“Your no makes the way for your yes. Boundaries create the container within which your yes is authentic. Being able to say no makes yes a choice.” — Adrienne Maree Brown, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good
I’m terrible at maintaining boundaries. I’m speaking of the emotional sort, but I could just as easily be speaking about physical ones. There is a story I could tell of myself, my childhood friend, and younger sister being asked to hold a boundary against a herd of cattle, and our failure to do so resulting in keeping the neighborhood awake all night, but that’s a story for another day.
Failing to keep boundaries in relationships, though, was a fault line that led to multiple devastating earthquakes in my life. Allow people to nudge, push, and topple the clearly defined and thoughtfully placed boundaries of my life caused me far more trouble than if I had carefully maintained my lines.
I can see now that those heartbreaking situations were due to not sticking to my plan and ignoring my needs. Often fearful of what would happen if I stood my ground, I allowed myself to shrink into someone unrecognizable to me today.
If I had held my boundaries, I certainly might have seen undesirable outcomes. Fights might have ensued. I or the other person might have decided early on the relationship wasn’t working. I might have experienced loss.
The reality, though, was all of those things happened, except in bigger and more traumatic ways. We did argue as I struggled to keep myself whole. We did ultimately end the relationships and I struggled to regain my self-esteem each time. The losses were heartbreaking because I was left wondering who I was and what had happened.
I have a very good idea now what it’s like to hold boundaries. I’m not perfect at it and need more work in some areas of my life, but I think I’m getting there. I spent many years working with a therapist on what it meant to say no and to put my needs first for me.
I was able to start practicing my relationship boundaries even before having a serious relationship. It started with dating and being clear to myself what I was seeking and what I was not. After a few tries where I gave some dates more benefit of the doubt than I should, I started to see that cutting it off at the first sign of trouble was very healthy for me. In fact, I had never done it before and it felt good to be able to say, “you are a nice person, but this isn’t going to work for me.”
While my relationship with my husband has clear boundaries for both of us, it’s easy for any human to tread on the smaller ones. When we do, generally by accident, we talk it through and try to figure out solutions so it won’t happen again. Not to brag or throw shade, but I think I’m a little better at this than him. Often if I inadvertently irritate him, I may get a sort of silent treatment while he figures out how to express the problem. But simmering anger in a man is definitely crossing a line for me, so I will insist on at least a short explanation until he cares to talk about it more. “I’m tired of picking up dirty cups around the house,” is way better to hear than what happens in my head when I can feel tension in the air.
What has happened is that my marriage is one of the strongest, most forthcoming, and honest relationships I’ve ever had, all because I’m clear on my boundaries and needs. I rarely allow old fears of losing this relationship to plague me. We both are living authentically, with care and support for each other. If this should happen to fail (nothing is ever guaranteed, thanks a lot Pema), it won’t be because of betrayal or losing ourselves. We do plan to go the distance and I feel like we have a great shot of doing it happily.
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