The Most Important Thing I’ve Learned About Relationships from Therapy, Dating Coaches and Self Help Books
A few nights ago I was having dinner with a friend in India. She asked me about the most significant breakthrough I had in therapy. My biggest breakthrough came from a combination of self-help books, therapy, working with a coach, and my interview with Terri Cole. The one common pattern between all of my intimate relationships was a lack of boundaries. I was never willing to say what was ok with me and what wasn’t. I don’t think I’m alone.
I grew up in a culture where you were taught to never question authority, even if that person was wrong. In other words, I I was actively discouraged from establishing boundaries. This has played out in many of my adult relationships until I realized how important it was to establish clear boundaries.
For people who don’t like to rock the boat, establishing boundaries is hard. Our fear of setting them gets reinforced particularly when another person’s response to us is negative. But a lack of boundaries is why guys put up with insane amounts of bullshit from a woman they’re dating just because she is hot, and women tolerate an abusive man because they find him so attractive. It’s why people stay in toxic relationships when they should walk away. It’s why they allow people to mistreat them.
What Happens Without Boundaries
My first girlfriend and I didn’t have much in common, and we had different values.
- I was an extrovert. She was a complete introvert.
- I was fairly liberal. She was extremely conservative.
Because I wasn’t willing to establish a boundary, we kept having the same fight over and over.
I had a female roommate who was one of my best friends and like a sister to me. Most people who spent time with us would immediately see that our dynamic was like brother and sister. Any woman, after spending even an hour with us would conclude that there was no way in hell she had any romantic interest in me or vice versa.
But the girl I was dating refused to believe that nothing was going on with us just because she was my roommate. Eventually, she gave me an ultimatum. She wanted my roommate to move out. I’d known her for 8 months and my roommate for 3 years. That was the end of the relationship. I knew that anyone who was forcing me to choose between them and one of my closest friends was not the person for me. If I had been clear about my boundaries, it wouldn’t have taken almost a year for this to happen.
My second girlfriend had tastes that were out of my budget. She liked fancy restaurants every weekend, and 600 dollar hotel room stays in the city we lived in. Instead of making my boundaries clear, I put the entire relationship on a credit card and money was a constant source of tension between us. She even went so far as to tell me “I expect a guy to pay for things especially when I’m fu#$#ing him.” But instead of speaking and stating that living this way wasn’t feasible for me, I stayed in the situation out of fear of being alone.
We avoid establishing boundaries out of fear.
Fear of how someone will respond
Fear of losing someone
Fear of being alone
We tolerate what’s unacceptable to us which eventually transforms into resentment. Without boundaries, you’ll always feel as if you’re dancing on eggshells around another person. You’ll feel as if you have to watch every little thing you say and do. You’ll be the most inauthentic version of yourself. You will have to keep up an exhausting facade of power dynamics and games.
Over the last year, I finally started to get clear on my own boundaries.
- I want someone to be a fuck yes or no. If you’re not excited about having me in your life, you’re out.
- If you’re flaky or give me the runaround, you’re out
- If you’re mean to me, children, or old people, you’re out.
- If you lose your shit over completely pointless things, you’re out. If one woman screams at you about two beds in a hotel room and insists on a King Size, and the other says “let’s sleep in one, and have sex in the other” choose the second.
- If you’re incredibly judgmental, you’re out.
This isn’t just about romantic partners. It applies to your parents, co-workers, friends, fans, and followers. If someone pissed in your front lawn, you’d call the cops. But if they’re assholes on the internet, you tolerate them. Personally, I like Michael Gebben’s zero-tolerance boundary for negativity.
One of my old mentors would send me cryptic text messages with no context telling me to avoid this person and that person. Once, I got that kind of message when I was on my way to meet one of the very people he suggested I avoid. I finally had to establish a boundary and tell him that I was done with his 48 laws of power bullshit and if he was going to do things that completely disrupted my Friday evening plans, then he needed to provide context.
Sure, communicating your boundaries might mean the end of a relationship with someone, or a less than favorable response. But do you really want to be with someone who doesn’t respect your boundaries, insults you, and treats you like shit? I’d rather spend a Friday night at home playing NBA 2k19 with my friend Matthew Cooke than be out on a date with someone who doesn’t respect my boundaries.
If you want to learn more about love and boundaries, you might enjoy this interview on the Unmistakable Creative podcast with Terri Cole.