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  • Writer's pictureShannon Johnson

On the B Word....

Boundaries. Isn't that what immediately came to mind when you read the title? As always, there has been a theme in the air this week, and I am inspired to articulate my thoughts as they pertain to relationships.

Brandi and I have put together a curriculum for couples that we teach at workshops and retreats. Under the topic Trust, we ask couples to talk through their boundaries in several arenas. What are your boundaries with money? What are your boundaries with parenting? What are your boundaries with emotions? What are your boundaries with people outside the relationship? Interestingly enough, many people have an adverse reaction to the word boundary. Maybe it strikes them as too rigid or too cold; perhaps they did not grow up in a home that defined boundaries. Therefore, they initially respond with, "I don't know what my boundaries are.”

The truth is, we all have boundaries (a.k.a. needs), and these needs are based on our values, beliefs, and experiences, as well as our current needs, wants, and desires. Not respecting each other's boundaries is one of the biggest problems we face with our partner.

After decades of research on relationships, Dr. John Gottman has named contempt as the most destructive element to a relationship He has named it the number one predictor of divorce. In my work with couples, the feeling of contempt tends to build when someone knowing or unknowingly crosses our boundaries, or we cross our own boundaries in order to try and meet someone else's needs, wants, or desires. Ultimately, resentment builds, and we end up marinating in contempt.

So why do we struggle with clearly identifying and stating boundaries? I know that as a parent, when my children were toddlers, they had no issue stating their needs, wants, and desires. They also would fiercely defend those: the purple cup, the princess dress, going swimming. However, as we grow, we start to care about the opinions and needs of others. Of course, this is a necessary skill, but for some it becomes difficult to advocate for their own needs, for fear of upsetting others. We are told that we need to be kind to everyone, and some of us get caught up in trying to people please. Many of us start to lose our sense of self as we try and mold ourselves around other’s expectations.

Another important aspect of boundaries is that many people grow up in homes where healthy boundaries are not practiced and/or trauma is experienced. Dependent on our experience as infants, we develop one of four attachment styles. The attachment theory, which is a concept of developmental psychology, defines the styles as secure, ambivalent, avoidant, and disorganized. Part of securely attaching in childhood is based in a child being able to trust that their parents will meet their needs and keep them safe. There are a whole host of reasons why this doesn't happen in many homes: abuse, addiction, mental illness, or neglect. For children growing up in those environments, healthy boundaries were not modeled. Therefore, it is significantly more difficult to try and identify what boundaries should be set. It also can be extremely uncomfortable to set healthy boundaries, as the child learned early on that their boundaries weren’t honored.

As with everything else, we play out the balancing act of boundaries within our relationships. During my first marriage, I became very acquainted with how different people have very different boundaries. I spent a brief time trying to step across my own values to meet his in order to "save the relationship.” I can tell you from direct experience that living outside your integrity is corrosive to mind, body, and spirit, and I, fortunately, did not end up attempting to sustain this for my lifetime.

So, instead of looking at boundaries as cold and rigid, let's look at them as the structure that helps us live and participate in a relationship authentically.

For example, one of my boundaries is honesty. From past experiences, I can be very triggered if I feel like anyone is keeping information from me, or lying. A few years ago, Brad and I rented a Redbox movie, The Gruffalo. Brad snagged it to take it back, and when I asked a few days later if he had remembered, he told me yes. You see, I am not the most easy-going person all the time (wink, wink), and I am sure that Brad didn’t want to deal with my reaction to the extra charge. He figured he would just get it back the next day and save potential conflict.

A few weeks later, I was balancing our account, and I realized that we were now proud owners of The Gruffalo. Today, this is one of my favorite stories -- it makes me giggle. But, my reaction to learning that Brad had not been truthful made me, quite literally, see red. From my past relationship, I learned how devastating betrayal could feel, and in that moment I was unable to sort out betrayal on a scale. Yes, there is a huge difference between owning The Gruffalo and experiencing what I had in my previous marriage. However, the boundary of "I must have honesty" remains. Brad is undoubtedly aware that the honesty is one of my core needs.

It is vital that we kick assumption out of the boundary conversation. I can not assume that my person feels the same way about things as I do. I can not assume that something that seems like an obvious boundary to me would be an obvious boundary for them. It is so critical to have these conversations. If my person does not know my needs, wants, and desires, it is not fair for me to hold resentment or react in a big way when they cross the line. It is also vital that we sort out our own boundaries by getting very clear about our own values.

So, I challenge all of you to sit down with your person to have a conversation about the B word. What do I need, want, and desire to be happy? What does my partner need, want, and desire? If we find distinct differences, is there a compromise that still allows us both to remain authentic to ourselves?

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