The world is virtually ruled by fear. It is fear that lies at the root of all anger, hatred, racism, conflict, and even war. Fear is the cause of the majority of mental illness and a large portion of physical illness. Fear determines so much human behavior that it’s difficult to point to decisions that are not influenced by it.
There is so much fear in the world, and so much pain attendant to it, that people will do almost anything to achieve some measure of safey. In therapeutic and self-help circles, many techniques have been applied to help people achieve relief from their fears, and in recent years one method that has attained a level of nearly universal acceptance is the use of the personal boundary.
When people are frightened by a situation or by the behavior of another person, they are encouraged to “set a boundary,” which means creating a protected space where they don’t allow other people to physically or emotionally hit them, violate them, insult them, ridicule them, or otherwise inconvenience, threaten, or hurt them. It’s a safe space where they keep danger away from them.
On the surface, this sounds like a really great idea, doesn’t it? Creating a boundary for yourself makes it sound like you’d be all wrapped up in a nice warm blanket, sipping on hot chocolate, or whatever you’d drink by a crackling fire. But it’s not a great idea, because at its core there’s a worm that eats away at the soul, and the name of the worm is victimhood. Let me illustrate this by introducing you to a couple that once came to me, Marta and Allen.
For years these two had honed their Getting and Protecting Behaviors to a fine edge that they didn’t hesitate to use to irritate each other. Their routine was fairly predictable. Allen often criticized Marta with anger and harsh language, which Marta then loved to relate in exquisite detail to everyone who would listen. Marta was a classic victim, who withdrew her affection from Allen and passively failed to support him in a variety of ways that annoyed him.
Although they had been to several counselors, their relationship was steadily declining. When they sat down with me, Marta began speaking immediately.
“I am sick of the way he speaks to me,” she said. “He violates my boundaries all the time.”
“What do you mean by your boundaries?” I asked.
“The way he talks to me is really ugly. It’s a violation, and our counselor—more than one—said that I have a right to set a boundary for him not to talk to me like that. Nobody has a right to talk to another person like that.”
“Why does he talk to you like that?” I asked.
At first she could not understand what I was even asking her, but eventually I was able to explain to her that Allen was attacking her only because he was empty and afraid, because he didn’t feel unconditionally loved. She had never heard an explanation of Real Love before.
“I understand that he’s behaving badly,” I said. “I understand that sometimes he behaves like a pig. But understanding why can make all the difference. Knowing that he feels unloved, what would he need most?”
Instantly Marta became defensive. “But when he talks like that how can I—”
I gently interrupted her before the volcano got out of control. “I understand completely that it’s difficult for you when he talks like that. I really do. But hang on for a bit, and let’s see if we can change your entire world instead of just repeating over and over what hasn’t worked for you. Do you want to keep doing it the old way? How’s that going?”
“Well . . .”
“Did you come here so you could tell me how well your marriage is going, or did you come here to learn something that might work?”
“Okay, I’m listening.”
“So back to the question: Knowing that he feels unloved, what would he need most?”
“To feel loved?” she said.
“Yes, exactly.” Then as I spoke I put both my hands up like a wall between myself and Marta. “Suppose my goal is to feel more loved by you—to feel closer to you—but then I put up any kind of boundary (shaking my hands for emphasis) between us. What happens to my goal? Will I feel closer to you and more loved?”
“Probably not,” she said.
“And you won’t feel more loved either. The instant I set a boundary, I might feel a little safer for a moment—maybe—but what I really want, and what you really want—which is to feel loved—becomes impossible. And that’s what’s happening in your relationship with Allen. His greatest need is to feel loved, and that’s what you really want in your marriage too. But then you set a boundary for yourself, a boundary that stands between you. How do you think that will affect the love in your relationship?”
Marta was now deep in thought. Only a few minutes had passed since she had first sat down, and yet the angry, self-righteous expression and tone she demonstrated then were entirely gone. She was now calm and open to what was being said.
“So how can I feel safe when he’s angry and criticizing me? How can I not set a boundary?”
“Let’s try it right now. Give me an example of something ugly Allen says to you.”
She gave me some examples of some unkind things he had said about the way she kept the house, and he had used some rather harsh words. I asked her how she had responded to him. She had lately evolved to the use of her boundaries, which meant that whenever he spoke to her harshly, she stopped him, told him she wouldn’t put up with that kind of language, and left the room.
“And how does he respond to that?”
“Not very well. He usually yells more. And follows me, yelling.”
“With the boundaries, do you feel closer to Allen? More loving? Do you cuddle more?”
That finally evoked a laugh. “No, there’s no cuddling.”
“So the boundaries thing doesn’t seem to be working all that well.”
“No, that’s why we’re here.”
“Perfect. So let’s try something different.”
I asked both of them to participate in an experiment. “We’re going to do something entirely different here. Relax. Marta, this will be especially different for you. There will be no need here for boundaries, no need to protect yourself, because I’ll be here to make it safe for both of you. Actually, I’ll be here to make it much better than safe. It will be loving, which is what you’ve been looking for all along.”
I asked Allen to repeat to Marta one of the unkind statement he had made in the recent past about the way she kept the house.”
“The house is a filthy, stinking mess,” he said, “and I’m tired of you being an irresponsible child.” He seemed to enjoy that.
Then I asked Marta to cross the room and sit in Allen’s lap, reminding her that there was no need to protect herself.
“Remember,” I said, “ that the goal here is not to be safe. You’ve already tried that, and it got you nowhere. The goal is far better. The goal is to be loving. I want you to set no boundaries whatever. I want you to be entirely truthful and open here, with no excuses and no protection of yourself. I want you to repeat the words I give you exactly, but only if they’re true. Don’t say anything I tell you to say if it’s not the truth. Understood?”
She agreed, and she sat in Allen’s lap. They were both a bit disoriented.
“Allen, you’re right,” I said.
“I can’t say that,” she said.
“I thought you agreed to repeat what I said that was true.”
“But it’s not true. The house is not filthy, and he has no right to call me an irresponsible child. That’s why I set boundaries.”
“Listen to me closely, because I’m here for one reason only. I’m here to help you be happier. I don’t care who’s right. I also don’t care to help anybody be safer. That’s worthless. You’ll be happier only as you feel more love in your relationship, and here’s your chance. Right now. Right now Allen is not being loving. I can see that. So what? If you want your relationship to be better, somebody has to choose to be more loving. So you can choose to be safer—which is just an illusion anyway—or you can choose to be more loving. What’s your choice? This is life or death here, as far as your relationship goes.”
Marta got the point, and she said, “I want to change our relationship.”
“Very cool. So let me help you see the truth. Is the house as clean as Allen wants it to be?”
“And are his requests for cleanliness entirely unreasonable?”
“Well, not entirely.”
“So from his perspective—in his language—the house is filthy. Period. He’s right about that. And he’s been trying to communicate that to you for how long, would you say? A week? A month? Longer?”
Marta looked sheepish as she said, “A long time.”
“So when he first asked you to tidy up the place, I’m guessing that he asked in a gentler way. But after being ignored for years, in an effort to get his point across with more emphasis, he resorted to harsher and harsher language. That does not make him right. That does not excuse him, but it certainly explains his behavior. But don’t be distracted by his language. Don’t be distracted from whether his point about the house is right. Now back to what I originally had you saying to Allen.”
“Allen, you’re right,” I said.
Marta swallowed and said, “Allen, you’re right.”
“I really haven’t kept the house as clean as you’ve wanted.” Marta repeated what I said.
“The real point is that I haven’t been thinking of you. I’ve been thinking of myself, and until right this minute I didn’t realize that.”
And in that moment both of them began to cry. And then hugged each other for quite a while. Their marriage didn’t become perfect overnight, but it did begin a dramatic positive turn in that moment that continued as they applied the principles of Real Love.
Boundaries certainly seem justified in the moment. When we’re in pain, anything that temporarily reduces our pain seems justified . Hence all the Protecting Behaviors. But the moment you set a boundary, you presuppose that you are a victim and that someone is trying to hurt you, and that makes it virtually impossible for you to feel unconditionally loved. Although boundaries may create some sense of safety—usually just the illusion of safety—any good they do is entirely offset by the damage they do to the process of feeling unconditionally loved.
The goal of life is not safety. It’s love. When we remember that, our short term goals become much more effective.