Do you set a clear boundary in your relationship? Or are you sending mixed signals in your relationship?
Many people who coach with me do so “because I need to learn how to set some boundaries.”
Building a boundary says that you’re worth it
If you and your spouse have made an agreement, and your spouse isn’t living up to the terms of that agreement, a boundary is your way of saying “I’m worth it. This is my standard for how I will be treated in this relationship.”
You need a boundary whenever your spouse isn’t willing or able to accept responsibility for what is clearly theirs.
A boundary is clear and consistent. A boundary tells you and your spouse that the love you share respects both of you.
A boundary doesn’t mean you stop loving your spouse, or that you love them up to this line. No. A boundary isn’t conditional love.
A boundary helps to magnify the love and intimacy in your relationship.
Avoid sending mixed signals as you create a boundary
If you’re inconsistent, it’s not a boundary.
When I was a little kid in the lunch room my classmates would put their food up for grabs, “Who wants a peanut butter sandwich?” When I offered my chips for their sandwich they’d say, “No takesies backsies.”
A boundary is when you let someone have or own the consequence of their actions.
No takesies backsies.
This is harder to do than you think. Because once you truly give your spouse the responsibility that is actually theirs, you may not like what they do with that responsibility. You liked having some control. And with a boundary, you relinquish control.
Instead of creating a boundary, we like to stay in control
We all want to feel powerful and have things our own way. So, we try to control a situation. How is setting a boundary different from being controlling?
Your spouse agrees to take out the trash. This wasn’t a casual agreement. You stated a clear desire, asking cleanly, “Would you be in charge of seeing that the kitchen trash makes it to the curb for the trash truck to pick up?” And your spouse agreed to make the trash their job.
But right now, as you’re peeling the potatoes, you notice the kitchen trash is overflowing.
Your spouse isn’t keeping the agreement. This is the first time the trash has overflowed, and you want a happy home, so you tease your spouse, “Looks like somebody’s slackin’.”
Your spouse jokes back, “Actually, there’s all this room over here in the corner.” Your spouse smooshes in the potato skins and takes the trash to the curb.
When you get resentful, that’s a signal you need a boundary
A week later, however, there it is again: a full trashcan and this time you’re holding that messy filter with yesterday’s coffee grounds. Your spouse is nowhere in sight.
You’re frustrated. You had a clear agreement.
Depending on your relationship history, it might be most gentle and kind to try the teasing method a time or two more. But don’t let yourself get resentful. Only tease to lighten both of your moods.
Don’t tease if what you really want to do it yell and be mean, because that meanness will slide into your teasing and that can feel meanest of all.
Instead, guide your spouse to the trash. Clearly state, “You agreed to do this. This is the third time the trashcan has been full when I’m trying to throw something away. What’s up?”
This is clean. Clear. You’re affirming your spouse’s ability to solve this problem on their own.
A boundary empowers your spouse
When you point to the full trash can and expect your spouse to figure it out, you empower your spouse and you create the expectation that we’re both adults in this house. I’m sure my spouse t will figure this out.
This is a tangible boundary. And this boundary works with most partners.
But it’s tempting to handle this full-trash-can-moment differently, isn’t it? Here’s a couple other choices you might be tempted to make:
- You take the trash out yourself
- You criticize your spouse
- You drown your spouse in solutions
- You make the trash omnipotent
Mixed signal #1: You take the trash out yourself
While this isn’t necessarily a problem, you are also violating the agreement you made with your spouse.
Never thought of it that way? It’s easy to want to avoid the conflict of the moment or the hassle factor of waiting until your spouse sees the full trash. But this is takesies backsies. You’re taking back the task you agreed belongs to your spouse.
This sends a mixed signal.
One of the crucial elements to a good boundary is clarity.
Takesies backsies muddies the waters. You’re sending the message, “I agree that you’ll take out the trash except when I see the full trash can first.”
Instead of taking the trash out yourself, wait for your spouse to take the trash out in their own timing.
Mixed signal #2: You infantilize your spouse, thinking that’s a boundary
The second way you might be tempted to practice takesies backsies with the trashcan moment is to belittle your spouse.
“I can’t believe you can’t do a simple thing like take out the trash!” We’ve all done it, right? This does a great deal of long-term damage to your relationship.
The Gottmans are famous for their Love Lab where they study couples. They bring couples in to the Love Lab where the couple simply interacts while scientists study their behaviors. The Gottmans can predict, sometimes within 90 seconds, whether the marriage will last a lifetime or end in divorce.
Criticism attacks the person, rather than focusing on the behavior. When you focus on the behavior, you empower a person to change that behavior.
However, when you attack the person, you weaken your connection to your spouse. A good boundary doesn’t weaken connection. It strengthens connection.
Instead of criticizing your spouse’s character, stick to the facts of the trash can.
Mixed signal #3: You drown your spouse in solutions
The third way you might be tempted to send a mixed signal about the trashcan moment is to provide a menu of solutions to your spouse. You try to solve the problem for them.
You have great ideas for how your spouse can get the trash can emptied. “Sweetheart, how about you take out the trash right after you empty the coffee grounds. That way you won’t forget.”
You are brilliant! You have the solution for everything!
Except that the entire reason your spouse drinks coffee in the morning is that their entire mental capacity depends upon it. They have zero ability to take out the trash until that coffee kicks in.
You may think you’re helping your spouse by giving them all sorts of ideas for how to stick to the agreement, but the truth is you’re meddling. You’re doing the opposite of empowering your spouse. This is not a clean boundary.
Instead of offering lots of solutions, trust your spouse to figure it out. Out of all the fabulous people in the world, you chose this phenomenal human being. Trust your choice. Trust your spouse.
Mixed signal #4: You make the trashcan moment omnipotent
The fourth way you might be tempted to handle the trash can moment is to make your spouse’s lack of emptying that trash can mean the end of your relationship.
You tell yourself a story about how your relationship is doomed because see! My spouse won’t even empty the trash. My spouse couldn’t truly love me if they can’t do a simple thing like take out the trash.
Again, we’ve all done it. We catastrophize tiny moments. We make things mean more than they actually do.
This might be because you’re tired, or because you and your spouse haven’t had a fun relaxing day in a long time so your friendship is a little rusty. It might be because you haven’t had sex in a long time.
Don’t believe me about the sex?
Think of a time you were upset at your spouse and then, after you had a wonderful sexual encounter, suddenly that huge thing faded and was no big deal. This is because of all the happy hormones that flood your body after sex. It’s real.
A good boundary is just a tiny thing. Don’t let it be more powerful than it is. When you infuse a boundary with all kinds of emotional weight, the situation gets confusing. You lose your clarity. Let the trashcan just be about the trash.
Instead of getting into your spouse’s business making the trashcan mean more than it does, call your spouse’s attention to the full trashcan or wait until they see it and tend to it on their own.
This week I invite you and your spouse to investigate the mixed signals you send.
What kind of mixed signal do you tend to send?
- Do you think you’re setting a boundary, but then, if your spouse doesn’t hold up their end of the bargain, you step in and do the task yourself? What does that look like at your house?
- Maybe you are more likely to shame your spouse when they “don’t do it right.” How does that make you feel? How does it make your spouse feel?
- Do you drown your spouse in solutions for how they can “do it better?”
- Or, if your spouse doesn’t do the thing right, or at the right time, do you make that mean it’s the end of your relationship?
It helps to be able to say to your spouse, “I am sending mixed signals.” This is kind to both of you. You’re human. You’re gonna mess up. When you talk about this with your spouse you create an atmosphere of forgiveness and gentleness in your relationship.