Establishing boundaries in relationships means you need to set your bottom line and stick to it
Give and take is essential for a good relationship. As the Rolling Stones song goes, “You can’t always get what you want.” Things go a lot more smoothly when two people are flexible about accommodating each other.
Equally important, however, is the wisdom to know when not to give in and go along. Accommodating a friend, partner, or relative is not a good idea if doing so violates your deeply held values, priorities, or beliefs. Marriage especially suffers when we become so tolerant of our partner’s behavior that we expect too little or settle for unfair arrangements. Sometimes we need to challenge the status quo by saying, “Enough!”—and really mean it.
What does it mean to really mean it?
A true bottom-line position is not an empty ultimatum. It’s not a threat we throw out inanger, or a last-ditch attempt to force someone to shape up. It’s not a mixed message, in which our words say one thing—“I can’t continue to take this”—and our behavior another (we continue to take it once things calm down).
No, a bottom-line position evolves from a focus on the self, from a deeply felt awareness of what one is entitled to, how much one can do and give, and the limits of one’s tolerance. One clarifies a bottom line not to change or control someone (although that wish, of course, is there) but rather to preserve your own dignity, integrity, and well-being. A bottom line is about the “I”: “This is what I think.” “This is what I feel.” “These are the things I can and can’t do.”
A bottom-line position is something you can’t fake or pretend, or borrow from your more assertive best friend. Everyone has a different bottom line, even though we may not know what it is until we’re put to the test. Neither your best friend nor your therapist can know the “right” amount of giving, doing, or putting-up-with in a relationship, and what new position you are ready to take on your own behalf. It’s easy for another person to tell you, “Leave him!” or, “Stop bailing her out.”
Right or wrong, they don’t walk in your shoes.
If you’re feeling angry (link is external), think very carefully about what new position you want to take before doing anything. You will only fall on your face if you attempt to take a new position that you’re not ready to own, or that you haven’t thought through.
Consider my client “Alice,” who was furious with an ex-roommate who had moved to Denver a year before but was still storing belongings in Alice’s basement. Alice wanted the belongings out and was increasingly angry at the excuses coming her way. (“I can’t afford to do it right now.” “The weather is too cold for me to move my stuff.”)
After attending an anger workshop(link is external) I conducted, Alice enthusiastically rushed home and wrote this letter to her ex-roommate:
I’m having a terrible problem with your belongings in my basement. It may be selfish of me, but for whatever reason I can’t live with it any longer. If you don’t get your stuff out within three weeks, I’m giving everything to the Salvation Army.
The roommate didn’t get her stuff out in time, and Alice did give it to the Salvation Army. The roommate was furious and despairing, and Alice, in response, became guilty, remorseful, and depressed.
It’s not that Alice did the wrong thing. The problem was that she too quickly took a bottom-line position that wasn’t comfortable for her. It wasn’t a position she could stick to without suffering undue anxiety and guilt when the counter-moves started rolling in (which they often will).
The Dance of Anger(link is external) covers the how-to’s of the range of bottom lines, from those that come up in the daily routine of living, to difficult positions with family members (“I love you, but I can’t give you any more money”) to voicing the ultimate (“If these things don’t change, I don’t think I can stay in this relationship”).
Many of us make a good initial attempt to define a new position, but turn to mush when we meet with resistance from the other party.
Learn as much as you can about taking a bottom-line position(link is external). It’s all about defining a strong “I” within the “we” of your relationships. And it’s a challenge at the very heart of having both a relationship and a self.