Boundaries Can Heal When Love Cannot

November 21, 2020

It’s the oldest romantic story in the book — the love of a woman heals a broken man and they live happily ever after.

Love triumphs.
Love conquers all.
We bet it all on love, and love pulled through for the win.

But is that really what life shows us, or just what we want to happen? Is the notion that love is a kind of miraculous cure a harmless cultural narrative, or something that might be spoiling our ability to have happy, healthy relationships?

When we approach our romantic relationships as though our love can fix, change or heal people, the result is often the complete opposite of what we hoped. We don’t leave harmful situations soon enough, we diminish our ability to advocate for our needs, and we ultimately end up in relationships that tax our mental health instead of restore it.

But there’s hope for all the lovers of love out there.

Healing, transformation and change is possible. We can affect positive change in people, and through knowing us they may have the chance to grow and learn — but it’s not by loving them, it’s by turning that love back toward ourselves and cultivating a deep and confident sense of wholeness. Nothing is ever guaranteed, but from a place of wholeness we can establish clear boundaries, which gives us the chance to inspire other people to change.

But before we talk about establishing boundaries, let’s break down this thing called “love” and how we’ve come to define it for ourselves.

I Believe in a Thing Called Love

When did you first learn what love is? If you’re like most people, you learned it from your parents (or primary caregivers) and hopefully it was a “I’ll love you no matter what” kind of love. No matter what you did, no matter how bad you screwed up, your caregivers most likely stuck around and didn’t completely abandon you.

We then carry that definition, or “image” of love, into adulthood and apply it to our romantic relationships.1 I want to be the most loving partner, so when my girlfriend does something awful, I stick around and I continue to love her, no matter what. That’s what love does, it sticks around at all costs.

You can see where this might become a problem.

To be fair, this association with love isn’t just making people stay when they should leave, it’s also the reason some people leave relationships too early.

The people who leave too early have seen what happens when we internalize the “sticking around no matter what” narrative (often it’s their parents who stuck around too long), and as a result they have created a protection mechanism that has them leave at the first sign of trouble. They’ve tried to adjust, but have swung too far the other direction.

So what’s the healthy middle ground? A sensible relationship to boundaries. Boundaries is a word that gets tossed around a lot, so to me it means having access to our desires, accompanied by the courage to speak them. Simple, but not easy. Let’s talk about some of the misconceptions people often have when it comes to boundaries.

You Don’t Choose Your Boundaries

One of the lies we tell ourselves about boundaries is that they come from our conscious mind, and that on some level we choose them. We act as though our conscious mind is like the boss of a company, deciding what the rest of the body/mind wants, thinks and does.

If we think we can manipulate ourselves into wanting something we don’t, we end up bypassing the innate wisdom of our bodies, and it just doesn’t work. It might “work” in the short term, but over time the decision to not honor ourselves will come back to hurt us.

If only we started from this simple knowing that our boundaries aren’t up to us, our entire mindset would change from the anxiety of needing to decide, to the relaxation of simply noticing what’s already there.

Let’s use an example to illustrate this point. Imagine you are in a sexual situation with someone you’re attracted to, and this is the first time you’re going to bed with them. As the interaction unfolds, you might notice that inside your head there are “micro” decisions being made every step of the way. The decision to initiate the interaction, the decision to kiss, the decision to take off clothes, etc… Each micro decision is associated with a desire or apprehension to either do something, or not do something.

When you really investigate the source of that desire or apprehension, where does it come from? Is it you deciding what you want, or is the decision “uncovered”, meaning it already exists inside of you and then you discover it? I believe the latter is true. We do have choice, but that choice is to honor or not honor ourselves. We can’t control what we actually desire, because that lives as an undeniable truth inside our bodies.

When we think about boundaries in this way, we stop looking at them as something we “do” to others and we start thinking about them more like a law of nature.

You want what you want.
You don’t want what you don’t want.

It’s as simple as that, and it’s not up to you — but what a relief that is. Yes, sometimes it’s uncomfortable and inconvenient to state a boundary that might make someone upset, but the peace of mind that comes with knowing you can’t make a “wrong” decision if you listen to your inner wisdom is priceless.

What’s even more comforting is knowing that while they may not always like it, your honest boundaries are an essential piece to helping the people in your life be more considerate, loving and self-actualized.

Consequences Make the World Go Round

Whether we realize it or not, we are always training the people in our life with the law of cause and effect.

If your husband does something inconsiderate, but you manage to hide the hurt you feel, he will most likely assume that there was no negative effect to his actions. Conversely, if he does something inconsiderate and you say (and show) “ouch, that hurts” he will immediately become aware of the consequence of his actions. His empathy will then kick in, and you’ll be on your way to the behavior change you were hoping for.

Even the most wonderful and considerate people in the world can’t read our minds, and need the proper feedback so they can understand the relationship between their actions and the effect their actions have on you.

Our boundaries are the mechanism which makes this cause and effect system work. Without them, or without a solid relationship to them, we will skew the test results. The people in our life need real, honest feedback about their actions, and if we interrupt that process by masking our feelings it serves no one.

The Most Courageously Loving Thing You Can Do

Reality is often a hard pill to swallow. It’s bitter and uncomfortable, but ultimately good for you. The pill of fantasy is sweeter. It goes down smooth, but will make our stomach sick.

The most loving thing you can do for someone in your life is allow them to experience reality. Let them swallow that pill by being honest about your experience.

It’s also the most loving thing you can do for yourself.

While it’s true that we often adopt a definition of “love” from our parents that skews our romantic relationships, we also forget all the ways that our parents loved us in ways that gave us a strong dose of reality. In fact, this concept pretty much sums up what parents do, day in and day out. Parents help kids have a more honest relationship to reality and help them understand natural consequences.

That lesson doesn’t end when we turn eighteen, it’s something we continue to learn, whether it’s about finances, health or relationships. They all require an intimate relationship to reality.

The more in touch with reality our life is, the more we will thrive.
The less in touch with reality is, the more we will suffer.

Being yourself, and allowing other people to experience that reality is one of the most loving things you could ever do.

It’s also one of the most courageous.

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  1. For more on the study of how our primary caregivers establish our definition of love (Imago therapy), I highly recommend Dr. Harville Hendrix’s book Getting the Love You Want