Yep. We’re talking about boundaries again. They’re THAT important.
Because I’m a hack writer (or possibly just because every single person on earth hasn’t read or doesn’t remember all of my posts), our conversations about boundaries are getting gray and cloudy like a sucky winter day in Cleveland.
And that’s bad. Because boundaries are magical. Like when the sun comes out during the rain and gifts you a sweet rainbow to frolic on, or how God doesn’t strike me dead when I order groceries online and an underpaid high school kid loads them in my Jeep for me curbside while elsewhere deserving people starve.
For the 90 percent of you who won’t read Mark’s piece, I’m going to share a small part because it’s really important. From Mark:
“Let’s do the ‘You Might Have A Boundary Issue If…’ list so you know where you stand:
- Do you ever feel like people take advantage of you or use your emotions for their own gain?
- Do you ever feel like you’re constantly having to ‘save’ people close to you and fix their problems all the time?
- Do you find yourself sucked into pointless fighting or debating regularly?
- Do you find yourself faaaaar more invested or attracted to a person than you should be for how long you’ve known them?
- In your relationships, does it feel like things are always either amazing or horrible with no in-between? Or perhaps you even go through the break-up/reunion pattern every few months?
- Do you tell people how much you hate drama but seem to always be stuck in the middle of it?
- Do you spend a lot of time defending yourself for things you believe aren’t your fault?
“If you answered ‘yes’ to even a few of the above, then you probably set and maintain poor boundaries in your relationships. If you answered a resounding ‘yes’ to most or all of the items above, you not only have a major boundary problem in your relationships, but you also probably have some other personal problems going on in your life.”
If you’re like me, you nodded your head ‘yes’ a few too many times because it hits a little too close to home, or because you remember how the younger you did all those things and maybe that’s why many shitty things happened.
Boundaries are about Emotional Health.
Emotionally healthy people have and enforce strong boundaries. And ALSO, having and enforcing strong boundaries makes you emotionally healthier.
Having strong boundaries means you don’t take responsibility for other people’s crap, and you ALWAYS take responsibility for your own.
I believe we must vigilantly enforce our boundaries (and respect others’ vigilantly enforced boundaries) in order to have high-functioning, healthy, mutually beneficial, and ultimately successful, human relationships.
And what that means is, when people knowingly violate our boundaries, we need to be willing to walk away and cut them out of our lives, which is a really hard thing to do. Because sometimes it’s your spouse, or a parent, or a sibling, or an old friend, or a co-worker, or someone you share children with.
You can’t always just walk away from people to enforce boundaries without innocents (like your kids or other family members or friends) becoming casualties of the decision.
One thing we can be sure of is that if we’re in such a spot, it’s because at some time in our past, we failed to enforce our boundaries in healthy ways, and later we suffer the consequences.
We’ll leave the family and friendship drama for another time.
For now, I’m focused exclusively on enforcing boundaries while dating. And then later, during marriage.
THESE ARE NOT THE SAME THING.
Let’s talk about why.
The Magic of Dating Boundaries
Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
Girl meets Boy. It’s all flowers and Facebook status changes and sexting and orgasms.
But then Hedonic Adaptation does what it ALWAYS does, and the lovey-dovey stuff wears off for the Boy.
Boy starts behaving differently. Communicating infrequently. Spending more time with friends or maybe other girls.
Boy’s behavior makes her feel bad. She tells her friends and her diary, but she doesn’t tell the Boy.
Eventually, things get more serious.
Meal planning, domestic housework, calendar scheduling, and sharing resources comes more into play.
Boy’s behavior forces Girl to take on lion’s share of that work because he’s totally disengaged outside of their date-ish time together.
Girl finally tells Boy that she’s upset, either because he finally asks her what’s wrong, or because she works up the courage to say something even though she’s afraid of the potential fight or making him feel smothered and pushing him away.
Boy tells her she’s delusional. That she’s imagining things. That she’s crazy. “OF COURSE I love you!” he says.
But no matter how much he tells her she’s being overly emotional or misreading the situation, she continues to feel sad and anxious about his behavior. He says her feelings aren’t real. But they damn sure FEEL real to her.
Girl keeps feeling uneasy, but she doesn’t want to break up.
Boy only gets upset WHEN she points out his behaviors that hurt her feelings, so she stops bringing them up so much, because she doesn’t like fighting, and the fear of him rejecting her or of being single again somehow outweighs the fear of his behavior hurting her feelings again.
Maybe he’ll change one day, she thinks.
Maybe she talks to her mom about it. “Oh that’s just how men are, honey,” Mom tells her while cleaning up after a weekend family meal while Dad goes to the other room to watch TV. “You see how your father is. He’s a good man. This is life. This is just the way it is.”
It seems a little depressing to Girl. But she’s already invested two or three years in the relationship, all of her girlfriends are getting married, and all of the guys do stuff to upset them once in a while.
I guess this really is just the way life is, she thinks.
Girl marries Boy.
Five to seven years later, they’re miserable because the same behavior that hurt her feelings while dating hurts even more now that he promised to love and care for her forever, but she doesn’t feel loved, nor cared for, nor emotionally safe or secure in any way.
Boy is oblivious.
Girl is stressed to the max.
Girl gets a phone call. Her mother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer.
Girl loses her mother.
Girl breaks because losing a parent can feel impossibly hard. She feels responsible for caring for her father who doesn’t know how to cook and clean for himself. She needs to grieve but it’s hard because there’s no one else around to take care of Life Things.
Girl takes care of Life Things until she finally collapses emotionally.
Boy is absolutely zero comfort. She didn’t know it until right now—but he doesn’t feel steady like her mom did. He can’t comfort her even when he tries.
Girl rejects Boy. Boy feels sorry for himself. One or both of them seek comfort in the arms and privates of someone they’re not married to.
Very bad things happen.
Mid-life misery ensues.
And even though it’s not her fault, it is her responsibility.
This happened because she didn’t enforce her personal boundaries while dating.
Enforce Your Boundaries Vigilantly
I work in marketing.
It’s a complete waste of time and damaging to marketing programs to try to sell products and services to people unlikely to want or need them.
You don’t want to open a fishing bait shop in the middle of the desert. You want to open one by waters used for fishing.
You don’t want to sell “Make America Great Again” hats at Hillary Clinton political rallies. You want to sell them to fans of her political rival.
For marketing programs to succeed, we must target customers intelligently.
And so it goes in dating.
I’ve written repeatedly that I think people should vigilantly enforce their boundaries while dating.
That doesn’t mean you cut somebody off the first time they upset you. No one would EVER stay together if that was the case.
But what if Girl made different choices in the above example? What if, when Boy started exhibiting behaviors she was uncomfortable with, she simply communicated that to him?
What if she said: “Hey. I really care about you and want to see where this can go, but you need to know that I felt really crappy when X happened earlier. Maybe I’m misunderstanding, or getting something wrong. But I have plenty of things in Life that hurt and will hurt me in the future. The person I’m going to spend the rest of my life with WILL NOT be one of them if I can do anything about it. I just want you to know that what happened crosses a hardline boundary with me”?
One of three things happen afterward.
- He can act like he usually does and try to explain to her how she’s wrong and her feelings are stupid, and then she can walk away toward a future where she gives someone else a shot to demonstrate actual love and respect.
- He can promise to try harder and fail. She avoids a sad divorce later.
- He can promise to try harder and succeed. They have a healthy marriage.
When people enforce their boundaries vigilantly while dating, ONLY people with a high probability for success will ever end up exchanging wedding vows with one another.
Will there be a shit-ton more break-ups? Absolutely. But explain to me what the problem is. If all of the people destined for divorce or shitty marriages don’t end up getting married, how does that make the world a worse place?
Exchanging Vows is Something Else
In the ideal scenario where everyone is making good Life choices, two assholes incapable of healthy marriage don’t end up marrying each other in the first place.
That means boundary enforcement during marriage rarely rises to the level of causing divorce. Two people vigilantly enforcing their dating boundaries are WELL PREPARED for the kinds of unselfishness and communication necessary to thrive.
But we don’t live in an ideal world. And no one owns a kick-ass DeLorean time machine. And that means many of us find ourselves in shitty relationships where the criteria for being willing to walk away from the relationship can’t be the same as that of the unattached dater with options.
There’s a fundamental difference between two people who are dating, and two people who are married.
When you’re dating, you can dump someone over something petty like how loud they chew their food, or the fact that they root for a sports team you hate. When you’re dating, you’re allowed to have any personal boundaries you want. It does NOT matter what someone else thinks is reasonable. You are not beholden to anyone.
You are free to create or eliminate any boundary you want, for any reason, at any time.
The important thing is that when someone crosses your line and inflicts pain, that when they KNOW they did, they exhibit remorse and a desire to avoid causing future pain.
If they dismiss what you’re saying and feeling, indicating this shitty thing will continue to happen over and over again? We should walk away.
Our marriage boundaries shouldn’t be superficial.
And our vigilance should be limited to major vow-breaking violations, and not just a fight over what to put on the TV that night or whether you’re going to attend the family get-together next weekend.
And that’s because when we get married, we vow—VOW—to love generously. Forever.
We promise to sacrifice. To give more than we take. To forgive. To lift up the other when they’ve fallen. To choose love each and every day regardless of how inconvenient it might feel.
That’s what it means when we say “I do.”
Our marriages are shit today because the younger, dumber versions of ourselves didn’t know what we didn’t know. And now we have some hard choices to make. Choose to love, even though it isn’t easy? Or divorce, even though it isn’t easy?
Life is HARD.
And there are no judgments here. People need to do what they need to do. People need to make mistakes and figure things out. That’s how human beings learned that fire and water—two amazing, life-giving things—can also kill us.
Marriages rooted in poor boundary enforcement will be difficult and dysfunctional. Most will fail.
But the conversation about boundary enforcement changes between people who are dating and people who are married.
We enforce boundaries while dating IN ORDER TO achieve a healthy and successful relationship.
And in marriage?
We love hard. Not because we feel like it every day. Because we choose it every day.
We choose it today. And then tomorrow. And then the next day.
And when our partners do the same in return, Forever happens.
Often worth it.