Nobody likes the word no. But what if it turned out to be a helpful word in your relationship?
A lot of men are surprised when they hear that a boundary is more meaningful than a simple form of “no.” A boundary—a line between what’s OK for another person and what isn’t OK for them—won’t always look like an outstretched palm keeping you at arm’s length. (Another person’s personal boundary is not about you at all.) Most men are surprised to learn that boundaries aren’t about being shut out but are actually opportunities for understanding and closeness. If you can tend to them, boundaries will strengthen intimacy in your relationships.
Boundaries generate appreciation (or alienation)
For each type of relationship—those with friends, neighbors, family, co-workers, and romantic partners—there are a variety of boundary types to consider. We usually think of physical boundaries, like sex, when we think about boundaries, but that’s only a start: Professional boundaries, spiritual boundaries, intellectual boundaries, financial boundaries, social boundaries, physical boundaries, sexual boundaries, etc.
You might be impinging on someone’s personal boundaries if you are:
- Insistent – pushing gifts or favors onto others
- Performing – having sex as a show rather than for intimacy and pleasure
- Falling fast – latching onto the love that comes rather than the love you want
- Dictating – telling someone who they are or what they need
- Needy – wanting someone to fill your needs automatically
- Impatient – demanding an answer because you want it now
Say that a good friend of yours has at last agreed to go skydiving with you, he’s feeling comfortable getting out of his usual comfort zone. However, if he’s not up for throwing back beers with you afterwards, there’s a boundary to navigate (a ‘yes’ to skydiving but a ‘no’ to how to celebrate afterwards). There’s a difference between a “no” that pushes away and a “no” that shows you who someone is. It takes a grounded, secure person to see that a friend who doesn’t drink with you still wants to share your company.
If your friend doesn’t want to drink, ask what does he want to do? If your sister doesn’t want to be told she should go to business school, ask how can you support her career-change efforts? If your wife can’t give you an answer about next month’s travel, ask if it’s okay to work around her not knowing. If your latest love interest isn’t sharing her relationship history with you readily enough, ask only how her day was. Keep it simple.
Every single one of the answers you get will give you insight into the person you are in relationship with. Listen to who they are and what makes them tick. And your question itself sets a certain tone, signaling to the other person they’re talking to a secure, grounded person.
How boundary disregard feels
If you’re in a relationship that’s on the spectrum of codependency or dysfunction, you’ve probably already waded into the territory of pushing and violating one another’s boundaries. Maybe your partner has given into you because he or she is afraid you will leave if they don’t — or because they’re avoiding confronting reasons to leave the relationship.
Resentment is the hallmark feeling that results when we’re asked to do something that we feel isn’t right, preceded or accompanied by feeling disregarded:
- We feel disrespected
- We feel like we don’t counting, we’re considered ‘less than’
- We feel voiceless, invisible
- We fear that we’re insufficient, not enough for you as we are
- These are feelings you probably don’t want a person you care about to feel. And these are feelings that you don’t especially want to feel. Resentment festers like bacteria and erodes the grace and goodwill that loving relationships require.
Pay attention when resentment knocks—resentment is a “messenger” feeling—so ask questions of it, of both yourself and your partner, when it comes:
– Did I agree to something that conflicts with my values?
– Why did I agree or let this happen? (Conflict-avoidance?)
– What do I really want?
– What do I desire but may be hesitating to express?
You can’t undo the harm done to another person’s trust after a boundary violation. Yet you can talk about it. Sometimes that makes all the difference.
Why we dismiss boundaries
We believe in winning, and winning is all about getting to yes. When we use what we think are artfully veiled manipulation techniques to get someone to do what we want, we think we ‘win.’ But, wait. What do we win if we cannot actually get to know someone?
If you had a less-than-perfect childhood, get a bit codependent in relationships (i.e., knowing what’s best for another person), or have low self-worth, you may tend to relate to someone’s expression of a boundary as a confrontation or a form of rejection. (Similarly, if the situation is reversed and you notice someone reacting to your boundary or ‘no’ as confrontation or rejection, then you’ll have spotted an invitation to a codependent dynamic!)
If your parents didn’t have or didn’t respect personal boundaries (personal and physical space, time alone, being listened to, having opinions, etc.) then you might over-correct as an adult. That is, we tend to struggle with being the first to forfeit our boundaries and paying the price for it (resentment and distrust). We tend to be very protective of our boundaries as well as sensitive to hints of boundary disrespect—we can pull away from a person for a longer period of time than seems “normal.” We might react by getting angry, by over-sleeping, or otherwise going numb.
We have some deeply-rooted reasons for failing at boundaries:
- We tell ourselves that the other person wouldn’t put us in a difficult position (they love and respect us), so what feel wrong must be right
- We fear that our boundary will make us seem less desirable to the other person, so we forego it
- We push through others’ boundaries for the ‘win’ because we fear it’ll show that something’s wrong with us if we can’t
- We become so invested in the end result—getting our way—that we dismiss others and their needs
- We let ourselves be pushed beyond our boundaries because we are not ready to deal with the real issues
In the spirit of living an examined life, take the time, with a therapist or notebook, to reflect on relationships have involved any feelings of resentment. Talk or make notes about why, and what your expectations were. Dig in, find out what’s going on.
Trying something new doesn’t always violate boundaries
Don’t create a rule in your mind ‘never’ to ask your partner to try something new, whether it’s sexting, sunbathing naked, investing in stocks, practicing Qi Gong, or going vegan. The lesson here isn’t to stop suggesting ideas that might enliven or punctuate someone’s routine (or your own). The take-away is to start doing more listening, perceiving, and empathizing. Because when you’ve encouraged a friend, colleague or romantic partner to try something new, they’ll feel:
- Butterflies in their stomach
- A bit nervous (nervous-excitement, not nervous-dread)
Such feelings, when shared with another human being, develop bonds and love. The foundation of our best relationships is a blend of trust, care, and regard. What we ask of one another must stem from empathy, respect, and love—not from a desire to win or brew power struggles.
We are part of a culture that upholds “yes” as superior to “no.” We see this in books and sales mottos: “Never take ‘no’ for an answer,” “ABC stands for Always Be Closing,” and Getting Past No. If you’re selling cars, life insurance policies, and houses in the 1950s, fine. But if you’re having a relationship in the age of the enlightened male, then the kindest way to nurture a relationship is to take ‘no’ for an answer. Why? Because ‘no’ is just the beginning of the conversation.
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Photo: Getty Images