Beginning to set boundaries in relationships can be a difficult process. It often requires you to change a pattern of relating that’s been ingrained into your lifestyle. It might feel like swimming upstream.
When you’re first learning to set boundaries, you’ll come up against resistance, including resistance within yourself. Others might not respect your boundaries. You might notice yourself having a hard time maintaining your boundaries because it feels uncomfortable. Perhaps you’ll even begin to question or doubt yourself.
What makes a boundary a true boundary is holding to it no matter what resistance you come up against. If a fence topples the second someone leans against it, it doesn’t function as intended to keep the bad things out. Similarly, if your boundary is communicated with words but isn’t followed by actions, it isn’t functioning the way it should.
In the case of sex and love addiction, often spouses of sex addicts will threaten divorce or separation if the behavior doesn’t stop. This can come from an honest place of desiring protection or safety. However, if the boundary is not followed through upon, it’s an empty threat and therefore cannot effectively lead to change or safety in your relationship.
How can you begin to set boundaries in your life?
Identify what needs you’d like to have met as a result of the boundary.
How does the lack of boundary affect you? For example, if your spouse consistently communicates that they will be home at a certain time but consistently arrives much later, you may have spent time or energy on meal prep or childcare that you weren’t expecting. If they have a history of addiction, you might also be fearful and feel unsafe as a result of their lack of communication.
Another example could be when you are asked to pick up one more volunteer responsibility at your church. You might feel overwhelmed by the lack of time you have available for your family and friends.
What needs do you have that a boundary could provide? In her book Moving Beyond Betrayal, Vicki Tidwell Palmer lists several needs that might be present in response to a lack of boundaries. These include examples such as:
Once you’ve identified your needs, you will be able to brainstorm possible ways to set a boundary with yourself or others to fulfill that need.
Clarify your vision for an ideal response to your boundary.
Imagine this: what would your ideal solution be? Even if that solution feels silly or unrealistic, allow your mind to go there in search of the “perfect” solution.
When you’ve created this ideal situation in your mind, ask yourself where you have the power or control to make that happen. If your ideal solution to your need of rest is taking Saturdays off, you may have the power to set a boundary to say “no” to activities on Saturday.
Then identify where you’d need support or buy-in from others. If your ideal solution to your spouse’s late arrival at home is his or her on-time arrival, you may need to request that they arrive home when they communicate they will.
You will also need to identify the consequence or result of a broken boundary. Palmer explains that consequences are not meant to be punishment or attempts to control the other. Rather, consequences are to be thought of in terms of cause and effect: the broken boundary is the cause, and the effect involves meeting your need. A consequence to your spouse not arriving home when they say they will might be that you will not make dinner for them. This meets a need for freedom to complete the other tasks that need to be done that evening.
Pay attention to what resistance you feel when holding that boundary line.
As you start this process of brainstorming solutions, you might notice doubt or misgivings arising. Be curious about those: what’s getting in the way of setting those boundaries? Is it fear of the other’s response? Do you worry that you don’t have value or you’ll be forgotten if you say “no” to requests for help?
See if there are any areas of insecurity that you need to work through. Remind yourself of statements of truth, such as, “My value doesn’t come from what I do for others,” “I have control over my thoughts and actions,” or “I can walk away if things get too heated.”
Communicate your boundaries clearly and directly.
The biggest issue I often see is deciding on your own boundaries but neglecting to communicate them and/or their consequences clearly and effectively. Sometimes that can be as simple as saying “no.” Other times you need to clearly state your request and the consequence if that request is not followed through. For example, you might say, “If you continue speaking to me in a sharp and harsh tone of voice, I will leave the room.”
In some cases, it may be more appropriate to know your own boundaries and make choices to care for yourself that don’t involve the other person’s buy-in. For example, you may realize that going shopping with one of your friends is hard on your budget, as you tend to overspend while you’re with her. You may choose instead to suggest different outings together that don’t involve shopping in order to maintain the friendship, but it may not be necessary to communicate that directly. If, however, your friend pressures you to go shopping with her more often, there may come a time where you choose to communicate your boundary more clearly to her.
Recommended Resources for Boundary Setting
Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend – This book is a great primer on the concept of boundaries. You can also purchase the corresponding Boundaries Workbook to help you put into practice the concepts you learn from the book.
Moving Beyond Betrayal by Vicki Tidwell Palmer – While this book is written specifically for partners of sex and love addicts, she does an amazing job with her 5-Step Boundary Solution in explaining a concise, step-by-step process in setting boundaries. I would recommend this for anyone interested in setting boundaries, whether or not you are a partner of a sex addict.
In Part 2, we’ll address what to do when you set a boundary and it doesn’t work out the way you expected.
Are you learning how to set boundaries in your relationships? Do you feel like a doormat, unable to stand up for yourself or ask for what you need? Is your partner an addict and you’re wondering how setting boundaries can help to rebuild trust? I’d love to help you understand how setting boundaries can revolutionize your relationships and help you grow in confidence. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me to set up a counseling session today at Restored Hope in Ann Arbor.