Many of us did not grow up in households in which the adults communicated in respectful and healthy ways. As a result, we did not witness and learn those healthy skills for relating. We did not see our parents express themselves honestly and set a boundary. We did not them stand up for what they wanted or didn’t want.
We did not witness honest and direct communication. No one asked for what they wanted. No one asked other people to stop what they were doing in respectful ways even if it hurt them in some way because that was not how it worked. And so we never learned how to set, maintain and respect boundaries. Not our own and not anyone else’s.
Consequently, our adult relationships are a battlefield. We enter with high expectations and leave wounded and bitterly disappointed. Most of the time we don’t understand what is really going on and blame the demise of the relationship on our (ex-) partner.
We repeat this relationship experience with another partner and then maybe another and another until we conclude that either people suck or relationships do. Maybe we blame it all on ourselves and so our sense of self-worth nosedives. In any case, the outcome is damaging.
But what if there was something vital we were all missing? A practical skill that allows us to connect in healthy ways and co-create a respectful relationship? What if so far we have rejected this skill because we do not know how to express it or how to receive it? What if we perceive this skill as rejecting or offensive when it actually allows us to form a loving bond? Could it be that we misjudge the very thing we need to connect in meaningful ways?
Many people perceive boundaries as barriers. They feel offended, hurt, embarrassed or rejected when someone sets a boundary with them. They often believe to have been told off and may feel humiliated or ashamed as a result.
What often follows is the beginning of huge relationship-rupturing conflict. We blame the person who set a boundary for our uncomfortable feelings and react from our threat system: we distance ourselves and leave; we stay but freeze; or we accuse, blame and fight.
Many people choose the last option. They didn’t get what they wanted because someone said no and now they feel disappointed and frustrated. Oftentimes, they also feel embarrassed and misattribute their feelings to the person who set a boundary meaning they blame them for their feelings.
It then appears only fair to attack them and try to figure out how they wronged you.
- Did they use the wrong words?
- The wrong tone of voice?
- Do they even have the right to do what they do and say what they say?
- Are they being reasonable?
- How are they being offensive?
- How are they rejecting me?
Exactly how are they wronging me because I feel horrible and it has got to be their fault! If they hadn’t said what they said or asked for what they asked for, I wouldn’t have to feel like that! Right?
Your exact reactions are unique to you because they depend on your perceptions and interpretations.
When someone sets a boundary with you, you can perceive it as an insult or you can see it as them telling you something about themselves. If, for example, they want to take a break from a conversation you’re having, then it may be because they feel tired or overwhelmed. It may be because they want to connect with you in a different way. Maybe they sense that they can no longer give you the attention this conversation requires and so they are being honest and considerate towards you.
Whatever the reason behind them setting a boundary may be, we can come up with thousands of possible reasons for why they are doing it. And none of them may be true.
We struggle to accept other people’s boundaries when we take it personally and make it mean something it doesn’t necessarily mean.
But instead of slowing down and questioning our interpretation, we believe it, feel attached, hurt or rejected and react from our threat system. We withdraw, distance ourselves or blame and fight.
Either way, we disconnect and make the other person our enemy by perceiving them as a threat.
By reacting this way, we communicate to them that we do not accept and respect them setting a boundary. We take their boundary personally and so don’t welcome their honest self-expression. This usually leads to the other person inhibiting themselves or moving away from you because they don’t feel safe or respected in their relationship with you.
Healthy relationships require two people who can set and maintain healthy boundaries for themselves AND welcome and respect each other’s boundaries.
If we argue with the other person when they set a boundary, we try to make them wrong for doing so. We blame them for our reaction to their boundary instead of exploring what is going on for us. We make them an enemy instead of seeing them as someone who tries to create a safe, open and honest relationship with us.
Because that is what a boundary does. It allows us to connect with each other and create a healthy relationship. A boundary is essentially a tool for connection. When we set a boundary, we invite our partner to get to know us better so we can co-create the healthy relationship we all want.
We do not set boundaries to hurt others or control others. We set boundaries to communicate what we like and what we don’t like, what we find acceptable and what we don’t find acceptable. Thereby we teach the other person about us. We are honest and invite them to get to know us on a deeper level. By setting boundaries, we deepen our sense of trust and intimacy. This allows us to co-create a unique, loving and fulfilling relationship experience. One that would not be possible without setting and respecting boundaries.
So if we really want to have a healthy and loving relationship, we need to set, maintain and respect boundaries. There is no way around it.
If you struggle when your partner sets boundaries, please be assured that you are not alone. At first, most people react in an insulted way to someone setting a boundary.
In those moments, we need to remember that someone setting a boundary with us is them helping us by teaching us how to be in a relationship with them. They are giving us information about something they like or dislike. We get feedback that we can learn from – unless we perceive it as a threat and take it personally.
When someone expresses something, it means that they share a thought with us. Their thought. It may be about us but it’s still their thought. It belongs to them. It is theirs.
We don’t have to take offense. We don’t have to be threatened by it. We don’t have to take it personally.
Once we go down that road, we turn an invitation for improved connection into a potential source for conflict and disconnection.
What other people say tells us about them. The second we make it about us we are no longer listening to them. We are no longer present for them. We have stopped trying to understand what is going on for them and instead get consumed by what we believe it means for us and about us.
In those moments, we need to learn to take a break and slow down. We are hijacked by an insecure state of mind and spiraling down hard and fast.
Once we feel calmer and lighter, we need to remind ourselves that a boundary is not a barrier. It is not a threat. It is not a rejection. It is a new way of being with each other. It is an opportunity to learn more about each other. It is a relationship-strengthening experience.
Or at least it can be when we have learned not to take it personally and see it as a rejection or an insult.