Keeping Your Boundaries
What's a Boundary and Why Do I Need One?
In short, "Boundaries" is psycho-babble for "you don't get to walk all over me." Your personal boundaries might be physical, but more likely they're emotional, and the emotional boundaries are the hardest to maintain.
If you've ever had someone ask just one too many things from you, and you said yes, then you know what it feels like to have your boundaries trampled. If you've ever been awake at three in the morning while your bipolar roommate sobs to you about problems that, in the long run, will not have earth-shattering consequences, then you know. If you've ever heard "I'm going to kill myself," then you know what it feels like to have someone try to step on your boundaries.
Toxic relationships, or relationships with toxic people, are the kinds of relationships that do not result in you being a better person. A relationship can be toxic for a number of reasons. The other person could be very selfish and not contribute to the relationship. Or the opposite can be true: they're so giving and generous, you never have the opportunity to do something for yourself.
Most toxic relationships aren't tremendously abusive, and emotionally defensive people get out of them quickly. However, a toxic relationship can become abusive or co-dependent when the other partner's disrespect for you becomes actively harmful. When they verbally belittle you or physically harm you, it's time to develop an exit strategy.
Most relationships, though, carry a dose of emotional manipulation, a little bit of stepping on toes, maybe even a little disrespect. In healthy relationships, the partners actively try to respect each other and give each other room to be the best people they can be.
The key with boundaries is that you have to know what they are, and when you're willing to let them slide. Here are a few examples of my own personal boundaries:
- I don't engage in conversation at 2 in the morning unless I've been hanging out with you since 8 the previous night. Why? Because someone who calls me at 2 in the morning had better be calling to tell me my home is on fire. And the exception is if you're calling to tell me the house is on fire. Any other emergency at 2 AM can be dealt with by calling 911 and waiting until a decent hour.
- I don't accept intimate gifts from anyone I'm not married to. This sounds weird, but I once had a male friend who gave me some personal jewelry. I knew he had a crush on me, and in accepting the gift, I failed to reinforce the boundary established by my own wedding ring.
- I am not sympathetic to suicidal threats. If you want to kill yourself, you'd better call someone else to tell, because if you tell me, I can assure you, there will be an ambulance at your house. I don't screw around with this. Too many of my (toxic) friends and family members use "I'm going to kill myself" as a way to get other people to do things for them. If you really need help with something, you will get it. But it won't be the help you thought you needed.
Backlash and Ending the Relationship
What usually happens when you establish a boundary with someone is that they back off and everything is fine.
Unfortunately, what happens with the people you most need to build firm boundaries with is that they redouble their efforts. The person you only hear from at 2 AM is now calling you four times a day.
If establishing or reinforcing a personal boundary results in an escalation, you have to think seriously about whether or not you need this person in your life.
With romantic partners, it's easier to break up than with anyone else, though it can also be more dangerous. If the relationship is truly abusive, get professional help and develop a support network to help you stay strong as you leave. There is a reason you're with that person, and what drew you to them in the first place won't go away just because a saner part of your brain realizes it's bad for you.
If the toxic relationship is at a workplace, and you want to keep your job, you have to figure out how to maintain a professional relationship where you can still do your job. Again, a support network is helpful here, starting with your boss. If your boss is the toxic relationship, a transfer is probably necessary-- you have to be able to trust and respect anyone in a position of power above you.
Toxic friends are among the hardest relationships to detangle, primarily because you probably have friends-of-friends. Don't get your mutual friends involved, but do get your non-mutual friends to be supportive of your choice. The easiest way to disengage from this kind of relationship is simply to stop being with them. Don't invite them to parties. Don't go over to their home for social events. You will probably still see them, particularly if your community is close-knit, but you are under no obligation to engage them.
Finally, there's family. They say "you can pick your friends, but you can't pick your relatives." You know what? That's not entirely true. You can have a biological relationship with people who utterly destroy your ability to think and behave rationally. Get out. Move away. Stop calling or accepting their calls. If the relationship is very abusive or you know you can't deal with them, even return letters. It's harder to get away from family-- most people feel very disconnected without some kind of family relationships. But most families also have at least one "missing member," the black sheep who left the nest and hasn't been heard from since. You could be that renegade!
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