is open, honest communication linked with freedom for each one to make their own decision.

Photo by rachelg

Photo by rachelg

The initial step towards this balance is achieved by agreeing in conversation to form (or reform) your relationship around this principle. Make a pact. Promise that when it is really important for fulfilling the other person’s needs, you will find a way to compromise or sacrifice to make it happen. BUT since it is only balance when it goes both ways everyone MUST commit to communicate those things that they believe are necessary for their fulfillment. Otherwise it comes down to guesswork, and not being good mind-readers, most people stink at relational guesswork.

The classic example of self-denial is the story The Gift of the Magi where both husband and wife give up their most prized possessions in order to give a gift to the other. Whether you find that the gestures were wasted or not, we can observe both proving by their actions that the relationship and the other person were more important than any object they possessed. The sacrifice is beautiful because neither choice was manipulated or forced, each one chose of their own free will to demonstrate their love to each other in this way.

Watch for the next post: How do we set aside models of power and control for models of love and service?