How Much To Give And Take In Relationships

The hardest thing about emotional boundaries

mural by James Bullough

Emotional boundaries are my big question right now

I always have a big question in my head, and it’s always about love — and life.

After I broke up with my boyfriend of five years in 2014, my question was around “personal agency” and “real love” — specifically, whether someone can really love us if they see us differently (lesser and more superficially) than we see ourselves; if there is no “true” reality, then which version of “us” is real? Do we get final say in who we are and how we want to be seen (and loved?) (Side note: after 3 years and countless books, Emma Lindsay’s essay “Fish Love” is the closest and best answer I found.)

Last year, it was around emotional abuse —and what constitutes it — which lead to healthy vs. toxic love. (bell hooks had the best answers here.)

And that evolved into my big question this year, which is around “emotional boundaries.”

Emotional boundaries are hard

If you don’t agree, it’s almost certainly because you don’t (yet) realize you struggle with them. Because pretty much the only people with healthy emotional boundaries are the ones who have conscientiously and deliberately put in the emotion work to build them.

We don’t learn them from our family. (In fact, if anything, we learn the opposite from our families, most of whom are either too invasive, too dependent, or too enabling and end up encouraging our dependency on them.)

We can’t learn them from media, which is so ill with bad relationship and love models it should all be regarded as satire at best.

And we don’t learn them from others, because everyone struggles with them (see above) and some even see “boundaries” as being “closed off.” These people have a lot of emotion work to do, and should get their hands on some codependence reading.

This leaves the internet and books, but most of the advice there is equally bad.

There’s a lot of garbage out there on emotional boundaries

A lot of relationship books don’t even address the concept of emotional boundaries (or emotional health) — or worse, they actively encourage people to develop unhealthy ones, which sets everyone up for suffering.

Even books on boundaries beat around the bush, instead covering “how important they are” (great; duh) or “how to stand up for yourself” and “say no.” But those aren’t the real issue we have, evidenced by the fact that most of us sway erratically from one end of the spectrum to the other in attempt to find balance. We first find ourselves feeling “walked on” and then pick a fight over stupid shit to get even.

So far most books fail to address the real issue in emotional boundaries:

We don’t struggle with HOW to say “no.” We struggle with WHEN.

Take a cookie for a example

We all understand the logistics of how to not eat a cookie. (You say “no thank you,” you don’t pick it up, you don’t take a bite. Done.) That’s not the hard part.

The hard part is discerning whether or not we really want to eat the cookie.

If we don’t eat the cookie, are we avoiding it from a position of peace, or self-punishment — or pride? If we eat the cookie, is it with pleasure or lack of self-love? Do we actually want it? Will we regret it tomorrow? Do we want it because we’re bored, or we’ve had a beer, or a stressful day, or our host is extending it to us on a plate and smiling at us with those eyes that plead, “please — I spent an hour baking these.” Are any of those real desires? Should any of those be regarded as real desires? Is a cookie ever an appropriate vehicle for satisfying them? Is it ever appropriate to just say “ah, fuck it” and eat the cookie without identifying our real, underlying needs?

This is the hard part with boundaries — understanding what we truly want, beneath the surface, and what’s healthy.

And a simple, innocent cookie bears like 1/1000th the weight of a person.

And if you think I’m maybe overthinking the cookie thing, I’ll remind you: the cookie was a metaphor, bud. For boundaries. And if anything, we’re under-thinking those.

Here’s what I understand:

  • What emotional boundaries are: the distinction of self and others, and the limit of what we will accept from others to protect our self.
  • Emotional boundaries includes defining ourselves outside of our relationships to others (i.e., our jobs, marital statuses, etc.) and enables us to define our feelings separately from other people’s.
  • Healthy boundaries are: taking responsibility for your own actions and emotions, while NOT taking responsibility for the actions or emotions of others. It’s understanding we are not responsible for what others think or feel, including how they believe we should think or feel.
  • Emotional boundaries are built on emotional health, and self esteem, and self-love.
  • Emotional health (and self esteem and self love) are the number one most important thing in a relationship. It’s all one packaged deal.
  • Emotional boundaries are as important as physical boundaries. This means we are not “obligated” to share our thoughts or feelings — with anyone! — just like we are ever “obligated” to have sex with anyone, including our partner. (And we are no more entitled to what’s in other people’s heads, or them ours, than we are to each other’s bodies.)
  • Emotional boundaries protect us from intimidation, manipulation, shaming, and emotional abuse (which are always indications of unhealthy emotional boundaries.)
  • Emotional boundaries require emotion work, which is not the same as emotional labor. (Incidentally: frustration around emotional labor is a big, bright red flag for poor emotional boundaries.)
  • How to literally say “no.”

Here are my open questions:

1.) Our feelings are often not “real.” So how do we manage them?

Before anybody gets pissy over that, let me clarify: you are entitled to feel your feelings. But that doesn’t mean your feelings are always reasonable or anybody else’s problem. And without emotion work, they can’t define emotional boundaries.

Resources on emotional boundaries often advise the reader to simply “understand what upsets, hurts, or offends” us. One article said, “When you feel anger or resentment or find yourself whining or complaining, you probably need to set a boundary. Listen to yourself, determine what you need to do or say, then communicate assertively.”

What horrible advice.

I mean, maybe, sometimes that’s valid. But maybe (most times) you need to deal with your own emotions before putting them back on others. Maybe your reason for feeling anger or resentment or jealousy or insecurity is your own problem.

If everyone followed bad advice like the above, we’d all be running around with the emotional development of children, believing every whimper that crossed our tiny brains had to be validated and honored.

Guys, no. Part of being an adult (and developing emotional boundaries) is also about being able to discern which emotions are yours alone to deal with, and not project on others.

Sometimes people struggle to stand up for their feelings. Sometimes people struggle to understand the world isn’t responsible for soothing everything they feel. Most people struggle with discerning the difference, and bounce back and forth between the two.

So: the question here is on emotion work, really. How to manage our own emotions, and being able to appropriately discern what’s ours to fix (hint: most of it), and what’s valid / for other people.

2.) Who decides?

Often these resources brush people off with advice like: “know your boundary and then say no.” And to that shit I’m like, thanks Barbara.

The problem is we’re all so bad at it, so we don’t have the privilege of trusting our own judgment yet. So who decides? Or, better yet: how do we know when we can? What if we don’t care? Should we?

I grab fries off my partner’s plate and borrow his clothes all the time without asking. I moved across the country for him. I listen when he jumps straight to “problem solving” when I share something.

Are those poor boundaries?? Even if neither of us cares, should we? Hell, even if we think we’re happy, should we be?

3.) Where the hell do we draw the line?

We are subconsciously socialized to empathize with other people’s feelings, but then we’re told not to take on other people’s feelings.

We’re told to “stand up for ourselves” but also “surrender to love.” We’re told to “say no” but never “shut down.”

We’re warned against becoming “emotionally exhausted” after talking to others, but we’re also warned against “withdrawing” or “walling others out.”

We’re told “the opposite of love is not ‘hate’ but ‘apathy’” (or maybe “fear?”), which means loving is caring — but what’s too much?

We’re not supposed to sacrifice our dreams for relationships, but most dreams are fantasies anyway. (Would you reeaally move to a cabin in Vermont??)

When it comes to others’ emotions, it makes sense: be open to others but don’t take on their emotions as your own. Fine. It’s not actually as clear it sounds, in practice, but it’s fine enough on paper. (Eat the cookie without becoming it. Eat the cookie without needing to identify as “cookie eater.” Fine.)

But what about our own emotions, thoughts, preferences, ideas? And how should those two come together? How do we make this all work? How do we discern and compromise?

Like: it’s always bad when people try to change their partners. Except it’s not always bad, because there are caveats like: if their habit is objectively bad, like smoking. But what if it’s subjectively bad, or just sort of bad? Who gets to decide? Do they compromise? Should both have to give 50% if the habit is only regarding one person’s body or life? How much agency do we have over one another? And how does their agency affect our own?

What I know for sure

  • Emotional boundaries are incredibly important.
  • Emotional boundaries are regarding our own preferences, but we should not trust our own preferences without emotion work.
  • Emotion work is not the same as emotional labor (though frustrations around emotional labor are indications of poor emotional boundaries)

It all comes down to better understanding of — and responsibility for — our own feelings and thoughts and what we truly want most, and expecting the same of people in our life.

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