Setting and Keeping Boundaries
“My husband has been using pills for almost a decade. We have two kids together and I’m tired of being the one in charge of everything. I’d been putting up with it alright until last month when I got a call from the cops in the middle of the night. Apparently, my husband got pulled over high as a kite with our son in the car with him. Then, last weekend I found him passed out in his own vomit. I lost it. Sent him packing to his mom’s house and thought I feel bad, I don’t care. With him not here, I can breathe a little bit. If I’m gonna feel single, I may as well BE single. This morning I started getting text trying to make me feel guilty. He’s telling me if he goes off the deep end it’s my fault. It’s always my fault somehow and I know it’s not true, but part of me just worries. Should I have kicked him out? Have I abandoned him? How should I proceed?” – Anonymous
Up until now, we’ve explored the nature of codependent tendencies, its origins, and ways to spot the telltale signs of codependency. This critical part of the codependency recovery process allowed us to get a better understanding of the issues we’re working with. Now, based on what we’ve discovered about ourselves, we can now focus on dealing with codependency-related problems.
Whether your codependent characteristics tend to manifest in the context of friendships or romantic relationships, there’s one technique you can learn to really nip this in the bud. To be more specific, you can reduce codependency characteristics by learning how to set and keep clear boundaries and limits, regardless of how close you are to a person.
Boundaries, boundaries, and more boundaries. You want to cultivate healthier relationships? Become bada$$ at setting and keeping boundaries.
Let’s explore what it means to set clear boundaries and how this strategy can lead to healthier and more stable relationships.
What are personal boundaries?
Personal boundaries are guidelines or rules that you identify based on your wants and needs, that are reasonable ways others are to behave toward you.
Right from the start, we notice that this definition revolves around one person – YOU.
It is YOU who must set guidelines or rules, and it’s YOU who must decide an appropriate response when other people cross the line.
This is you, dear one, being in charge and taking full responsibility for your life.
Ever hear the saying, “People treat you how you let them treat you.”
Well, that’s very true.
To set personal boundaries means to separate our personality from that of other people with whom we interact on a regular basis. It means to recognize, accept and express our own uniqueness, while allowing others to do the same.
In the absence of a set of personal boundaries that we communicate in a sincere, kind and healthy manner, our day-to-day interactions would be characterized by conflicts, frustration, and misunderstandings.
I know I’ve experienced that and it’s no fun.
You can tell a lot about someone based on the boundaries they’ve set or not set. Boundaries reflect one’s self-worth. If you have adequate boundaries, it means that you value and respect yourself. If you don’t have boundaries set or let others cross the ones you do have, you devalue yourself and it can leave you feeling pretty crummy.
When a boundary has been crossed, don’t you feel uncomfortable? Angry? Sad? For example, let’s say your partner has just gone through your phone reading all of your texts and starts harping on you about this and that. You automatically feel like your space has been violated- and it has– and at that point you’re faced with making a decision.
Do you just start defending yourself like you’re on some sort of trial? Do you get angry and yell obscenities? Do you run and grab your partner’s phone and throw it out the window? (Oh, that would be tempting.)
Your partner has crossed a boundary. Your phone is none of their business.
“But they’re my partner!” So? That doesn’t give them the right to invade your privacy.
You must set that boundary and stick to it. Let your partner know that you’re serious and crossing boundaries can be a deal breaker.
Remember, what you want and need matters. And, having some privacy matters.
Communication is key when it comes to setting and keeping boundaries.
Another example is how someone speaks to you. Constructive criticism is not a bad thing, but if the tone is nasty or rude, it is not alright. If you deal with this, you can say something like:
- “I understand what you are saying, but I would appreciate it if you would speak in a respectful tone toward me.”
- “I am not quite sure why you are speaking to me in that tone. I don’t appreciate it and I’ll not allow it.”
I know a woman who was married, and her husband had a son from a previous marriage. One day they were all going somewhere, and the boy jumped into the front seat of the car, expecting my friend to sit in the back. Her husband supported his son sitting up front and had no problem letting her squish into the back seat.
My friend was not kosher with this. She wanted to say, “This is not alright with me. I am sitting up front”, but she didn’t. She told me that when she got into the back seat, her blood was boiling. She felt very devalued.
On multiple occasions, she told her husband that she was not comfortable sitting in the back seat, but he simply told her she was being unreasonable and overreacting. He said calling “shot gun” was fun for him growing up with his siblings. She bluntly told him, “I am not your son’s sibling! I am your wife and an adult!”
It didn’t help. She tried to stand up for herself and tried to set a boundary to no avail. I was very angry inside when I heard this. I wanted to go and give her husband a piece of my mind. He would never have his mother or aunt sit in the back seat, so why his wife? He valued his son’s desires over his wife’s desires and in doing so, disrespected her. She eventually stopped bringing it up because she didn’t want to deal with the argument that would come as a result. She just slipped into that back seat, growing quite resentful.
I told her she had every right to sit down with those boys and set a firm boundary with her husband and the son. Spell it out clearly. His son needed to learn that women ought to be respected, and ladies sit in the front seat- not kids. Unless, of course, the woman is alright with this arrangement, but I dare say most women wouldn’t like it.
That marriage did not work out. Eventually, she grew tired of setting boundaries that were ignored, and left. It took her a while to gain enough courage to leave, but she did. She took a stand for herself, realizing that her wants and needs really do matter.
Listen, you have a right to stand up for yourself and express what makes you feel devalued. You have a right to say when something is not acceptable to you. You have the right to say no and draw a line in the sand. And, you have the right to leave if you are not heard or valued.
Boundaries begin in childhood
Typically, people start setting boundaries during their first childhood years. By interacting with our peers, we quickly learn that some people are more permissive and welcoming, while others are more strict and rigid. We weigh the pros and cons of each alternative and decide our boundaries based on our own needs and other people’s responses.
Also, our parents, teachers and caregivers often intervene in this process (or so they should), helping us find healthy ways to satisfy our needs and desires without violating other people’s freedom.
As adults, there are no more teachers to mediate the relationship between our peers and us, and no more parents to run to when people cross our limits. In this context, we can either drift towards a codependent relationship where our partner becomes a ‘savior’ who protects us from outside threats, or we can set our own boundaries and be our own ‘saviors’. Be our own hero!
Choosing the second path means you’ll have to embark on a challenging, but extraordinary journey. YOU get to learn how to set boundaries on your own. Others can’t do it for you.
The process of setting and keeping boundaries will be your personal journey, your responsibility, and your achievement.
The biggest myth about boundaries
Before we dive deeper into the topic, let’s debunk one of the most popular myths about personal boundaries. There’s a significant number of people who believe that having a set of solid personal boundaries is equal to being rigid, inflexible, intolerant and/or adamant.
It’s true that some people might label us as ‘rigid’ simply because we don’t want to endorse or follow their selfish desires, beliefs, and attitudes, but we must consider the reason why we choose to adopt this behavior. We don’t do it because we enjoy being inflexible. We do it because we want to protect ourselves from something that may damage our physical or mental integrity.
Also, having a set of clear personal boundaries has very little to do with selfishness or rigidity. It’s more of a balance between taking care of ourselves (mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, etc.) and respecting other people’s right to express their originality and freedom.
In the end, it’s not our boundaries that create tension, but how others choose to interpret them.
People who say that setting and keeping boundaries is a sign of selfishness and inflexibility usually struggle with their own codependency or narcissistic issues. Maybe they don’t like the idea of you not being available for them 24/7, or maybe they’re afraid that you’re contemplating the idea of leaving them.
In the end, never forget that the most important person in your life is YOU. This means that, regardless of what others might think, your personal boundaries should be your number one priority.
Now, we’ll learn more about setting and keeping healthy boundaries in the next lesson.
“God, please teach me how to set healthy boundaries, and actually keep them. Help me identify my wants and needs, and express them in healthy ways.”