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Setting Healthy Boundaries

Oct 22, 2021

Jason’s wife had moved out of their family home and across state boundaries to give herself some space. When she moved, she made it clear that she did not want anything to do with him — it was over. Jason was distraught, he had seen this coming per his regular pattern of relationships. He didn’t know what to do. At nearly 50 years old, he did not want to be alone and felt that he lacked what it would take to get out and start dating again. Soon after, his estranged wife started calling him. What began as occasional requests for information soon turned into outbursts of anger. He asked himself: if this relationship is over, why is she calling me? Is she still interested in me?

Jason, confused and experiencing emotional turmoil, reached out to a therapist. Luckily, he found one who was competent and could spot the unhealthy dynamic that was being played right off the bat. The therapist identified certain patterns and behaviors with Jason and gave him guidance to help him move on in life. During this time, his wife started calling him more frequently and at random hours. The calls would vary between angry outbursts and feelings of remorse on her behalf. At this stage, the therapist pointed out Jason’s codependent tendencies and how he had trouble setting boundaries with his wife. The therapist warned him that setting boundaries might have some adverse consequences — such as escalated fury from his wife — but he recommended that Jason go ahead with certain boundary exercises anyway.

One of the recommendations the therapist made was to stop taking his wife’s phone calls and inform her that, moving forward, he would only communicate with her via email. This would allow Jason to step back and reflect on his communication with his wife without feeling pressured to respond at her beck and call.

When Jason informed his wife about the decision to communicate via email, all hell broke loose. She began calling him even more, refusing to respect his request to communicate via email. She left him angry voicemail messages, telling him he was a coward. It took a lot of support from his friends and therapist for Jason to resist the temptation to engage with his wife. Once he was able to move past the storm, though, he realized what a difference it made in his life. He started making plans to do things for himself. He could take his time to respond to the messages from his wife or choose not to respond, which was quite often the case as she was simply venting frustration. In time her venting ceded, and she filed for divorce.

In his book, Boundaries: When To Say Yes, How to Say No, Dr. Henry Cloud observes, “When we begin to set boundaries with people we love, a really hard thing happens: they hurt. They may feel a hole where you used to plug up their aloneness, their disorganization, or their financial irresponsibility. Whatever it is, they will feel a loss. If you love them, this will be difficult for you to watch. But, when you are dealing with someone who is hurting, remember that your boundaries are both necessary for you and helpful for them. If you have been enabling them to be irresponsible, your limit setting may nudge them toward responsibility.”

Often when I talk to people about boundaries, they assume that I am talking about putting people down and shutting them out. While no one likes to be treated badly, it is not within our power to completely prevent people from treating us badly, at least in most cases. So what do you do?

You set healthy boundaries.

While it may be impossible to stop others from treating you badly, you can choose to stop accepting their poor behavior. Most people incorrectly believe that boundaries are about controlling other people’s behavior. Boundaries are about you. They are about what you are willing to accept, and what you won’t accept in life. When you put a fence around your property, you assume the responsibility of the property. It is not the responsibility of your neighbors, good or bad, to put up that fence. The same can be said when it comes to setting boundaries.

Henry Cloud adds that, “Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership.”

Sometimes, setting healthy boundaries requires ending toxic relationships. You simply have no other healthy choice than to remove yourself from not only the situation but the people who are hurting you as well. This is the only way to protect yourself from people who do not understand boundaries.

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