It is important to maintain a sense of separation and autonomy relationships. Just because we have agreed to share our life with someone else, doesn’t mean that we have to merge with them in an attempt to become one person. Doing so is unhealthy and called codependent enmeshment. It is also boring.
There is joy in discovering and exploring our differences. There is so much we can learn from each other and so it makes no sense to hide or cut off the bits of us that are different from those of our partner.
Boundaries help us to clarify where one person ends and the other one begins, which allows us to relate to each other in healthy ways. Happy relationships require healthy boundaries. There is no way around it.
When people struggle with boundaries, I teach them the difference between my business and your business. It is my responsibility to deal with my business; my thoughts, my feelings, my actions, my choices, my opinions, my insecurities, my fears, my challenges, my opportunities, my values, my beliefs, etc. It is my partner’s responsibility to deal with his business.
We set boundaries around what’s our business and our partner sets boundaries around their business. We mind our own business and don’t disrespect or interfere with our partner’s.
This works well for most people but some take it too literally and begin to live as a completely separate entity. As a result, they frequently push their partner’s attempts to seek reassurance, advice or support straight back onto them.
If their partner has a problem, they do not take an interest and leave their partner to solve it by themselves. They do not ask their partner if they would like some help and they don’t pick up any cues or engage in conversations about the problem. This leaves the partner with the problem feeling unsupported and often alone in life.
Securely functioning people can solve their own problems and often do so but also welcome their partner’s — as well as other people’s — practical and emotional support depending on the problem. It is healthy to allow others in and it is healthy to seek connection and reassurance whether we are faced with difficulties or not.
Another scenario where this avoidant and isolationist attitude causes problems is in the bedroom. One partner usually craves sexual connection more than the other. When an isolationist partner has the lower sex drive, this can create serious relationship problems that often end in relationship breakdown.
Their attitude is that their partner’s sex drive is not their responsibility and that therefore there is nothing they have to do about it. After all, the frequency of sex suits them and so they are happy with the current situation.
This often looks selfish and uncaring to the partner who wants to connect more on a sexual level. It can also feel humiliating and is often perceived as rejection, which further decreases intimacy and the individual’s sense of safety and worth within the relationship.
Whether it is about a practical problem or sex, everyone wants to feel supported by their partner. We want to know that they care and that we are not alone in everything we do. It does not mean that we want them to take on our problems as their own or that we expect them to do all our problem-solving for us.
What we seek is collaboration. We want our partner to notice and understand what is going on for us. We want them to care and actively demonstrate that they do by engaging with us. We want to feel a little less alone in the world.
When we are with someone who pushes everything back onto us, we naturally feel alone. It does not look like our partner cares about what is going on for us. It does not appear that they want to make an effort to make our life a little easier — not by doing our job for us, but by supporting us while we are doing it.
Having healthy boundaries does not mean not taking an interest in what’s going on for another person or never offering to help them again. It means knowing that when we choose to help we do so from a place of love and concern, not guilt and contempt. We also only help if we are being asked to help. There is no place for judgment, disrespect, and unsolicited advice in a healthy relationship.
The happiest couples support each other well. They are attuned to each other’s bids for connection and respond positively to each other. They know that each person can solve their own problems but they join and tackle problems and challenges as a team. They know how to communicate in healthy ways, negotiate and validate each other’s opinions and feelings.
When one partner struggles, the other pitches in. It’s not ‘Well, this is your struggle so you deal with it.’. That is not supportive, helpful, compassionate or loving. That is being in a relationship but not really being in a relationship, if you know what I mean.
I guess the simplest way I have ever heard it described was by John Bradshaw who said that we give attention to what we love and we love what we give attention to. When our partner gives us attention and when they respond positively to our bids for connection, we feel loved and valued. We can clearly see that they care.
If I am in a romantic relationship with someone and want to connect sexually with them only for them to dismiss me and judge my desires, I will struggle to feel loved and valued. It will not feel like being part of a team and trying to succeed together.
There are ways to negotiate differences and face challenges, but the isolationist way is the way if you want to have a happy relationship filled with trust, fun, and intimacy.
Yes, we do all own our needs, desires, wishes, wants and preferences. Yes, we are solely responsible for meeting them. This is true when we consider it in black and white terms.
‘There is you and there is me and we don’t really owe each other anything.’
However, relationships are all sorts of grey. Yes, there will always be two individuals responsible for themselves who choose to experience life together but if those individuals want to enjoy their relationship together they have to choose to learn how to create a happy and mutually fulfilling relationship with each other.
And that means being willing to connect and support each other. It means learning how to be healthy and loving in an adult relationship, something most people were never taught how to do.
And that’s ok. Because now it’s time for us to learn and finally create the relationship we have always dreamed of. It is possible and it’s not too late. Not for me and not for you.