One of the most challenging areas in relationships is setting boundaries. Where do I stop and you start? What do I really want to give as opposed to what I feel obligated to give? What do I give because I am afraid that you will leave if I don’t, or I give because I know that I will judge myself as not being a good friend, partner, or spouse if I don’t?
One example of giving out of obligation and a potential result:
Friends invites you to dinner, but you know you don’t want to eat the type of food that they will be serving. You don’t want to say ‘no’ because you think that being a good friend means accepting their invitation. You know that their feelings will be hurt if you don’t go. You feel obligated, you go, you eat food that you don’t want to eat and you feel bad and resentful later. In addition, If this type of obligation continues, it could cause a wedge in your relationship.
On the other side, what can I expect from others? What ‘needs’ are realistic to expect another to help you with and which ‘needs’ are simply a part of some picture or co-dependent desire or fear?
It’s challenging enough just to discover what it is that you really need or want. Often we want or need something out of an idea of who we think we should be or who we think the other should be, rather than who we actually are. In addition, it may take a concerted effort to begin to ask for what you want in a vulnerable and responsible way and to also learn to give what you really want to give and freely choose to give.
The problem more than doubles in relationships because you add another person to the equation who has their own pictures, needs, and wants, and their own way of doing things that may seem like they are in conflict with your needs and desires.
Sometimes, people who have done personal growth work or therapy become so good at taking care of themselves, in addition to resisting their own co-dependency, that they then lose the ability to compromise. In taking a stand, they make the mistake of setting their boundaries too harshly. In their attempts to take care of their own needs, they no longer feel able to give freely, or really be in relation with another. When the other has a want or a need, it is easy to hide behind the ‘that is not my issue’ attitude, or believing that it is simply the other person’s job to take care of themselves without your help. This type of thinking leaves little room for relationship or intimacy.
On the other end of the spectrum are the people, when entering a new relationship, who forget all the work that they have done on themselves and fall back quickly into co-dependent behaviors in attempts to keep the other person around or to avoid uncomfortable feelings.
So what’s the solution? How do two conscious people come together in a partnership where both people can give what they truly want to give, feel able to get their needs met, know when to compromise their own needs, and feel willing to give things they don’t want to give sometimes without selling out on themselves or feeling resentful and obligated?
There are definitely no easy answers to these questions.
Ultimately I think it is 1) a process of trial and error, 2) of committing to finding the answers with the other, 3) of keeping the conversation open, and 4) of continually exploring what both of your limits and boundaries are. The process requires a commitment to finding ways in which both people can get their needs met.
Here are some suggestions to support this exploration:
- No matter what it looks like, assume that there is a way for both partners to get their needs met. Rather than look at a potential conflict of needs as ‘your’ needs and ‘my’ needs, the two of you can take on all of your needs as ‘our’ needs and then begin to explore ways that both of you can be taken care of. Sometimes that means compromising to meet to each others’ needs and sometimes it means creating space for the other to get their needs met on their own.
A simple example might be that you prefer to go on a vacation that is secluded and you want to spend your time hiking and reading, while your partner prefers a more active environment with lots of social interactions and sports. Together, you would need to work to find a vacation spot that provides both types of activities. It takes much more effort, but it is definitely possible to find. Another option, if you both do find enjoyment in the others’ favorite activities, would be that you could alternate what types of trips you take. A final option would be that sometimes, you each take trips on your own, as LONG as you do take plenty of trips together with shared activities.
- When a potential conflict occurs, rather than reacting out of fear by either giving in or by holding on to your own needs tightly, slow way down. Go inside. Discover what your heart really wants and follow that rather than what you ‘think’. Commit to finding what is true for you in present time, rather than operating out of knee-jerk reactions, fear, or self defense.
- In every moment, remember that you have a choice to either be stingy or generous. Choose generosity. That does not mean just giving in to the other, but rather listening and responding with a generous open heart, rather than from the stingy place of protecting yourself out of fear of not getting your own needs met.
- Recognize if you tend to be more of a ‘giver’ or a ‘taker’. For ‘givers’ your challenge will likely be to learn to say ‘no’ more and ask for what you want. If you tend to be a ‘taker’ your challenge will likely be to give in more and practice compromising for the other.
- Take responsibility for getting your own needs met without thinking that your partner owes you anything. Make a clear distinction between what you ‘need’ and what you ‘want’. In addition, take responsibility for your partner getting their needs met also. With two people’s attention on getting both of your needs fulfilled, you have that much more energy moving towards fulfilling both of your desires!