I’ve kept journals for most of my life. I’ve written in them mainly when I was in a lot of emotional pain. When I wasn’t connected and couldn’t talk to others, it was the only way to get my thinking and feeling out of my head. After I divorced from my second husband, I got out those journals to compare my memories of what happened to what was really going on. I found some things I didn’t remember. The first was that I had realized that this marriage was in trouble VERY shortly after we were married. Three months after we married, I asked a counselor if it was too early to call it quits. Three months!! And, I waited 5 1/2 years!
The other thing I discovered was that I wrote a lot about setting boundaries. But, when I wrote about setting boundaries, I didn’t have a clue about what they were. My boundaries that I “set” – according to my journals – were about what he had to stop doing. Not surprisingly, that didn’t work. That just caused more and more conflict and more disillusionment for me on why he wouldn’t honor my “boundaries.” It was not until I started setting boundaries on MYSELF that I started to create space and safety for myself. But, part of the problem for me was I didn’t know what I needed to feel safe. And, I didn’t really respect myself and trust myself enough to ask for it. Because, you see, when I set a boundary, and the behavior happens again, I have to do what I said I would do and accept the consequences.
The consequences I feared were being left, being unloved, or being disrespected. And, to the immature person that I was at the time, any one of those things corresponded to death to me. In my psyche, the fear of abandonment was so huge that I could not hurdle over it. So, I was essentially throwing out idle threats in the hopes that he would come to his senses and respect me enough to stop the behavior. I thought that his behavior had something to do with his feelings for me. His behavior was really about his own fears and feelings about himself. My sponsor calls it the “2 x 4 Rule” – They are not doing it 2 You, they are doing it 4 them. To make himself feel better, he had to hurt and belittle me. We were two people caught up so heavily in our own battles and projecting our own fears and disorders on each other that we couldn’t see the other person much less love them. Giving love takes a massive and grounded respect for yourself. So does setting boundaries.
I would never have been able to set boundaries without the support of my recovery group. They loved me until I could love myself enough to do what I needed to do. It wasn’t about cheering me on or teaching me something new, although those were essential elements. The main thing they gave me was unconditional love. And, as I realized that I was okay as I was, warts and all, I began to feel more confident in stating who I was and accepting the consequences of someone walking away. All they did was love me and point me to a God that loved me. When I began to feel really grounded in that love, I started to see for myself that I didn’t feel good when someone didn’t treat me with respect. And, I assumed ownership of that feeling for the first time. “Why does he keep doing this to me?” became “Why do I keep putting myself in this situation?” Once I realized it was ME, I could do something about it.
The uncanny thing is that once I started setting tiny boundaries with myself like refusing to argue about unimportant things, our whole dance started to change. He started reacting differently because the dance steps changed. When I said, “You may be right,” to an insult, he had nothing to argue against. He was left with a void. I was left with peace. I don’t know exactly what went on inside him, but I imagine that when I became more loving, he had less motivation to belittle and disrespect me. He would try to pick fights to keep it coming, but I just refused to engage. As I saw things change, and I felt more in control of my environment and my own safety, I started to see that this was not a good relationship for me. “Why do I keep putting myself in this situation?” started ringing in my ears enough that I knew that I had to leave. And, after a particularly bad incident, I left.
I realize that in my past, I thought that I had to stop hurtful people from being hurtful. I have no control over them. The only person I have control over is myself. If for some reason, I am unhappy or unsafe, I need to set a boundary. And, the boundary is really about me and what I will or won’t tolerate. Another thing I learned is that only I can decide what is safe for me and what is not. My particular situation and history is different from anyone else’s situation. No one else has to understand or agree with what I believe is desirable. My boundaries are my own. I have stronger boundaries when I first meet someone and when I don’t trust somebody. I may loosen them as I get to know them and trust them more.
Boundaries are really a way to teach people how to treat you. If you don’t have any, you teach them that it’s acceptable to treat you however they see fit. If you do set them, you teach them how to have a healthy relationship with you. They don’t have to do it, but that’s their choIce. It’s just that simple. If you want an excellent resource on setting boundaries, see the Boundaries series by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. For setting boundaries at work, see The One Life Solution by the same authors. They are awesome!