Even in the best relationships, conflict and discord occur. It’s not a question of if it happens, just how often and how severe. If we are fortunate, we can sidestep it all together. Or perhaps we recognize our contribution and can own it. But sometimes, during the animus, protecting our boundaries is our only course of action. How do we know when to just bite our tongue or stand up and defend our relationship values?
One of the greatest human strengths, which can take years to develop, is to remain calm during the storm. This requires not only great internal fortitude, but a deep sense of conviction in your own value system, and more importantly, in your own self-worth.
But most of us fail — repeatedly. When feeling attacked, specifically from one whom we love, we fall prey to our natural sense of defensiveness and anxiety — sometimes behaving like a cornered animal. This can be the result of an actual attack, or even just a perceived attack which irritates an unresolved childhood wound. Nonetheless, in this way, small infractions blow up into major problems; trivial ego-hits turn into a military-grade campaign for self-survival. Why? Because criticism, insults, and anger, coming from one whom we love and trust, cuts us at our most vulnerable point.
In relationships, we only extend trust and openness in exchange for safety. Together, we forge a tacit agreement never to wound each other in our most sensitive places. Because without safety, without emotional support, understanding, and love, we can never allow ourselves to be truly vulnerable. And this is the rub — the very act of opening up, by definition, exposes our achilles heel to our partner. When that trust is broken, when that bond is breached, when that heel is attacked, we are defenseless. Our first instinct, and often the choice we make, is to just strike back.
And of course, over time, this leads to a horrible cycle of emotional violence, which, left unabated, turns your love-affair into a loveless cohabitation.
So how do we break this cycle? How do we make ourselves vulnerable, and yet at the same time keep our safety? How do we maintain calm after having our softer-side emotionally violated? How do we sidestep a major relationship-test?
It is widely known that the most fundamental requirement to stay calm during the storm is establishing a strong sense of personal boundaries. Recognizing what types of behavior and communication is not acceptable is the cornerstone of protecting your most vulnerable self. But this begs the question — where do I set my limits? How do I know when my line is being crossed? How do I define how I want to be treated?
Perhaps we can start with identifying the most relationship-averse behaviors. Dr. Gottman’s research uncovered the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which are behaviors that predict divorce. These include Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling. When we allow these behaviors into our relationships, we are inviting severe damage into our love-life.
But knowing what we want to exclude is not the same as being able to actualize and stand-up for ourselves. Building the personal fortitude to protect our boundaries requires a deeper look inside. Just like your physical strength resides in your core and extends outward, the same is true for your emotional strength. If you build your own personal relationship values and sense of self, then knowing where your boundaries lay becomes an extension of who you are, second nature.
The first step is identifying, for yourself, what core values are must-haves in your relationship. Starting with the most basic and fundamental needs (“trust”, in my case), and moving up four rungs to your still important, but not as important needs. For me, that would be include parenting, kindness, intimacy and respect. For example, although being treated with respect is very important, having a partner who is a responsible parent is more important.
To help define your own values, ask yourself: what kind of person are you? Committed? Loyal? Trustworthy? Are you somebody who deserves to be insulted? Are you somebody who tolerates criticism or ridicule? How do you view yourself? Do you treat yourself with respect? Kindness? Honor? When you can begin to answer these questions, you will understand your core values, and instinctively know exactly when your line has been crossed, and even what to say to right your ship. I recommend a Relationship Must-Have Pyramid to all of my clients.
And of course, the most important place to start is yourself — in what way do you violate the boundaries of others? How quick are you to lose your temper? How do you attack when you are angry? How much patience and tolerance do you have for others? Do you practice what you preach? How hard can you bite your own tongue and refrain from criticism and judgement?
Your exterior is a mere reflection of your interior. Once you become a person of fortitude and strength, able to exercise patience, silence, and self-control in the most difficult situations, you will no longer tolerate this type of treatment towards yourself, instinctively. Your ability to sidestep and overcome the storms of life grows exponentially, giving you the freedom to fearlessly share the most vulnerable and intimate parts of yourself with others.