In my last blog, I talked about the importance of negotiating expectations in marriage (or any relationship for that matter). I suggested that whenever we feel hurt or frustrated in a relationship there are, lurking in the background, unmet expectations. It is up to each of us to make our expectations conscious, make sure they are fair and reasonable, communicate them to our partner and then negotiate them in a way that feels like a win to both parties. Although we have to learn and practice this process, it results in much greater satisfaction than the tendency to withdraw into our own world or get into endless power-struggles in an attempt to change get our partner.
Related to the theme of communicating expectations is understanding boundaries. My experience as a psychologist and marriage therapist is that a lack of understanding boundaries is the cause of much unhappiness and disillusionment in marriage.
So what is a boundary anyway? Think of it as a property line—a line that denotes where one property begins and another ends. By understanding property lines we know what we own and do not own, what we are responsible for and not responsible for.
So much heartache is caused by the blurring of boundaries. We forget what we “own” and what our partner “owns” and thereby become under-responsible for ourselves and over-responsible for our significant other through attempts to control and change them. At the heart of this dynamic is blame.
Here’s an example. Marcia and Danny have come to marriage counseling saying that they can’t stop arguing. On inquiring what they are arguing about, Marcia replies, “He is so angry all the time. He gets mad and yells at me. It really hurts me.”
“Danny, why do you get so mad?”
He replies, “Because she’s always trying to control me and dictate how I should live my life.”
“So, Marcia, why do you control him?” and she answers “Because he’s selfish and doesn’t pay attention to me or give me any time.”
I look at Danny, “And why don’t you give her more time?” He responds, “Because she is nagging and controlling. I just want to get away from her.”
Of course, this game of ping pong could go on and on. Each believes that his/her behavior is caused by the other. Each builds his/her case by looking for evidence that he or she is right and the other wrong. Each believes that he or she would be happier and a more loving and better marriage partner if the other would change.
The problem is that each has crossed a boundary. Each is working on the wrong side of the property line. Although each person has deep and legitimate needs and feelings, their needs are not going to be met as long as they fail to take ownership for their side of the fence.
If I can help Danny stay on his side of the fence then I can help him learn more about his deeper feelings, how he is contributing to the problem, and what changes he can make to be a happier man as well as have a happier marriage. Perhaps he can begin to listen to Marcia in a less defensive way and start to understand her deeper feelings and needs. This makes it possible for him to talk to her in a softer way about how she can support him.
As a counselor I would love to hear Danny say, “I get angry because I’m not mature enough to respond in a better way. I’m deeply sorry and want help understanding my feelings so I can learn better ways of responding to my wife.”
I want Marcia to get how she is responsible for the misery that she thinks Danny is causing. Then she can change her responses in any of a number of ways—by not letting his anger hurt her so much, by refusing to nag him and learning to ask more directly for what she needs while allowing him more choices about how to support her. From Marcia, I’d love to hear, “I am so disappointed that I have no connection with Danny. But I also recognize I’m asking for it in unhelpful ways. I’d like to learn a better way to talk about my feelings and invite him to be part of my life.”
When we get clear about boundaries, as we take responsibility for what is on our side of the fence, then we can make choices (about how we see, feel and act) rather than just react. We become empowered. We can now search for creative solutions to what seemed to be intractable problems.
Responsibility requires action. If something is going to happen it is going to happen because I take action. I must actively participate in the resolution of whatever relational problem we have, even when it seems so apparent that it is not my fault.
Boundaries tell us where to keep the primary focus. Responsibility teaches us that we are the ones who must work through our feelings and learn to perceive and behave differently. Our own attitudes and thoughts—not those of our spouse—cause us to feel distressed and powerless. How we behave and react is part of the problem and our primary responsibility is to change these patterns in ourselves and not in our partners. Doing so empowers us to have not just a good relationship but a good life.