Relationships are the one of the most rewarding and challenging parts of our life. There are types of personal development that we are unable to do unless we are in relationship and there are ways that relationships push us to do work that we would not be otherwise motivated to do.
One of the greatest challenges in relationship can be our boundaries –maintaining a connection to our self, being open with another, and caring for the relationship that exists between us. We can run into challenges like losing our self in the relationship, over-caretaking, shutting down, passive aggressiveness, or saying things that are hurtful and can’t be taken back. Any of these sound familiar?
In the 1980’s Melody Beattie wrote about co-dependence. This is the pattern of behavior that a person develops when relating to a loved-one who has an addiction. However, Beattie’s writing hit a chord with most people whether they were in a partnership with an addict or not. Chiefly, she focuses on understanding what is ours to deal with and what is another person’s. This level of clarity is essential for other relational skills to develop. It is impossible to create healthy connectedness if we lack the ability to hold onto our self.
Holding onto our self is the ability to stay connected to what we think, feel and want while being in a relationship with another person. This is particularly important when that person is under stress or in a crisis. In intense situations, it is easier to get consumed by another person’s experience. Even sexual intimacy, as positive as it might be, requires not only that we can deeply connect and even merge with another but that we can come back to ourselves as well.
The truth of the matter is, when we do not know or understand something, our ability to be in relationship to it is limited. This means we need to be able to see our self ,or in other words be aware, to “hold onto our self.” The less we are aware of ourselves, the harder it is for us to know when something is us and when it is not. So, this is one of the many ways that personal development work serves you. The more that you know the easier it is to navigate relationships.
It is necessary to know our self to be open to a relationship in a healthy way. Being open in a relationship is both about the ability to connect and to disconnect. However, primarily it is about being able to choose when we want to connect and disconnect. This allows us to be consciously open or to consciously choose not put up a boundary when something is not healthy.
However, what I often hear people struggle with is determining what is healthy or not healthy for them. I have said that self care is anything and everything that is affirming of the entirety of who you are. It comes up here again because determining what is healthy or not healthy is guided by the same concept. Does it affirm or support who you are? If it does then it is healthy for you even if it is difficult. If it is does not, then it is not healthy for you.
Of course, the greatest gift that we can give in a relationship is our willingness to be as respectful with that other person as we have learned to be with our self. This desire to support another person in honoring and caring for themselves and learning and growing in their capacity to know themselves is a beautiful gift of a relationship.
The relationship is the third part of the equation. Relationships take care and time to be able to flourish. It is not enough for people to just invest in their own awareness and growth they also need to invest in the relationship. It becomes another member of the relationship and requires selflessness as much as anything else. What can you give to the relationship? How do you give to the relationship?
Developmentally, we are not able to give to the relationship until we have learned how to take care of ourselves. We are simply too immature to really be able to give what is required. That is why we need to start by doing our own work and understand what it is that supports us as we go through life. When we have done this work, the act of giving selflessly to a relationship is an additional joy rather than something that creates imbalance.
If you find yourself in a relationship and you are questioning your knowledge of your own needs or understanding of the different aspects of who you are, don’t worry too much about it. We are all in a continual process of growth. As you move forward in your relationship you will be called to focus on different aspects of the relationship: you, the other person, and the relationship itself. This process, if you choose to engage in it will be both challenging and deeply rewarding –ultimately offering you one of the most beautiful experiences that life has to offer.
Good fences make good neighbors, and nowhere is this more true than in your romantic relationship. But many people hide their stance on a subject, or at least soften it, to be more likable at the start of a new relationship.
“I like hanging out with your family every weekend.”
“Your vegetarianism is no problem for me. I hardly eat meat now anyway.”
“Sure, we can keep the lights off.”
Over time, it becomes too difficult to move that boundary back to where it feels right for you, whether you’re talking about how much time to spend with your in-laws or how much sex you want to have. And it’s confusing to your partner, who thought you liked things this way because you always went along with it before.
Perversely, you make your life less desirable in order to be more desirable to your partner.
Over the years, this can get messy and you might eventually complain that the love of your life doesn’t really know you at all. But if you aren’t stating your boundaries and desires up front, how could your beau know?
The Difference Between Walls and Fences
Walls are built to keep people out, figuratively and literally. You can’t see inside someone’s house unless they invite you in, and even within a home each room is blocked from view unless you enter it. When you hide something from someone, you are walling it off.
Fences, on the other hand, are built to maintain a peaceful coexistence with others. You can usually see right through a fence because it is simply a demarcation of the boundaries of your property. It’s a public statement on where you stand on issues.
Your fence keeps soul sucking people who would disrespect you on the outside. They will go find an unfenced property to do their damage, not willing to expend the effort to climb yours (soul suckers are nothing if not lazy).
Fences are also easily moved or enlarged when a property is expanded, unlike walls which mean a reconfiguration of the entire house.
Walls destroy a relationship. Fences make it stronger. Big difference.
How to Determine Your Boundaries
1: Know Where You Stand
The key to setting your boundaries lies first in identifying them yourself. If you don’t know what you want, how in the heck will anyone else? This is no time for guessing games, with yourself or with your mate. And be very, very careful of the “I don’t really care” mentality because in truth you really do, about everything. You just don’t care about making a fuss right now.
It’s important that people should know what you stand for. It’s equally important that they should know what you won’t stand for. ~ Mary H. Waldrip
So give a damn now and you won’t be damning your partner in the future. Think about how you really feel about every new situation or question and answer honestly and thoughtfully. Because what you say and do now determines what kind of life you’ll be living later.
2: Identify Boundary Breaches
Sometimes it takes a while for a message to sink in. It’s not usually because your one true love doesn’t care. Your partner just needs firm reminders of your boundaries. You can do this gently at first with a pretty white picket fence surrounded by flowers and escalate all the way up to barbed wire and electricity if you need to (though at that point it might just be better to ask them to move).
Everyone pushes a falling fence. ~ Chinese proverb
Demanding the respect you deserve takes diligence on your part. Again, most of the time this is a simple and clear reminder to people.
No, I don’t want to do that.
It’s not okay for you to talk to me this way.
You said you would do this and I depend on you to honor your word.
When you allow your boundaries to be breached again and again you’re telling the other person it’s okay to be late, to not follow through on their commitments, or to otherwise disregard your feelings. But when people know there are consequences – “I’ll wait for you for 10 minutes, but if you’re later than that I’ll leave without you” – they can no longer breach with impunity.
You cannot control the actions of others, but you can certainly control your own.
3: Survey your property
When you live a life of experience, your boundaries will change because you will. You’ll grow and evolve, and so will many of your preferences. It’s important to regularly survey your boundaries to make sure they still fit. Your requirements for intimacy, communication, social activity, exercise, education, and entertainment will evolve with life and circumstances, and you have to be clear with yourself and your partner when they do.
Read more by Betsy Talbot here
Continually poking at your own boundaries will make it easier to explain them to others. How to Establish Boundaries Know where you stand on the important issues. When you know for sure how you want to be treated, it makes it easier to clearly state this to another person. Begin by asking yourself every day if you’re okay with what’s going on around you. If not, why? If it’s not clear to you, it won’t be clear to your partner. State your boundaries along with a consequence. “I understand you are really frustrated at work right now, but I’m not okay with you taking it out on me when you get home. I’m not your enemy here. The next time it happens I’m going to suggest you burn it off at the gym and I’m going to leave the room.” You can’t control the other person’s actions, but you can control your response. Test your boundaries. As you evolve as a human, your priorities and feelings will change. It’s important to question yourself on a regular basis to make sure the beliefs and ideas you hold are still true. When your boundaries change, it’s time to move your fences and let your partner know. (more…)