Usually the quiet one in her group, Heather spoke up. The topic of discussion was “conflict resolution,” and she couldn’t be silent another second. “I know how to present facts and arguments about my opinion in a caring way. But my husband will walk out on me if I start disagreeing! Now what do I do?”
Heather’s problem is shared by many. She genuinely believes in boundaries, but she is terrified of their consequences.
Is it possible that others will become angry at our boundaries and attack or withdraw from us? Absolutely. We were never the power or the right to control how others respond to our no. Some will welcome it; some will hate it.
We can’t manipulate people into swallowing our boundaries by sugarcoating them. Boundaries are a “litmus test” for the quality of our relationships. Those people in our lives who can respect our boundaries will love our wills, our opinions, our separateness. Those who can’t respect our boundaries are telling us that they don’t love our “no.” They only love our “yes,” our compliance.
So what does Heather, whose husband is an avowed “boundary buster,” do? Will her husband carry out his threat to walk out on her? She can’t control his response. But if the only thing keeping Heather’s husband home is her total compliance, is this a marriage at all? And how will problems ever be addressed when she and he avoid them?
Setting limits has to do with telling the truth. First, there is the person who welcomes your boundaries. Who accepts them. Who listens to them. Who says, “I’m glad you have a separate opinion. It makes me a better person.” This person is called wise.
The second type hates limits. Resents your difference. Tries to manipulate you into giving up your treasures. Try our “litmus test” experiment with your significant relationships. Tell them “no” in some area. You’ll either come out with increased intimacy — or learn that there was very little to begin with.
Do Heather’s boundaries with her husband condemn her to a life of isolation? Absolutely not. If telling the truth causes someone to leave you, this gives you the chance to reach out to a counselor or a support group.
In no way am I advocating divorce. The point is that you can’t make anyone stay with or love you. Ultimately that is up to your partner. Sometimes setting boundaries clarifies that you were left a long time ago, in every way, perhaps, except physically. Often, when a crisis like this occurs, it helps the struggling couple reconcile and remake their marriage healthier. The problem was raised, and now can be addressed.
But a word of caution: the boundary-less spouse who develops limits begins changing in the marriage. There are more disagreements. There are more conflicts over values, schedules, money, kids, and sex. Quite often, however, the limits help the out-of-control spouse begin to experience the necessary pain that can motivate him or her to take more responsibility in the marriage. Many marriages are strengthened after boundaries are set because the spouse begins to miss the relationship.
Will some people abandon or attack us for having boundaries? Yes. But, it’s better to learn about their character and take steps to fix the problem than never to know in the first place.