Boundaries are essential to happy relationships. That may seem counter-intuitive. “Aren’t happy couples always spending time together and sharing everything, and doing whatever will make their partner happy?” No. In fact, that previous sentence ought to send you screaming to the hills! For two people to really be happy in a relationship both persons need to know what their boundaries are and be able to clearly communicate them to one another.
The first tricky step is knowing what our boundaries are. Reflect on your history with someone. When were you feeling resentful and put out, even though you said yes? When were you angry with the other person for seemingly “no reason”? Chances are those were moments where your boundaries were being crossed but in the moment at least you weren’t fully aware of what your boundary was. And while it may be easy to look back and notice where we weren’t fully aware of our boundaries, the more important skill is to be aware of where our boundaries are in the present. To do that, I suggest doing two things.
First, before you say yes to a request check in with your body. Do you feel tight, tense, heavy, or tired? Then there’s probably some boundary there you need to articulate. Continue investigating your body. Are you tense because you’re always saying yes to this particular request, and you just wish this other person would do it themselves for a change? Are you feeling heavy because you have absolutely no desire to do this favor at all?
Second, really investigate why you want to say yes. Are you saying yes because you think you should? Are you telling yourself that a “good/understanding/compassionate/loving partner” would say yes? If that’s why you’re saying yes, then there’s probably some boundary that’s being crossed and your mind is talking you out of respecting your own boundary. So what is that boundary? Are you wanting more consideration and respect? Are you wanting more rest and ease?
In short, to know what your boundary is, you need to know what it is you want in this particular situation. It’s both that simple, and that hard. Often our families of origins or various cultural messages have taught us to devalue what it is that we want. But that is a recipe for ignoring and even not being aware of what our boundaries are. And without knowing what our boundaries are we will automatically sacrifice and sacrifice and sacrifice until we’re so resentful we explode.
Now, once you become aware of what your boundaries are, the next tricky step is communicating them clearly and healthfully. Here’s an unhealthy way to express your boundaries: “God! You are such an inconsiderate jerk! You never thank me for helping you out, and you certainly don’t ever ask if I need help!!” Blaming the other person, labeling them as bad or “a jerk” is not going to help your partner hear the boundary you are trying to establish. Instead they are going to feel hurt and alienated from you. And in that condition, they aren’t going to be all that interested in respecting your boundaries.
So to communicate your boundaries in a healthy and direct way you’ll need to share vulnerably. You’ll need to open up about what emotions you’re feeling and what precious values or needs this boundary is protecting for you. Something closer to: “I don’t want to clean the kitchen again this week because I feel really sad and invisible when my hard work isn’t acknowledged and appreciated.”
Could that sentence start a fight? Absolutely. But communicating our boundaries in a direct and healthy way isn’t about avoiding conflict. In fact doing this often brings latent conflict up into conscious awareness. In that example, the conflict over the kitchen and being appreciated for doing that is already present…it just wasn’t being talked about. Communicating that boundary doesn’t create the conflict; it merely draws the conflict into conscious awareness. And it’s only when both persons are actively aware of the conflict that a real solution can be found.
KindCommunication.org is a project by a close friend of Wiki World Order, Alex Leach. WWO fully supports the study, practice, and teaching of non-violent communication as one of the core solutions which already exists.