A well-crafted boundary defines how you are no longer willing to be treated, or which behaviors you won’t tolerate moving forward. They are often erected as a result of some situation, incident, or dispute that you didn’t see coming. Once you have fully internalized the lesson, you create a boundary so as not to allow yourself to fall into the same mess, again.
But boundaries can be painful. They are hard to implement, and as the recipient, harder to accept. And because a boundary primarily defines what can no longer be done, they feel like the opposite of love and acceptance.
In reality, the deeper origin of a boundary is a strong desire for a connecting and loving relationship. We set up fences around dysfunctional behaviors precisely because we love each other so much, we are not willing to lose what we have built over hurtful actions. Like an alarm system on our home or a safe for our jewelry, we protect what is precious from outside harm. Our deeper intent is not to keep others out, but to safe keep what is inside.
What is often confusing, is that as the subject of a boundary, it is directed at you. Although the intent of the boundary is not to exclude you, in a certain way, it does. Because something you are doing is not working, on some level, you are being rejected by your partner. Ouch.
When this happens, it’s so difficult to attach to the deeper purpose of the boundary–to create a more loving, connecting a functioning relationship. To protect your love and your lover from pain. To enable intimacy, trust, and joy. Instead, we go to that ever-present message which we all know: “Something’s wrong with me. I’m not good enough.” Typically, either defensiveness, anger, or both follows, separating you both and bringing your relationship down even further.
One thing we don’t realize is that many times, boundaries are not a reflection of you, at all. Because boundaries reflect the setter’s limits and reactions, it is not a statement about who you are, but rather what you did–your actions, not your personhood. And even further, it is not an accurate judgment of your actions, either, but merely a statement of how your actions affect your partner. This distinction is crucial in learning how to accept boundaries and making space for your partner in your relationship.
When John first came to see me, his primary complaint was that he just couldn’t find any decent women. “Where have all the good women gone?” he would repeat at almost every session. He was in his late 20s, successful in business, and in great shape. His last girlfriend, whom he broke up with, was just too critical and controlling. Curious, I decided to dive a little further into the relationship to uncover anything useful in helping him maintain a loving connection.
John proceeded to tell me that his final straw was when he invited her for a dinner date a few weeks back. He had everything planned out – the restaurant, the reservations, the entire evening. When he picked her up, exactly on time, they began chatting. “Where are we going?” she asked. “To Cafe Provincial, downtown,” he replied. “Really? Ok–I was hoping we could go somewhere a little less formal.” As the familiar feeling of anger and frustration at being controlled crept up his spine, he decided that enough was enough, and turned the car around. This was not the first time she tried to control him and criticize his efforts. He proceeded to explain, on the way back to her house, that his rule stands firm–when going to the trouble and expense of setting up a dinner date, his only request is that his date expresses gratitude and appreciation for the effort he went through, rather than complain. With that, he dropped off his date and has not been in touch since.
At this point, my “red-flag” meter was blowing off the charts. The real issue John was facing was not a dearth of “good women”, but a highly sensitive personality that needed to be explored.
Upon further analysis, we discovered that John grew up with a highly critical mother, whom he felt he could never make happy. He spent his childhood feeling the bite of her criticism and disappointment. Subconsciously he erected a boundary that he would never get involved with such a woman again. Henceforth, any woman whom he allowed into his heart was subject to this impossible criteria – to never express any disappointment or disagreement.
In truth, the story has a happy ending. After a few sessions, where John came to accept his irrational and unacceptable behavior, he apologized and invited his girlfriend to a joint session where he could make amends. She accepted gracefully. When it was her time to talk, she was so confused (and hurt) by his behavior as she had no intention of being critical or controlling. For her part, she was feeling very self-conscious of her attire, which she felt was much too casual for such a formal restaurant. She was certainly very appreciative of John’s efforts but didn’t want to show up underdressed.
Poor girl. One can only imagine the pain she suffered believing that she did something “wrong” or was unworthy of love. How personally she must have taken his boundaries, which had nothing to do with her personhood, at all. Eventually, she became aware of the distinction between John’s limits and her self-worth. We worked together on feeling comfortable saying “I see you are disappointed with my suggestion, John. I’m perfectly fine with my choice, but I’m ok with you not liking it. Tell me what you would prefer instead, and I’ll let you know if that works for me.” This one sentence allowed her to gracefully assert both her self-worth and the acceptability of her choices, while at the same time making room for John’s needs and limitations.
The better we get at disassociating our partner’s boundaries from who we are as people, the better we get at accommodating our partner’s needs. When we give wide berth for our partner to show up with their limitations, without taking it personally, we make space for them to heal, and our relationship to grow. And this is a foundation of the “happily ever after” we all so deeply crave.