The Blessing of Boundaries

The couple sits in the restaurant, their eyes shining, hands entwined.  Time seems to stand still as they share their deepest dreams.  All else disappears but the others voice, the others face, the others being.  Nothing else matters but to be together now and always.

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This is true love right?  The ultimate dream of merging our selves in a blissful oneness.  Or is it?  The poet Rainer Marie Rilke has a different vision.  He says,

“Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other”

In other words we cannot have true love, true connection, true intimacy unless we are able to hold onto our own separate identities.  And to do this we need to have boundaries.  There are two kinds of boundaries in relationships, physical boundaries and emotional boundaries.  Most of us have a sense of what it means to have a physical boundary:  It’s not touching someone without permission, not opening a door without knocking, not reading someone else’s mail.  It’s being on mass transit and making sure our bodies don’t invade someone else’s personal space (as well as we can).

Emotional boundaries are more challenging to understand.  In the same way that physical boundaries involve being respectful of someone else’s physical reality, emotional boundaries involve respect for others emotional reality: their heart, their psyche, their soul.The essence of emotional boundaries is honoring that we are separate individuals and we won’t always feel the same way or have the same opinions or thoughts.  Emotional boundaries involve hearing another’s perspective, and thinking about it without the need to agree or disagree.  In other words, it involves holding onto our own reality while allowing someone else to have theirs.

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Emotional boundaries have another layer though.  They also entail being able to be present with another person’s emotional reality and not fix it or take responsibility for it.  If my partner is upset or angry with me for being late, or messy or inconsiderate that’s ok, even if I know that there are good reasons why I behaved as I did.  I can let him have his feelings without taking responsibility for them.  Pia Mellody (author of “Facing CoDependence”) demonstrates such boundaries by the following exercise:  holding the palm of one hand against one’s own chest as if to say, “I will do no harm to others” and holding the other hand palm up and out as if to say, “stop right there, I will not allow you to harm me.”

In practice establishing and maintaining healthy emotional boundaries can be challenging.  When someone I care about is sad, upset or angry I want to fix it – I want to make it better (especially if they are angry at me!).  And if I am sad or upset or angry there is a part of me that wants the people I care about to fix it for me – even though I know it is truly my own responsibility to figure it out for myself…The little girl inside wants my partner to kiss it and make it better.  And I know that in the end I’m the only one who can do it.

So let’s revisit our couple five years down the road:

It’s been a hard day.  He’s tired, she’s irritable.  At first they struggle to relax even though they are sitting at a table at their favorite restaurant.  Gradually they share their days and agitation.  It’s not easy to just listen but they’ve been working at it and after a while she smiles at him and says, “let’s just relax and be here.”  He takes her hand and says “how did I ever find someone as patient and understanding as you?”  “Just lucky, I guess, ” she says as she smiles again and lifts her glass in a toast.

Love consists in this….the everyday give and take of realities, respecting both yours and mine, supporting you with all that I have, asking for support when I need it, and respecting the two amazing solitudes that make up the “us.”

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Posted by Laura

Laura Marshall, LCSW, is the founder and director of the Sagebrush Center for Relationship Therapy. Her experience spans thirty years of supporting couples and individuals to create healthy and meaningful lives and relationships. She is also adjunct faculty for the New Mexico Highlands School of Social Work. She lives with her husband Steve and five sons in Farmington, New Mexico.

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