Being able to set boundaries in your relationship is important in terms of creating a stable sense of emotional security in the midst of all the pressures and tensions that arise in the ongoing experience of living with your partner. Setting effective boundaries involves making realistic expectations for yourself of what you are willing to do or give in a particular situation. It also helps if you can identify for yourself what are realistic expectations to have of your partner. At the core of establishing a firm sense of boundaries in your relationship, is being able to affirm for yourself that you have the right to be a separate person from your partner. You have the right to think differently and disagree, you have the right to not always make your partner happy or satisfy his or her needs, you have the right to make mistakes sometimes and let your partner down without feeling you have somehow betrayed your partner. Our feeling of emotional safety becomes threatened when we feel that our boundaries are at risk of being intruded upon.
For instance, if you are feeling overwhelmed with anxiety when your husband or wife goes on a tirade about some issue, this a moment where on a psychological level you may feel that his or her thoughts, feelings, demands are about to control you or take over. You may react to this by feeling helpless and powerless, and afraid you will be intimidated. This fear can trigger a counterattack of anger which is in part an attempt to protect yourself by re-establishing a sense of separateness. This is another reason why people hold onto their angry feelings so much.
However, the more essential question to ask yourself is,”what is getting in the way of me maintaining a sense of separateness without getting angry”? What makes it difficult for you to stay in touch with the fact that your partner really can not make you do something you don’t want to do? What interferes with you choosing what feels like a reasonable way of dealing with the situation rather than losing control and probably feeling guilty later? Options to getting entangled in an argument include saying you disagree with what your partner’s description of your actions, or of what he or she is requesting of you, asking him or her to lower their voice, or leaving the room saying you do not want to talk when he or she is yelling at you? To the extent you can affirm your right to a separate way of thinking and acting, your partner’s behavior becomes less threatening. When you really believe you are not guilty of his or her blame, you will feel less affected by critical remarks. It is interesting that when you feel less threatened and defensive, your partner often starts interacting with a different, less angry or accusatory, tone.
Many couples have difficulty experiencing disappointment in their relationships. This can become a major source of conflict in a marriage. Many people enter marriage with the unstated expectation that they should not disappoint their partner and that their partner should not disappoint them. There is the idea that it is mean to disappoint someone you love so people often feel guilty and self-critical when they are told they have disappointed their partner. On the other hand people often feel that if their partner disappoints them it is a sign that their feelings are not really important or worse that their partner does not love them enough.
These expectations become a burden that creates stress, frustration, and resentment. Disappointments are inevitable in a relationship for several reasons. We all have our limitations as people and can not be sources of unconditional support, understanding, and nurturance. We are all separate individuals which means that when two people are living together there are going to be times they are in different moods and have different needs which leads to a certain amount of conflict and tension. There are other times when partners realize that they simply see some situations differently and disagree with one another. It is important that you feel you have the option to disagree with your spouse even when you know this will disappoint him or her. If you can not say no to a request of your partner, then saying yes is not really a choice, but is more of an obligation.
Paradoxically, acknowledging and accepting that you are going to feel disappointed at times, and that you are entitled to disappoint your partner, can free you up to be more genuine and spontaneous in your relationship. It will decrease the pressure to please your partner that for many people creates a great amount of stress and anxiety. When you can be open with your partner that you are disappointing him or her in the moment, and not act defensively about it, this normalizes disappointment as part of the relationship. When disappointment can be accepted as a normal occurrence it becomes much less of a trigger for feelings of anger and mutual criticism.
So many arguments stem from people repeating themselves over and over which only escalates the tension and conflict. Spouses repeat their positions because they are convinced that their partners must not understand them clearly, otherwise why wouldn’t they agree? It is difficult to consider that your husband or wife understands you well enough, but he or she disagrees with you because they have a different point of view.
What gets lost in the insistence on trying to change the other person’s mind is the recognition that your ability to influence someone else is limited. Your partner is a separate person who has the right to think and feel in her or his own way. You can not get inside her or his mind to change how they see things. Nor should you want to. There needs to be a mutual respect in a relationship in which each person has the right to their point of view. In the actual day to day experience of living in a relationship this means that you can express yourself two or three times on an issue and then stop. That is enough to get across what you think and feel. More than two or three times is trying to force your partner to agree with you.
Instead of trying to get your partner to give in, you will be better off reminding yourself that you can try to persuade your partner, but you can’t make him or her do what you want. You can influence, but not control. An important question to ask yourself is what is the underlying motivation you have to try to control your spouse? Do you tend to feel that either you are in control of a situation or are powerless? Does the fear of being powerless have any connection to what you witnessed as a child in your parents’ marriage or in the emotional atmosphere of your family?
People who grew up with a parent who was frequently out of control can be very sensitive to feeling emotionally threatened by a lack of control. Other people need to push for agreement from their partner because their ability to validate their own thoughts and feelings is not strong and they need the reassurance of their partner’s agreement in order to feel secure. Asking yourself what is the emotional need to get your spouse to agree with you will help you to decrease the urge to force your wife or husband to give in to you. When you push your partner you only distance him or her and make them more reluctant to consider your point of view. When you give your partner the space to think about what you are saying and to really make a choice, he or she will feel more open to responding positively.
In the last several posts I have focused on skills couples can use to develop a more constructive decision making process. In the next several posts I will discuss some of the individual issues that each members of a couple needs to work on in order to resolve impasses and conflicts. There needs to be a balance in which you and your partner realize that you both contribute to certain patterns in the relationship that cause problems, and that you also each have individual sensitive issues that you need to focus on managing.
For instance, there is only so far you can try to be supportive towards your partner’s feelings if you tend to view thing as being either right or wrong. To a great extent trying to find a way to reach a consensus or a compromise with your wife or husband will require many of us to work on being less judgmental and rigid in our thinking. This is only one example of the link between external behavior and internal thoughts and feelings. We all have conversations with ourselves after an argument with our partner that reinforce attitudes and expectations about how other people operate. Some of these ideas are often true, but do not fit all situations,such as my wife or husband is very controlling and needs to have things his or her way. Other thoughts are mostly exaggerated and dysfunctional assumptions that stem from our fears of being hurt or attacked, such as my partner thinks I am stupid and has no respect for anything I say. Identifying these different attitudes, then deciding which need to be modified and which need to be challenged leads to being less defensive and reactive.
When you are open and honest with yourself in acknowledging what are the emotionally sensitive issues for you in your life and how you typically react, you will find that what your partner says becomes less of a threat to you. In upcoming posts I will outline some of the major emotional issues I have found that many of us struggle with, which often form the motivations that intensify the conflicts we have with our partners.
The wife of a couple that I used to see would say at times that she wished that her husband and she could be more generous toward each other. I always thought that this was a very tangible and evocative way to describe an emotionally powerful need in any relationship. I bring it up now because recently I have been writing about ways to reach mutually constructive decisions in a relationship. I have discussed how being able to form a consensus, reaching a compromise, and accommodating to one another at different times, are approaches that can work in different situations. I think that using all three of these decision making processes gives a couple a range of options which can help to resolve impasses that arise.
The ability to be generous toward your partner is a kind of x factor in working out decisions in a positive way. Generosity includes several qualities. The first is being able to feel empathy toward your partner, not just in theory or about a situation that does not involve you, but when you have your own feelings that conflict, or at least are competing for attention, with your partner’s needs. To be able to put your own needs aside for a moment and to focus on trying to appreciate or understand what makes something important to your spouse is a way of demonstrating with your behavior that your partner’s happiness and well being is important to you. Generosity also shows the ability to be patient and self-reflective. When you can realize that what is at stake with your partner when you have a disagreement is usually not that earth shattering or important, it is easier to be patient with your partner and yourself. Usually your standing in the relationship is not threatened by any one decision. The respect you are given, the amount of control or impact you have, the amount of love you get, all of these do not depend on how any one argument turns out. This perspective helps you take a step back, which helps you then be more patient and willing to give to your partner.
When you are emotionally generous toward your partner this makes a significant impact on him or her. You and your partner will both feel less defensive and tense with each other. You will also find that when you are generous toward your husband or wife you feel more grounded and flexible which actually helps you feel in control. It’s a feeling of being in control of yourself instead of the situation or the other person.
In recent posts I have been focusing on outlining essential skills and guidelines that help in discussing and resolving impasses in relationships. As in developing any new skill they require practice. It is likely that you may experience obstacles in using these skills that stem from years of ingrained behavior patterns. If you think about the kinds of problems you experience with your partner, you will probably realize that similar types of problems have gone on in previous intimate relationships, or with family members.
Attempting to create more positive and effective ways of interacting with your partner requires the two of you to work as a couple in recognizing how you each contribute and feed into dysfunctional patterns that end in impasses. It will also take you and your partner working on your own individual issues in order to change defensive, overreactive behaviors. This means being open and honest with yourself in acknowledging when you respond in a negative way. We all have some behaviors, character traits, and emotionally sensitive issues that get in the way of communicating clearly and effectively.
We need to acknowledge the blocks we bring to our relationships in order to improve them. This means being more open to admitting when you make a mistake. We are all human and it is common, maybe even inevitable, that we are going to misunderstand, jump to an assumption, let down, disappoint, and be out of touch with our partners at times. Being able to admit to your husband or wife that you just shut them up by yelling, or cut them off by interrupting, or you assumed what they were going to say and weren’t really listening, is actually a great relief. Usually when you acknowledge and apologize for making a mistake your partner will forgive you and the tension becomes defused.
It is just as important that you recognize for yourself when your own fears, defensive reactions, and impulsive behaviors are getting triggered. It is always easier to say to yourself that when your wife gets stubborn it makes talking with her futile and that is why you walk away from her. It is more difficult, but much more empowering, to recognize that you can be impatient when other people disagree with you, and that you have difficulty tolerating your feelings of frustration during a discussion. When you acknowledge your own issues, your partner’s behavior gets less irritating. All of a sudden your wife doesn’t seem so stubborn as much as she is sticking up for herself, just as you stick up for yourself. And maybe she is a little stubborn, but so are you, and you can cut her a break. Maybe you won’t judge her so much from now on because you realize she is entitled to make mistakes, just as you are.
There are points when a couple comes to an impasse on an issue that is important to each of them. They have to live through the process of feeling stuck, give things time, and use the skills involved in reaching a consensus or a compromise. However, there are some situations in which there is an impasse and the issue at hand is more important to one person than it is to the other. At these times it is helpful to have the option of saying to yourself “this means more to my wife/husband than it does to me, so I will let go and give her/him what they want”.
Accommodating to the things that you know mean a lot to your partner is a way of being considerate towards her or him. It is giving to, rather than giving in to, your partner. This is usually appreciated and leads to your partner wanting to reciprocate by accommodating to your needs. It may sound like a simple idea, but when there has been ongoing tension in a relationship people can become reflexive in saying no to each other. They are used to seeing the relationship as a power struggle and justify being oppositional by reminding themselves how often their spouses have withheld, blocked, and deprived them. This pattern of mutually not giving to each other creates more tension and distance.
In this context accommodating to your partner’s wishes and needs can be a small, but significant step toward decreasing the level of tension and conflict in the relationship. When accommodating occurs soon after an argument it can signal an attempt to reach out and re-connect. When it happens after a few hours or a few days, accommodating can help both your partner and yourself get unstuck from a position you never wanted to be in. How many times have you felt angry and distant toward your partner, hardly speaking to one another, and asked yourself “how did I get here”? We have all had the somewhat irrational experience of feeling angry and withholding about something that is not really that important to us. You have a choice at this point of holding on to being stubborn and not give in, or being flexible and showing you can put your partner’s needs ahead of your own at certain times.