I’m reading a phenomenal book right now by the same authors that wrote Safe People- a book that I blogged about a few weeks back. The book is called Boundaries by Drs John Townsend and Henry Cloud. I’m actually reading two separate iterations of the book- one is titled as mentioned, the other is Boundaries in Marriage, which is dedicated to couples in marriage. And while I’m not married, I figured I certainly had some things to learn in this area.
I’ve learned a lot about myself since I started in my journey of recovering from codependency and narcissistic abuse. Chief amongst them has been how absolutely terrible I was at setting boundaries and sticking to them. There are lots of reasons people don’t make or enforce boundaries. Here’s a few of them:
- fear of protecting a family image
- fear of being alone
- fear of being a single parent
- fear of financial stability
- fear that you are not worthy of being loved
- fear no one else will love you
- fear of standing up for yourself
- fear of losing control
- fear that no one will believe you
- fear you will not be supported by friends or family
- fear that he/she will not choose you
I was motivated by so many of these in my quest to avoid boundary setting and enforcing, but none moreso than the fear that I was not worthy of the person choosing me over their destructive behaviors. I was always afraid that if I drew a line of what I was willing to accept, the other person would just say, “cool, peace!” Of course now with hindsight, I know that it wasn’t a binary choice between those behaviors or me, but it was very hard to stop telling myself that lie.
If I’m being completely honest, that is something I’m struggling with today, too. More on that later, though, as I continue this series on boundaries.
What exactly is a boundary?
A boundary is a definite place where your responsibility ends and another person’s begins.
It stops you from doing things for others that they should do for themselves. A boundary also prevents you from rescuing someone from the consequences of their destructive behavior that they need to experience in order to grow.
Hey codependents! Any of this sound familiar? You may remember that there are two main habits of codependents- rescuing and caretaking. Rescuing involves saving others from the consequences of their behavior, and caretaking is doing for others what they can do for themselves, but don’t. Yep- you read that right – boundaries prevent those two behaviors and that is why it is incredibly important to get comfortable with them and get used to setting and enforcing them as well!
I cannot possibly explain to you just how terrible I was at setting boundaries. You know why that was, though? Because I had a FUNDAMENTAL misunderstanding of boundaries. I thought boundaries were my way to keep control in a situation and relationship that was so far beyond my control. My biggest problem in boundary setting was what Townsend and Cloud describe as not experiencing oneself as a free agent.
What does that mean?
Time and time again I thought that I had to pay for the mistakes or choices of my spouse because I loved him. I thought it was my job to rescue him from the messes he was getting himself into for the betterment of our relationship. It never occurred to me that I had the freedom to respond and make choices that limited the ways my spouse’s behavior affected me. Instead I would respond attempting to control him, instead of giving him the opportunity to make his own choices.
Marriage is not slavery. Love can only exist where there are boundaries. The best way I’ve heard it described is as follows: “When I was afraid or irresponsible, he was patient, not reactive. He was strong enough to love me and require more of me at the same time. He did not let me get away with being like I was, but he never punished me for how I was, either.”
I never figured out how to walk that line between not letting him get away with it and punishing him for it.
Boundaries don’t mean not having consequences. But consequences should be for you- what YOU allow yourself to be exposed to, versus what you WANT or DON’T WANT the other person to do/not do. That is the difference.
Your boundary to a perpetually late partner is to leave them behind Your boundary for conversations that turn abusive is to terminate it. Your boundary for lack of cleanliness is to throw stuff away that is left out.
Communicate your boundaries, then act on them. But, as in all things, do so in love, not out of revenge or a desire to hurt the other person.
There are lots of unhealthy ways to act instead of setting and enforcing boundaries. I’ve done most of them, I should know. Have you engaged in any of these kinds of behaviors?
- being emotionally absent and withdrawing
- not following up on consequences
- not acting responsibly (reactively)
- being passively revengeful
- being self-righteous and/or condemning
- talking about your spouse to others
The unhealthy boundary that I still engage in is emotionally withdrawing. When I’m upset, I shut down. When my boundaries were being crossed, I always disengaged or de-escalated, often for fear of safety, physical or emotional. But that has carried with me to present, and my partner knows when I’m upset now because it’s the only time that I ever shut up for more than five minutes 🙂
That doesn’t mean it’s healthy, I’ll be the first to admit it’s not. But I’m working on pushing through that with some encouragement. And fortunately I’m in relationship with someone that challenges this very part of me, never letting me get away with shutting down or turning off when faced with big emotions. That gift is incredibly powerful and something that I cherish because it makes me feel loved through my pain.
Stay tuned for the next post in this series- KINDS OF BOUNDARIES. Six months ago, if you held a gun to my head and asked me to tell you what some different boundaries were, I would have been dead because I really didn’t get it. I hope to help some of you that may be struggling with understanding what different kinds of boundaries you can set as well.