In an ideal healthy relationship, there is an understanding between two people that they are each individuals with their own set of values, vision, and perspective. The beauty about being in a relationship is that we can be true to our values while also learning how to co-create a dynamic that both partners have a stake in. Both partners are investing into the dynamic and overall quality of life between this partnership.
By investing in a relationship, you have someone to bounce ideas off of, someone to bear the weight of the world with, and someone to help keep you grounded. While you are developing deeper feelings for this person, they also act as a companion to enjoy the little moments with or to celebrate big milestones. A partner who can provide perspective that is different than our own in order to foster growth, enlightenment, and appreciation. That’s not to say that this road to enlightenment doesn’t come with its set of challenges such as: consistently considering someone else for your plans or decisions, getting their buy-in or picking your battles, coordinating with them even if you are at ends with one another, reflecting on how controlled are you allowing yourself to be and how controlling are you in truth being? It is something to manage and you hope that the managing of the relationship allows for the benefits.
So, what is one key ingredient in managing this balancing act? Establishing boundaries. When people hear the word boundaries, they may think “restrictions”. On the contrary, it helps both partners conceptualize what is welcomed and knowing when actions become detrimental to the person or relationship. Boundaries are meant to be lines in the sand to develop a sense of mutual respect and honesty. Establishing boundaries allows you to know your limits and way of processing while also increasing communication between partners so that there is little room for assumptions or hurt feelings. There are three types of boundaries that people adopt: Rigid, Porous, and Healthy. A quick summary of each are below, if you would like to read about them more in depth, you can do so here.
Rigid: You avoid others and confrontation to protect yourself. You do not ask for help and are for the most part detached. Avoids intimacy and close relationships because you are afraid of getting hurt or do not want to be continuously disappointed.
Porous: You tend to overshare personal information, get over-involved in other people’s personal issues. Have a hard time saying no to the requests of others. Have a high tolerance for people being disrespectful or inconsiderate towards you.
Healthy: You value your opinions and do not compromise your values for others. Are accepting of others when they say no to you, appropriately share personal information.
Both partners have the responsibility to strive towards a “healthy” boundary outlook. However, this may not be the case when you begin to reflect what kind of boundary dynamic you came into the relationship with or how it has changed over the course of the relationship. The first step would be to reflect what kind of boundary dynamic each person adopts and then look at where the discrepancies are and what needs to be adjusted to reach a healthier capacity.
Everyone has their own way of coping with stress, a difference in work efficiency, varying thresholds for tolerance, etc. Only you know what keeps you at your optimum performance. Reflect on what that looks like for you, the individual. For some people, its meeting basic physiological needs such as having a regimented eating and sleep schedule. For these people, when they have regularity in their nutrition and recovery, they have the means to tackle their day by use of energy. For other people, it might be a ritualistic practice such as meditation, decompression, or re-setting. These people process by way of reflection and connecting to their sense of self. By doing this, they begin or end their day in a way that makes them feel at peace.
Once you can identify what keeps you at your optimum self, think about how you can create a boundary in the relationship so that your partner knows it’s a need. For the first example, it could be that you need to be in bed every weeknight at 9 p.m. For the second example, it could be that you need to find specific blocks of time during the week to practice your ritual.
When each partner can identify how they reach their optimum versions of themselves, the next question becomes: How do we establish boundaries while also creating room to be challenged and to evolve? While there is no cut and dry answer because each dynamic looks different, one guideline is to think about being flexible while also not compromising our fundamental ideals and needs. When there is an issue between partners, more than likely it’s not about the issue itself, it has to deal more with a fundamental need. I have outlined the example below based on the surface issue presented, the emotional depth behind each partner’s perspective and possible solutions so that BOTH partners feel heard and supported.
Issue (according to Jenny): Jenny feels that Rich spends a lot of time working even when he is home. A lot of his “free time” is still spent on work-related items. Lately she has felt unsupported, taken for granted and, at best, feels that his attention is consistently divided.
Issue (according to Rich): Rich is juggling the demands of his job while also trying to spend time with Jenny because he genuinely likes to be around her. His job demands are a new development due to a promotion, so there is more expected of him. Lately he has felt unwanted, nothing he does will ever please her, and feels that his efforts are overlooked.
Analysis of dynamic: The couple has tried to discuss this issue with one another, and it usually ends in an argument. She will tell him that he doesn’t have time for her and it’s not fair, he will then get upset because he is trying to manage work responsibilities and what little free time he does have, he tries to give it to her and he has no time for himself. This exchange feels very tiresome and as a result has led Jenny to keep her feelings to herself and become more detached (rigid boundaries). It has also led Rich to feel that he cant say no to because he doesn’t want to upset her further and when she does get upset, he also snowballs into being upset (porous boundaries). Jenny feels neglected and unprioritized because Rich’s attention is consistently divided. Conversely, Rich feels that he cannot “win” and his efforts are unnoticed.
What is one possible troubleshooting tactic to this scenario? Establishing boundaries for work versus family time while also adjusting expectations. This can play out in a variety of ways such as: coming up with a protected block of time that is dedicated to partner time. How often this happens needs to be a conversation between both parties so that both feel it is reasonable and realistic. Expectations can also be adjusted where they can both learn to be present with one another during this block of time and to challenge the both of them to be intentional with this block.
By establishing boundaries, there is self-accountability in knowing how you function, what your triggers are, and how you handle conflict. All the while, you are also emotionally connecting with yourself and partner to know what makes you feel heard or vulnerable and vice versa. It should feel as if both partners are doing the work for self-awareness while also not falling into the trap of: people pleasing for the sake of avoiding an argument, with-holding feelings in order to “protect your partner”, and allowing one person to take on all of the emotional burden. Your feelings and opinions should matter just as much as your partner’s because each of you have an investment in the process. Having a dialogue about this topic is vital so you know how to support one another and yourselves.
Diana Nesko, MS, LGMFT provides couple, family, and individual therapy in our downtown Bethesda, MD office. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation with Diana.