What Are Boundaries in Relationships and Why Are They Important?

Boundaries are limits put on a relationship in order to establish the safety of an individual. These limits are for the purpose of maintaining the relationship to the degree that is emotionally/physically/sexually safe for the individual. This part is very important because good boundaries are not walls. Walls push people away and shut them out. When you establish certain boundaries in relationships, you are essentially saying to them, “This is what I need to feel safe in this relationship. If you can’t give me that, I can’t feel safe.” Boundaries are about needs not wants or what is convenient for you. Setting a boundary and telling your spouse that you can’t feel safe unless they put the silverware down properly in the dishwasher is not a healthy boundary. However, stating to them that you don’t feel safe having sex with them as long as they are looking and engaging in pornography and not telling you about it is a healthy boundary. Everyone has boundaries even if you don’t realize it (e.g. you probably don’t tell your pharmacist about your sex life). Healthy boundaries are ESSENTIAL to a lasting healthy relationship. When healthy boundaries are not established or respected in a relationship, emotional and relational distress WILL BE created. There are a number of requirements in order to use boundaries in a healthy way.

1) Good Intentions

The intent of the boundary has to be safety and to maintain the relationship on a level where this safety is respected. In other words, you shouldn’t use boundaries to control the behavior of other individuals or to punish them in any way (e.g. “You’re being a jerk today so you can say goodbye to any chance you had with having sex with me tonight!”)

2) Rational Mindset

Never establish boundaries when in a reactive/emotional state. Boundaries should always be established and expressed in a rational thoughtful manner where there has been sufficient time to think out the decision. However, this doesn’t mean that you won’t be feeling fear and worry when you express a boundary to someone. It takes a lot of courage and vulnerability to set healthy boundaries. You have to be willing to take the risks of losing possible connection to get healthier connection for both of you.

3) Follow Through

It is essential you follow through with consequences if your boundaries are not respected. If you are not willing to do this then don’t waste your time in setting the boundary in the first place. For example, if you state to your partner, “Bob, I want to understand how you are feeling, but I don’t feel safe to talk to you if you continue to speak to me with degrading and demeaning language. If you choose to use this language to communicate your feelings then I will have to emotionally protect myself by disengaging in the conversation.” Therefore, it is essential that you follow through with this promise. If you choose to get defensive and use the same language back then you are choosing not to respect your own boundaries and therefore, your partner will not either.

4) Clear and Specific

Boundaries need to be clear and specific. Vague expressions of boundaries can be confusing for your partner and yourself. Spend the time trying to establish specific limits for your safety and the consequences when those limits are broken or not respected by other individuals. What are your non-negotiables in the relationship? Non-negotiable are specific boundaries that will require separation or divorce if ever broken. What are your sexual, physical, and emotional boundaries that you are required to have to keep yourself safe and connected in the relationship? If these boundaries are broken, what would you need to do to continue to create safety for yourself?

5) Expression

Boundaries also need to be expressed when appropriate. We can’t expect people to respect our boundaries if they don’t know what they are. It’s wrong for us to assume people should know how we feel and what we need. This is one of the most common mistakes in relationships.

For more information about boundaries, I suggest reading Boundaries Updated and Expanded Edition: When to Say Yes, How to Say No To Take Control of Your Life by Cloud and Townsend. Sometimes it can be difficult to see what boundaries need to be set in our relationship as well as how we should follow through with them. Seek guidance from an experienced counselor to help direct you in these decisions.

Advertisements

There is No Such Thing as Constructive Criticism, All Criticism is Destructive

Being married to a therapist can be difficult. I am sure my wife would agree with that statement. Often times, I find myself getting wrapped up in what “I” think is best for our two girls and their development. Because of this, I don’t hesitate at practicing some constructive criticism and making it known to my wife what I feel is best for her and our girls. After all, I am the expert, right? Shouldn’t my wife just hang on to my every word regarding how best to parent our children? WRONG!

One of the most difficult things to face as a therapist is that often people look to you as the expert, expecting you to have it all together in your own relationship. Well, I don’t!!  Just saying this makes the little therapist inside of me yell in my ear, reminding me that I am not supposed to admit that.

At times, I find myself guiding couples through important principles that they need to adopt in their relationship and then immediately recognizing how I lack those principles in my own. I just had the pleasure of reliving this experience. I know for myself that knowing something and doing it are two different things. In spite of this, luckily, I have the tools necessary to fix the problem.

This time, what I reminded myself to watch out for is the common practice of using constructive criticism in relationships. I notice how this comes up quite a bit with couples. Some common examples of this type of criticism in relationships is when one partner expresses to other partner what he or she should do to fix their dilemma. This occurs frequently with parenting. With my own experience, my wife will often come to me and talk about her frustrating day with the girls. She will often express the difficulties that she had faced because one or both of our daughters were not listening to her prompts. My first initial reaction to this is to “fix” the problem. Isn’t that why my wife is coming to me in the first place? So I can tell her what to do? WRONG AGAIN!!

The last thing she needs is for me to tell her what I feel is best for her and the girls. My intentions might be good. After all, I feel sad that she is having a rough time. I might also feel responsible for her current emotional state. I believe it is natural for a man to feel powerful in wanting to protect and provide for his family, not only on a temporal level but a spiritual and emotional level as well. However, I have learned the hard way that using my constructive criticism to tell her how to fix her problems has ended in her feeling I don’t care and understand what she is going through, and it has left her questioning her abilities as a mother. For this, I feel responsible for. The fact, that my actions has lead her into feeling doubt about her abilities as a mother pains my heart and brings me to sadness.

What I have learned and often try to help other couples to understand is that a husband and wife are EQUAL PARTNERS. It is not my right to remind my wife of her faults and shortcomings!! This is not my role as a husband. However, I am justified to offer a suggestion on how to better her situation, but she is equally justified to reject such a request to give her advice. Plus, that’s not what she really needs from me. What she is looking for in that moment of crisis is for her husband to understand her fears and worries as a parent. She needs validation and a reminder that she is doing the best she can with what she has. She needs to be reminded of her abilities as a mother and that there are innate qualities that she has, in spite of her weaknesses, that makes her more capable of nurturing our children than I am. Ultimately, she needs me to lift her up and support her through her crisis. This is the only thing she needs from me at the time. She doesn’t need a husband telling her what she should and shouldn’t do!

One of the most rewarding experiences I have had as I have strived to be the support and rock that she has needed through validation and empowerment on my part is the joy I have received knowing that I have practiced my role as a husband, and as a result, she feels loved and cared for by me. To me, being emotionally available for my wife is one of the highest levels of masculinity that I have found.

 

 

The Secret Ingredient to a Happy Relationship

Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

You could probably “google” the title of this blog and get hundreds of different responses. Despite this, I would like to share what I think is the secret ingredient most couples and family members lack when they experience relational distress. I believe it is human intuition that when our character or role in a relationship is threatened we immediately want to put up a defense to protect it. One of the reasons we do this is to avoid feeling shame about ourselves or the role we play in our relationship distress. Most of us naturally want to feel important as well as feel we are making a positive difference with the people around us. The way we react to disapproval or criticism is similar to how our bodies react to a cold virus. When our bodies recognize that something foreign has invaded it and is threatening the system, it gives off antibodies to fight and defend itself. Unfortunately, in relationships, these natural efforts to defend ourselves from others’ disapproval usually causes more harm than good. Often times, we feel the “need” to help our loved ones hear our side of the story because if they don’t (we say to ourselves) they will think the worst of us. Then as soon as we express what “really” happened, we expect our loved ones to succumb to the “truth” of it and admit that their views of the incident are in error. Unfortunately, as you might have guessed, our episodes most often don’t unfold in this manner. What often happens is two people feeling unheard and misunderstood and leave feeling more frustrated than ever. However there is a key piece of knowledge here that many people have a hard time contemplating. It is that TRUTH IS POINTLESS IN RELATIONSHIPS! Trying to convince each other to hear the “real” story often ends up in a conversational debate about who is right and who is wrong. Now don’t get me wrong. I think there are certain things in the relationship that need to be regarded as “wrong” and “right.” However, for the most part, healthy relationships are often founded on a mutual understanding of each other’s unique perspectives. This leads me to the SECRET INGREDIENT……..VALIDATION. Validation is the ability to step inside our partners world and to see the world as they see it. When we have done this we given them permission to feel whatever they are feeling and acknowledge their difficulty and pain in the events that have occurred. When couples and families are able to validate one another’s story and feelings, positive interactions can start to succeed the negative ones and lead us on the road to relationship satisfaction. I think that often times we fear that if we validate and understand our partner’s feelings that we are afraid that our own feelings won’t be heard or understand. However, that is often not the case. When we are able to listen to our partners on an emotional and authentic level and our partners are able to express themselves on a vulnerable and authentic level, our partners are much more likely to step inside our world and listen to our reality.

Love is a Verb

I found this post I really liked. It serves well at explaining what love really means in a relationship. Here is one of the quotes that I thought was intriguing.

No, love isn’t an emotion or even a noun.  It’s a verb.  Better defined as giving.  As putting someone else’s needs above your own.

Why wasn’t I getting reciprocal lovey-doveyness when we were first married?  Because it wasn’t for her.  It was for me.  An emotion I had in my chest.

What do you think about his definition of love? Does it resonate with you? 

You can read his post here:

 

Great Expectations

Author: Kyle M. Reid, Associate Marriage and Family Therapist

I once had a friend who told me that when he was first married, he had the flu one weekend. He started to get very angry at his wife because she didn’t have a glass of grape juice sitting on his bedside when he became sick. I thought to myself, “That’s ridiculous!” He went onto say that growing up his mother would give him a glass of grape juice every time he was sick. He was so used to getting one over the years that he expected his wife to do the same thing.

We all of have expectations in our relationships. Some are important for the relationship to continue (e.g. fidelity) and some are ones that we might need to reevaluate or just remember that we own them and shouldn’t push them onto our partners. I would say that the hard part is trying to decide which ones are worth fighting for and which ones we need to own for ourselves.

One of the biggest mistakes I see in relationships is the fight each partner has between what is right and wrong in their eyes. Each partner spends so much time trying to convince the other that they need to see things their way that all they end up doing is convince the other to hold onto their current way of thinking who in return becomes resentful towards them for trying to force their beliefs onto them.  One example of this is when my wife and I were first married. In our drawer in the kitchen, we had bar towels and towels you would use to dry your hands. According to my beliefs and how I was raised, you NEVER mix up the two! I had a firm belief that you never use the bar towels to wipe your hands and you never use the hand towels to wipe the counter. However, my wife didn’t see this issue as of great importance and was wondering why I was running around throwing a hissy fit. So, she would continue to mix up the two quite often. Sometimes I would go and wipe my hands on a hand towel not knowing that it had been used previously to wipe the counters off. I became frustrated with her quite often and attempted to convince her that my way was the right way of doing things and she needed to stop mixing the towels up. I began to realize that she just wasn’t raised my way. I realized that I needed to stop putting my expectations onto her and stop demanding that she live up to them. I had to make a choice. I would either continue to nag her about the towels to the point she would do what I said. I would get what I wanted but with a heavy price of resentment and a build up of emotional walls from her in return. On the other hand, If I chose to own my expectations and understand where she was coming from, I could begin to see how using the right towels wasn’t worth the pains of the relationship distress. I could ACCEPT it…… Of course, I chose the latter. We haven’t fought about it since. Choosing to ACCEPT this has lead me to look back on it now and think how silly it was for me to put so much effort into using the right towels. Now, instead of getting on her case, I grab another towel to wipe my hands and move on to the rest of my day leaving that behind me. This experience has taught me the importance of owning my expectations in my relationship as well as learning to ACCEPT many things I don’t have control over.

Addictions and Their Substitutes for Love

Author: Kyle M. Reid, Associate Marriage and Family Therapist

One of the best books I ever read wasn’t actually a novel. It was a book about drug addicts. It is called In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Mate. Well, I learned from this book that most of the things that a drug addict struggles with and the reasons for their addiction plague most relationships. Addictions are actually much more common than you might think. There are many forms of addiction that plague relationships: such as TV, Internet browsing, pornography, social media websites (i.e. Facebook), computer games, video games, cleaning, shopping, music, eating disorders, and electronic gadgets. The problem behind the addiction isn’t the addiction itself but the addiction cycle and the needs our bodies are trying to get met. Even if you take the steps necessary to stop one addiction (e.g. pornography), another one pops up in its place (e.g. TV). This is because you are not actually solving the problem underneath the addiction, which is: using poor substitutes for love. People who struggle with addiction do not necessarily have problems with being loved or feeling loved, but the problem lies in “accepting love vulnerably and openly on a visceral, emotional level” (Mate, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts). People who cannot find or receive love need to find external influences or substitutes to get their needs met (Mate, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts). One of the biggest differences between people who struggle with addiction and people who are less influenced by them is their ability to handle and deal with emotions. Children who have parents who are always attentive to their needs, who have the ability to regulate their own emotions, and can properly soothe their children, learn to manage their emotions effectively because they were taught by their parents. However, those who have poor attachments with their parents and were left to themselves to soothe their emotional distress relied on external sources to comfort themselves. It is unfortunate that we are entering into a society where there is more and more emotional deprivation and reliance on electronic technology to find comfort rather than having quality contact at home with our loved ones.

What do I do then?

If you are struggling in a relationship where addiction has taken its toll on the relationship distress, I encourage you to see a therapist. Addictions can be difficult to overcome and unless you can deal with the underlying problems associated with the addiction, you are most likely to develop other forms of addicted behaviors. However, knowing what is at the root of addiction can help the addict and the partner of the addict in knowing what needs to be done.

If you are interested in finding out more information on the book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, please visit the resources tab at the top of the page.

The Lost Art of Listening

Author: Kyle M. Reid, Associate Marriage and Family Therapist

One of the most common complaints I hear from couples is the inability that they have to communicate effectively with each other. By the time they come into therapy, they are both exhausted physically, emotionally, and mentally in the relationship and are at a loss of how to get the other partner to understand them. When partners stop listening to each other, the relationship slowly starts to diminish. However, before we go further, lets talk about the differences between hearing someone and listening to someone. Listening is more than just hearing what people say. I can hear my wife talk to me about her day and get every word she is saying but if I am playing on my phone while she is doing this she will most likely reply, “Are you listening to me!” Of course my natural reply would be, “I heard everything you said!” However, what did she really want from me?……… She wanted more than just hearing her words, she needed me to help her to feel I cared about her day and what she was going through.  Listening to our partners is not about agreeing with them! It is about trying to show empathy towards their situations and what they are going through. It is about trying to put ourselves in their shoes and walk in them a bit.

By the time couples get to therapy, the listening stops and the defensiveness starts. They had stopped listening to each other long ago in their relationship and have come to a point where they just want to be heard by their partner. So you can imagine what this looks like. The most common example of this to me in therapy happens while one partner is talking to other. A lot of the time, the latter is trying to think about the next thing to say to him or her trying to win the war of words.

At this point (the point where most conversations end up in an argument), many couples contemplate divorce believing that they will find somebody better who will understand and listen to their needs. While this usually happens initially at the beginning of relationships, most patterns get repeated in the long-term no matter how many relationship changes there are.

One of my favorite authors, Michael P. Nichols, PhD, wrote a book called, The Lost Art of Listening. In here he stated, “A relationship is not a thing, not a static state; it is a process of mutual influence. A relationship isn’t something you have; it’s something you do. Couples who learn to listen to each other–with understanding and tolerance–often find that they don’t need to change each other. The impulse to change things, to make them better, is a natural and largely constructive one. But anyone who thinks of marriage as an infinitely improvable arrangement is making a mistake. The ideal of perfectibility breeds frustration. Many problems can be solved, but the problem of living with another person who doesn’t always see things the way you do isn’t one of them. Sometimes marriage isn’t about resolving differences but learning to live together with them” (p. 207).

What do I do then?

If you feel you are in a relationship where you are not being understood, ask yourself, “Does my partner feel understood by me? Does her or she feel I care about their opinions?” When my wife and I are talking about something together, I often don’t agree with how she sees things. However, I recognize that her feelings and opinions are just as important as mine and who am I to say that I am the all-knowing authority on the subject! I have learned in my relationship and with my therapeutic experience that expecting your partner to align with your way of viewing the world will mostly likely leave you alone in that world. My advice is to resist the urge to try and change your partner and focus your efforts on listening to them. Doing this will likely lead to a better and healthier relationship. I have often found that by doing this and helping your partner feel cared about by you, he or she will most likely be in a place to listen and understand you.

If you are interested in finding out more information on the book, The Lost Art of Listening, please visit the resources tab at the top of the page.