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Someone recently told me to consider the number of concessions or sacrifices I am willing to make when starting a relationship. I hadn’t considered that I might be making a grave mistake of doing anything for love.
I’m embarrassed to admit that despite years of counseling others, this question is new to me. Boundaries has been tossed about for over a decade. Up to now, I’ve understood it as setting a limit, like telling my kids not to leave our front yard or reminding my office mates to be sure to lock the building’s main entrance on their way out for the night.
I thought boundaries were primarily rules concerning a person’s or organization’s safety and efficiency. They might include few personal preferences and limitations. “If you’re the last one up, please make the bed. Coming home to a neat bedroom helps me to unwind.” Or, “Please, don’t tap me on the shoulder when you want my attention.”
Somehow I’d missed the fact that boundaries are a fancy way to demonstrate self-respect. They define what makes me, me. “Please, no peas in my fried rice, because I don’t like peas.” Or, “Please, call if you are going to be very late, because I start to worry.”
Each of these tells the listener something about me. I’m not a fan of peas and I’d like to know when plans have changed. They also show something about how I treat myself. That I take good care of myself and defend my best interest.
Until recently, boundaries that serve the good of a group have been easy for me to enforce. My children were not allowed to play in the street. I resisted impulse buying so the family could take a nice trip. Whoever drank the last of the milk needed to leave a note so more could be purchased at the store that day. Each of these served the good of us, making their wisdom easy to defend and explain.
For some odd reason, personal boundaries feel different. They feel arbitrary and selfish. I find them harder to defend.
Take this guy I started to talk to every night this past spring. Throughout the day, he texted very little (his boundary). Around noon he might write, “Hey, how’s it going today?” Maybe a few other short messages would follow, but that was it.
That wasn’t my preference, to be honest. I worked too, so my time is limited as well, but it would have been nice to have met sooner to see if we clicked. Whenever I’d make that suggestion, he’d say, “Let’s not rush anything.” Again, his preference, not mine. And who says meeting is rushing?
Each night, however, he would call and talk. These weren’t twenty-minute conversations, but ones that lasted at least an hour. Maybe more. Every. Single. Night.
I’m an introvert. Not just a teeny-weeny bit, but one of those all-in, true-blue types. I’m sensitive to loud noises and bright lights, I need loads of solitude, small talk or chitchat wears me out, and I warm up slowly when someone enters my presence — that includes my mother.
Each day I treasure my evenings. After a long day of hard work, it’s when I allow myself to retreat into my personal space and relax.
Talking to someone I’d never met for an hour or two every night isn’t included in that plan. This activity doesn’t even appear anywhere on the list of my top-hundred preferred ways to unwind. In fact, it’s one of the ten worst ways.
So why did I allow this guy to monopolize not just a few evenings but every single day for over a month? There’s something about that that’s radically wrong.
I’ve been considering this question as I analyze my last marriage to a severely-ill sex addict. Several times thoroughout this relationship I faced jarring discoveries of betrayals and infidelities. Each time I stayed. Why? To an outsider, I must have looked insane for putting up with his shit.
But here’s the thing — I’ve been making this kind of self-sacrifice since I was a little girl. It was normal to hear, “If you won’t play our game, then you can’t join us,” or “Pull it together — no one wants to be around someone who whines.” The ultimatums became more dramatic and severe as I grew older.
Looking back at the start of my relationship with my ex, I see huge sacrifices. Take our first weekend getaway. As I prepared for the first overnight visit with him, I knew I needed to let him know I wore a wig and, at night, would be using a nightcap for modesty.
My ex sighed and then sent me an email saying, “I’m too tired to be in a relationship that isn’t honest. If you can’t be vulnerable with me then I can’t go any further with this relationship.” In other words, go without any nightwear or we’re off.
What? The relationship is over if I am not ready to expose this part of myself to a practical stranger?
The problem was I didn’t know any better to say no, so I did as my ex asked. I tugged off my wig and exposed myself, hoping he would understand I’d given him a priceless gift. Such a private place that no one, not even my late husband had been allowed to see or know.
This exchange was so great that I inadvertently committed myself to making the relationship work, even after learning of his rampant infidelities. I’d given away too much of myself.
I sacrificed self-respect in the hope that this man would see what I’d done and love me for it.
It didn’t work.
That weekend I exposed the most broken and vulnerable part of my core to someone who hadn’t earned that right. His response told me something critical about him. If this man didn’t care about me or my personal space, then he didn’t care about me.
Instead, he considered what I’d revealed to be unimportant or valueless. I had traded it away too easily, too quickly.
Worthy things should be protected and kept close, not exchanged like currency, something I just learning now.
I hadn’t learned the importance and value of maintaining respect for myself. Until that point, respect had been earned from the relationships around me rather than coming from within me. I traded away huge pieces of my comfort, safety, or desires in hopes the other person would respect and love me more for the sacrifice.
I didn’t see that this treatment was not only disrespectful, but a failure on my part to love myself better.
Does that mean I’ll never go to scary or deep places in relationships? Of course not. Vulnerability deepens intimacy. However, it must happen as part of a mutual, reciprocal process.
I reveal something and then wait to see what the other person does with it. He goes next and shares something as equally powerful or vulnerable. Much like a dance, we each take turns as we follow one another’s lead in getting to know each other.
I’ve learned to ask myself some important questions as I decide how much to share, and when.
First, am I ready to make for this sacrifice or concession? What will it cost me to take this step? Regardless of whether it’s money, personal information, or sex, I need to be okay with what I’m about to do.
And if this request has been made with an ultimatum? Then, I have my answer. Absolutely no way.
Secondly, is the other person taking vulnerable risks with me through similarly sized sacrifices or concession?
Take those long evening phone calls: was that guy giving up something of himself and his time that equaled the value of my evening solitude?
Or what about my ex’s date requirement I spent the weekend sans wig? Did he take an equally risky step with me?
I’m learning to love myself better. I now take smaller steps in the beginning of any relationship. I wait, watch, and observe what the other person does with my “mini-reveals.” If these go well, then I will consider if and when to take a larger risk, depending on my readiness.
I’m now realizing that others take their cues from me on how to treat me, and not the other way around. If I act like I’m disposable, why am I surprised when others treat me the same way? Respect must begin with me. I make this clear in how I protect and treat myself.
Dr. Kerry McAvoy is a clinical psychologist, mother of three grown sons, writer, and author of the devotionals: Jesus, The Ultimate Therapist: Bringing Hope and Healing, Jesus, The Ultimate Therapist: Healing Without Limits, and Pain as a Starting Point.
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