Trigger warning: pleasers and conflict avoiders, you’re not going to like this topic. You’re going to learn that a healthy relationship includes setting boundaries, which may displease or cause conflict.
Setting boundaries means that you first know your values and how you wish to be treated, then communicate those wishes to others. Respecting boundaries means that when others communicate their boundaries to you, that you honor them without judgment.
Having healthy boundaries includes avoiding enabling or other harmful behavior in others, even if it’s consensual. For example, feeding or mitigating the natural consequences of an addiction, or tolerating abuse may not raise an emotional red flag for either of you, but that behavior does not reflect healthy boundaries.
Setting healthy boundaries requires you first to know yourself, and what matters to you. You understand what types of behavior cause harm or pain to you. For example, unsolicited criticism or hurtful comments, borrowing things without permission, lying, or infidelity cause harm and pain. In contrast, forgetting an important anniversary or not doing enough around the house to help may fall more into the category of a need or preference, rather than causing (direct) harm. Though there may be a lot of grey space between the two categories, boundaries tend to fall more in the non-negotiable range. Either way, the remedy may include having a difficult conversation to understand what is most troubling, and the requested remedy.
Communicating your wishes or needs to others can be either simpler or more complicated than expected. According to Barbara Pachter, author of The Power of Positive Confrontations, a simple WAC approach is easy to remember and execute. You simply say what you’ve observed, ask for a behavior, and check to see if they agree to the request. For example, “Danna, I’ve noticed you left my wet clothes on top of the washer instead of putting them into the dryer. Could you please just put them into the dryer so they don’t get moldy, or let me know you’re going to do that so I can follow up and make sure they end up in the dryer next time?” Then wait for an answer.
The WAC should literally be that short, direct, and free from any judgment or blame. It also requires clarity. Notice it does not include the words, “You make me feel so ___.” (see last week’s blog on intimacy). However, communicating from your heart about how you feel (owning it as your own feelings, with an “I feel” statement focusing on the behavior) means you’re communicating from your mind and your heart. “I feel worried that my clothes will be ruined if this were to happen again.”
If you don’t treat it as a big deal, it likely won’t escalate into a big deal. But it might. You may even truly feel inside that it’s an insignificant issue, but it could blow up into World War III anyway. No wonder many avoid such conversations.
You should have the conversation anyway, because if you don’t practice conflict management (subject for another blog and lifelong learning), you’ll never improve. Also, healthy relationships include intimacy and vulnerability (see the work of Brene Brown, such as her famous Ted talk if you’re unfamiliar with this topic).
If this sounds like a lot of work, it’s because it is. I never said relationship work was easy, but it’s arguably the work that’s most worthwhile doing. After all, the science of wellbeing tells us that positive relationships are key to our ability to live a satisfying and meaningful life, and your relationship cannot be positive if it’s seething with resentment.
It’s equally important that you honor the boundaries of others. Someone else’s boundary might not feel like cause for concern, but their feelings and wishes should matter to you if you value the relationship. Also, their observation may be revealing a blind spot, in which case, what you might perceive as criticism is actually a gift.
It’s also a gift because they’re willing to risk disapproval or conflict to foster intimacy in your connection and grow the relationship. In other words, they’re demonstrating commitment.
Failure to communicate or respect boundaries means that you’re relegating the relationship to perpetual resentment and anger. Over time, such emotions will harm and possibly destroy the relationship, outcomes you were likely trying to avoid by dodging conflict.