We teach people how to treat us. This is a powerful statement and one that puts the control of our lives squarely in our own hands. How do we do this? How do we teach others how to treat us? We teach others how to treat us through the boundaries we set in our lives. A boundary is a property line that defines where you begin and end, what is allowed inside, and what must stay outside. There is one very important reason why we need to set boundaries in our lives. It’s because we don’t live in a vacuum; we exist in relationship. So boundaries are about relationship and therefore about love. Unless we live the life of a hermit, we live in relationship to others, and our boundaries need to be made visible to others and communicated to them.
Sometimes we might fear setting proper boundaries because we fear not being liked, not being loved, loss of approval, loss of connection, and perhaps receiving anger. These are all failures of love, and we are here on earth to learn about love and how to love. These fears of setting boundaries and of confrontation might be because we were taught at a very young age that confrontation was not safe for us, and a pattern was formed in us to avoid boundary setting or confrontation at all costs. If we have this pattern, we may not even be aware that this pattern exists within us, but it is still constantly affecting all our relationships whether we are aware of it or not.
Because of these fears, we might try to have secret boundaries. We might withdraw passively instead of communicating an honest no to someone that we love. We secretly resent someone instead of telling that person that we are angry about how he or she has hurt us. We will endure others’ irresponsibility instead of telling them how their actions affect us—information that would help that person grow spiritually. We might instead indulge in passive/aggressive behavior—perhaps withdrawing our love and attention, giving the silent treatment, or by exhibiting little neglects or meanesses. This type of behavior is toxic to relationships.
Such withdrawing and resenting doesn’t go away or evaporate; it stays stuck in our bodies until one day we explode. The “nagged” husband will suddenly file for divorce; the “nice” employee will suddenly blow up over a seemingly inconsequential event; parents of the “spoiled” child who constantly pushes for more, more, more will avoid spending time with that child. In all these instances, relationships suffer because of unexpressed boundaries.
Extremely important to remember is that our boundaries exist whether or not we are aware of them, and they will affect us whether or not we communicate them to other people. If our boundaries are not communicated directly, they will be communicated indirectly—through withdrawal, resentment, passive/aggressive behavior, and eventually loss of relationship.
Appropriate boundaries actually increase our ability to care about others and to have others care about us. When we honestly communicate how we expect to be treated, we can welcome others into our lives with open arms, knowing that our wishes will be respected. And if they’re not, we can make the decision whether or not we will continue in a relationship where our wishes are not respected.
Deciding to move on from a relationship that has ended to other relationships that “fit” us better is not a failure; it’s a sign of our growth and a sign that we value ourselves. Those we may leave behind are not bad in any way, but they have their own road to follow and we can wish them well and on their way.
Other people welcome our boundaries; it gives them a clear-cut map of their relationship with us, so they know how to treat us—just as we enjoy relationships with others when we know how to treat them. There’s stability and comfort in knowing where we stand. With this type of honest relationship we are on firm footing and can relax and enjoy the time we spend with others.
In order for us to have real relationship with each other, we must express and relate our true boundaries, what we will and will not stand for. This is how we teach people how to treat us and how we learn how to treat others. This is the path to true loving relationships, the only kind worth having.