Are you finding it difficult to set boundaries with people especially those you care about and love? Boundaries not only keep us safe, but they also keep us happy. Written By Dr. Elinor Greenberg
Most of us wish that our mates could just read our minds and do what we want without ever having to say a word. We reason: “If they love us, they should just know.” Some of us also think: “If we have to tell them and then they do it, it doesn’t really count.”
The truth is that the people we love, are not mind readers. It is up to us to communicate what we want and do not want and then be prepared to negotiate any difference of opinions. If you frequently find yourself resenting your mate’s behavior and wishing it would change, it may be time to have a calm, non-confrontational talk about boundaries.
Why Do We Need Boundaries With People We Love?
Boundaries protect us while giving our mates important information about our likes and dislikes. They tell our mate: This is okay. That is not okay. Even someone who loves us is still a human being who is likely to assume that we will like whatever he or she finds pleasurable or acceptable—and we are probably doing the same thing to our mate.
All things being equal, even well-intended humans tend to prioritize their own needs and inclinations unless they have a compelling reason to do otherwise.
In order to know where you need interpersonal boundaries, you first have to pay attention to your own likes and dislikes. Give this step some serious thought. As Seneca, the Roman philosopher said: No wind is a good one if you do not know what port you are heading for.
It is best to orient your mate before he or she crosses one of your invisible lines. It is a mistake to just sit there hoping that you will get what you want and then reacting badly when you do not. Be proactive, not reactive.
Once you are clear about what you want, you need to find a way to clearly and calmly communicate to your mate where these boundaries are. You need to do this gently, without killing the romance or making your mate feel blamed or criticized. If you know in advance that a situation is coming up that may go bad because it crosses one of your invisible boundaries, it is up to you to find a way to communicate your preferences ahead of time.
Example—Betty and Morning Sex
The first time Betty and her new boyfriend Mark slept together; it was after they had gone out on a very romantic date. Betty had prepared for that date very carefully. She had showered, shaved her legs, brushed her teeth, put on her makeup with extra care, and dressed in her best date outfit and sexiest underwear.
She felt beautiful. They had made love by candlelight with romantic music playing in the background. They made love twice again during the night before they both fell asleep. Based on Betty’s earlier behavior, Mark had no way of knowing that Betty hated making love first thing in the morning—and Betty never thought to mention that fact.
So, when Betty was awakened the next morning by Mark sensuously stroking her body, Betty was appalled. She no longer felt beautiful. She smelled of sex, had a morning mouth, and needed to pee. All she wanted to do was get to the bathroom, shower, brush her teeth and repair her makeup. Then and only then might she feel ready for more sexual play.
Mark was puzzled and hurt by Betty’s rejection. He mumbled something about needing to get to work and quickly left. Luckily, Mark really liked Betty and, despite feeling rejected, he texted her and told her how much he had enjoyed their date. He then asked if she were free the next evening. Her warm and immediate reply reassured him.
Eventually, Betty felt comfortable enough to confide her true feelings about having sex first thing upon awakening. They are still happily together negotiating their differences and mutual boundaries.
When Do You Establish A Boundary?
This question is simpler than it appears. The short answer is you set boundaries whenever you become aware that one is needed. I tell my clients: Don’t worry. It is never too late to back up!
Related: 10 Reasons Why Boundaries Don’t Work
Many of us only discover that we need a particular boundary after we have repeated experiences that we do not like. This could be after a day or after two years. It does not matter. I suggest that you say something that:
- Acknowledges that you are asking to make a change in the spoken or unspoken relationship “rules.”
- Says what you prefer now (the new boundary).
- Explains why you want the change.
Example—Mark unexpectedly brings friends home
Mark and Betty ended up living together and were very happy. Betty initially loved that Mark was so relaxed and spontaneous and often surprised her with a new fun plan.
After a while, Betty realized that there were some areas in which she did not like to be surprised, such as when Mark spontaneously invited a new couple to dinner with them without asking her first. Here is what happened.
Betty got home from work exhausted. All she wanted was to shower, get into a lounging outfit, order in food, and watch TV with Mark. Mark suddenly showed up at their door with another couple he had met that day and cheerfully announced:
Get dressed. We are going out to dinner with Tommy and Jen. They know a great new Brazilian restaurant. You will love it.
Betty’s internal response: Oh crap! Who are these people? I really do not want to do this.
Betty put on her happy face and went along with Mark’s plans. Later, she realized that she needed to tell Mark that she wanted to change the way that they had been handling things. So..the next morning during breakfast, she said:
Your friends were great, and I had a good time, but I found out something interesting about myself. I was so tired by the time I got home from work, that I think sometimes I just need a rest. At the very least, I think I need a heads up to prepare myself mentally for going out—especially when I am looking forward to a quiet night alone with you.
What I would really like is if you would call me first before making unexpected plans for us. That way, if I am really not up for going out, I can let you know before you make plans. And, if we both do decide to go out, I can have more time to get ready.
Mark was surprised but agreed. Now there was a new boundary in place—no new plans for the two of them without checking with Betty first.
Please note some boundary-making suggestions imbedded in the above example:
- Betty made it about herself: I discovered that I need…..
- She did not criticize Mark at all.
- She waited till the right time to tell Mark what she wanted to change and did it in a friendly and upbeat way.
- There was absolutely no angry attack.
Not every situation where you need to set boundaries is as harmless as the above two. One of the ways to think about boundaries is from the design of ancient castles.
They have outer barriers and gates to keep out really dangerous situations. Then there are inner sturdy doors that can be locked or guarded against unwanted, but not necessarily dangerous intrusions.
How To Guard Your Emotional Castle
You will need a few different types of boundaries:
The deep moat and a drawbridge:
This type of boundary is meant to keep out invaders who mean to harm you. It is a very strong barrier. In real life, this signifies making an appropriate boundary that prevents a mate from physically harming you. The modern equivalent of a moat and drawbridge could be a locked door and an order of protection.
The inner iron gate:
This could be a firm “No” or “Stop that!” when your mate devalues you or tries to bully you.
The beautiful wooden door:
This is your gentle and diplomatic, No, thank you. I would rather not. Let’s do……instead. This is handy for all those times when the boundary is not about protecting yourself from harm but deals with your preferences.
Everyone needs boundaries, even with their loved ones. The basic rules are:
- 1. Realize that you are entitled to have boundaries.
- 2. Make the boundary appropriate to the situation. There are different sorts of boundaries. They range from a definitive—Keep out and never come back—to stating a gentle, but firm preference—Please don’t wake me for morning sex.
- 3. Put up the boundary as nicely as possible.
- 4. Do it whenever you realize you need it.
- 5. Make it about what you need and want, not about how bad your mate is.
- 6. Remind the other person of your boundary, if they forget.
Are you ready and confident to set boundaries with people you love?
Written by: Elinor Greenberg
Originally appeared on: Psychology Today