What do you remember learning about “boundaries” from your family growing up? Probably more than you realize. Many of us learn early in life not to grab toys out of another child’s hand, or to knock before entering a room with the door closed. The specific lessons themselves, while important, are not the whole story.
How we learn about boundaries is just as significant. When you needed something from your caregiver while they were on the phone, did you receive a gentle shushing? Were you scooted away with a dismissive wrist flick, or something harsher? Or maybe you were ignored completely. It’s also possible that the boundary being taught was “no boundary,” and you as a child were invited in to adult conversations long before you could comprehend them. Whatever happened, you were wired from birth to make meaning of these interactions: to either repeat the behavior (if reinforced) or alter it and avoid negative consequences the next time (if punished).
As an adult, you may find that your partner’s response to your bids for attention brings up strong emotions. While those emotions are undoubtedly connected to the present, it’s important to recognize their origins in the past as well. Notice how boundaries are communicated in your current relationship: do you perceive harshness or dismissal? Are you dealt the “silent treatment”? Or, at the other end of the spectrum, do you find yourself thinking right now: “what boundaries?”
Improving your self awareness can bring significant movement to a relationship that feels “stuck.” If you’re having the same fights over and over, find yourself feeling abandoned when your partner sets a limit, or feel like setting a limit yourself is unthinkable, you may want to look back on your primary relationships. When you were young and discovered a boundary (typically by violating it, such as barging into the bathroom when it’s occupied), how your social environment responded created an indelible, yet invisible, mark. You may have been gently redirected and learned “Oh ok, there’s a boundary. If I run into another one of those, I’ll be given gentle redirection.” If instead you were yelled at, shamed, or harshly punished, you may have learned instead that “boundaries are dangerous; when I run into them, I’ll be hurt.” If you experienced the latter, it’s no wonder that your partner setting a limit, even a reasonable one, feels dangerous to you. It was necessary to your survival for you to internalize the message: “boundaries hurt. “As an adult, it’s hard to unlearn it, even if it’s no longer needed for you to survive.
If you’re recently engaged, you’re probably gaining lots of experience with boundaries. For example, do you already live together or will one/both of you be moving? Whose couch is making the cut? Even “simple” everyday discussions involve navigating boundaries, some that are not so simple.
When you’re dealing with a boundary in your relationship, notice what happens in your body. Is there a knot in your stomach? Do you feel flooded with anger, shame, or another strong emotion? Our emotions prompt us for action, so if you struggle to name your feelings, see if you can name an impulse you’re having. Do you feel ready to fight? That could be anger. Do you want to disappear into thin air? Could be shame.
Taking a step back and a quick inventory of our internal experience can help us direct our actions in a more effective way. While our emotions are needed and provide us helpful information, it’s not always effective to act on them (though it may have been in the past). For example, if your partner’s limit-setting prompts you to go into hiding for several hours (a shame response), you could be missing an opportunity to learn a new way through a challenging emotional experience. While the boundary could feel dangerous, you might find that by observing your internal experience as well as your social environment, there are clues to suggest the present is different from the past. With the example of shame, naming the feeling and finding your partner doesn’t reinforce it can be a huge relief, and a lesson that “my partner setting a limit doesn’t mean I’m an awful person.”
By staying connected to the moment, you could still decide to act on the impulses prompted by your emotions, or you could choose another behavior and see how your social environment responds. That indelible mark from the past won’t be erased, nor should it. Your early life remains a part of your story as a complete person. With more awareness, you have an opportunity to meet yourself there with compassion that inspires positive change.
If you and your partner are looking for support with the navigation, premarital counseling can help.
Please contact Beth Ashton LCSW-C @ firstname.lastname@example.org for more info on Therapy.