Setting Healthy Boundaries
Jason’s wife has moved out of their family home and has moved across State boundaries to give herself some space. When she moved out, she made it clear that she does not want to have anything to do with him. It was over for him. Jason was distraught, he had seen this coming as per his regular pattern of relationships. He didn’t know what to do. Approaching fifty he did not want to be alone and did not feel that he had what it takes to go out and start dating again. In the meantime, his estranged wife starts calling him up randomly. What began as occasional requests for some information soon turned into outbursts of anger. He felt confused. If this relationship is over why is she calling me. Is she still interested in me?
Jason, in his confusion, and to address the internal emotional turmoil reached out to a therapist. Luckily, he stumbled upon a competent therapist, who could spot the dynamic that was playing right off the bat. The therapist identified certain things to Jason and what he needed to move on in life. In the meanwhile, his wife has started calling him more and more, at random hours. The calls would vary between angry outbursts and feelings of remorse on her behalf. At this stage, the therapist identified to Jason his codependent tendencies and how he has trouble setting boundaries with his wife. The therapist warned him, that setting boundaries might have some adverse consequences, i.e. increased anger from his wife. But he recommended that Jason goes ahead with certain boundary exercises anyway.
One of the recommendations the therapist made was, that he should stop attending his wife’s phone calls and inform her that from now on he will only communicate via email. This would allow Jason to step back and reflect on his communication with his wife without feeling pressured to respond at her beck and call.
When Jason informed his wife about the decision to communicate via email, all hell broke loose. She started calling him all the time. She refused to respect his request to communicate via email. Instead, she would call and leave him angry voicemail messages, calling him names and how he was a coward. It took a lot of support from friends and the therapist for Jason to resist the temptation to engage with his wife. But once he was able to move past the storm, he realized what a difference it made in his life. He started making plans for himself to do things for himself. He could take his time to respond to the messages from his wife or choose not to respond, which was quite often the case as she was simply venting herself. In time her venting ceded, and she filed for divorce.
Dr. Henry Cloud in his book, Boundaries: When To Say Yes, How to Say No, observes, “When we begin to set boundaries with people we love, a really hard thing happens: they hurt. They may feel a hole where you used to plug up their aloneness, their disorganization, or their financial irresponsibility. Whatever it is, they will feel a loss. If you love them, this will be difficult for you to watch. But, when you are dealing with someone who is hurting, remember that your boundaries are both necessary for you and helpful for them. If you have been enabling them to be irresponsible, your limit setting may nudge them toward responsibility.”
Often when I talk to people about boundaries, they assume that I am talking about putting people down and shutting them out. While no one likes to be treated badly, I don’t think it is our choice to stop people from treating us badly, at least in most cases. So what do you do?
You set healthy boundaries.
But I can’t stop people from treating me badly, you might say. And that’s true. It’s not your choice to do so. But you can choose to stop accepting bad behavior. Most people believe that boundaries are about controlling other people’s behavior. No, they are not. Boundaries are about you. They are about what you are willing to accept, and what you won’t accept in life. In essence, they define you. When you put a fence around your property, you assume the responsibility of the property. It is not the responsibility of your neighbors, good or bad, to put up that fence. It works the same when it comes to setting boundaries.
Henry Cloud, adds that “Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership.”
Sometimes, setting healthy boundaries requires ending toxic relationships. You simply have no choice other than to remove yourself from not only the situation but cut ties with people who are hurting you. This is the only way to protect yourself from people who do not understand boundaries.