Setting boundaries is the key to healthy relationships. But what does that mean to you? Relationships can be particularly difficult these days because the norms we might once have had, seem to be gone. We don’t have role models among our leaders to guide us the way we have, say, traffic rules for the road. It’s even more difficult now as we face the conflicts of partisan politics.
Boundaries on the road keep driving safe
There are laws and codes for that. Keep your distance. Don’t cut in front of a moving vehicle. When a car stops in front of you, you stop, too. It is common sense to follow the traffic rules to avoid accidents. Rules make life on the road safer, and you just do it without thinking. It’s common sense, and it’s the law. Don’t drive and drink.
Setting boundaries is creating behavior rules in relationships
Was there ever a kinder gentler America? Maybe, but behavior rules about how we treat each other have always depended on our environment, our culture, whether or not there was or is substance use in the family. Substance use and drinking make setting boundaries particularly difficult.
What if you’re a people pleaser
Let’s face it, the more forceful among us tend to push people around and get their way. Often, it’s people who have been abused or had unhealthy role models as children. The more easy-going people, the people pleasers, can find themselves in relationships they can’t control, and in which they have no voice. And these relationships can get a lot worse over time. It’s also much harder if you hate confrontation which is a personality trait of people pleasers, or if you are an adult child of substance user or alcoholic.
How do you get respect if you can’t set boundaries
It’s not fair, but there are no hard and fast rules for fair treatment or showing respect. Family members push you around. Friends can manipulate you. Spouses can get in your face. When you’re a child, there’s not much you can do about it. Fighting back can lead to trouble, and you can even get physically hurt. Marsha had a husband who always took her birthday checks. She had no say in the matter. How can you take control as an adult if you never did it before? Marsha needed help.
This is for people pleasers who give away their power by being nice, or people who don’t like to fight back. Boundaries are like putting up fences that can’t be crossed. Some examples you might say include:
- I’m walking out of the room when talk to me like that.
- I don’t want to do that. (I’m not going to do that.)
- I’m sick of being tortured with jealousy. I don’t want to (won’t) hear it. I’m done listening to it.
- Withholding your love and approval or giving me the silent treatment don’t work for me anymore. When you’re silent or mean, I’ll spend my time with mom, a friend, reading a book.
- I want to do it this way. (I will do it this way.) It’s my turn to make a choice.
Here’s an important note. You can’t make another person treat you better. The only thing you can change is yourself. How you react, what you do or say.
Changing The Status Quo
It’s hard to change relationships that have been working well for one party but not the other. If you start saying no, the response will almost always be anger. It can get nasty.
Shelley’s son left her forever, and later tried to sue her, after she told him he couldn’t call her at 8AM every morning when she was on her way to work to ask for money or to solve some new crisis. She set a boundary and it didn’t go well for the relationship. Now Shelley is no longer afraid of her son, and while it’s sad, she feels more in control of her life.
June, a bullied bride, told her new husband that it wasn’t going to work out unless he started showing her more respect. He was furious. Didn’t he marry her and provide a home? He was mad, but he loved her and was willing to get counseling to work the problem through. Two years later, he’s a different person, kinder, gentler and thoughtful. Love can do that. But that’s assuming the other person really loves you and has the capacity for change. Not everyone does.
Even with good friends and good husbands and wives, asking for something others don’t want to give can end in furious emails, personal attacks, verbal abuse, angry phone calls. You have options. You can back down and keep the relationship. You can ride the anger out and see if both of you can calm down and find compromise and reason. Or, here’s the big one, you can assess the relationship and see if you really want to keep it. Letting go is one solution.
Setting Boundaries In New Relationships
To establish the kind of relationships that make you feel good, and safe, the crucial first step is to learn about yourself.
What do you want, what do you need? When you tell people what you can’t tolerate and mean it you are setting a boundary.
Lori wanted a man who was reliable. She met Ben who was almost everything she wanted in a partner. Except he always called at the last minute to change or cancel dates. When she told him how much reliability meant to her and he arrived an hour late to their very next date, she didn’t hesitate to end the relationship.
Setting boundaries is taking off the rose colored glasses
The way people react to your clearly-stated need for respect, calm, kindness, or whatever it is that you have to have to be happy, will determine whether they should go or stay in your life. Setting boundaries is hard. Shelley didn’t want a bitter break with her son. She hopes some day he will return, but her happiness doesn’t depend on it. Lori didn’t want to lose Ben, but she knew who she was and that mattered more. A few months later she met Rick, who was absolutely right for her. They told each other what they were looking for right at the start, and their needs and behavior were a good match.