Let’s take a theoretical scenario to demonstrate asking for a boundary and not having your request honored.
The Light Blue Hat – My Simple Request
I play tennis with my friend who lives down the street. He wears a worn-out light blue baseball cap. It bugs me. He likes that it bugs me.
“Hey, can you not wear that cap next time we play?” I ask. He smiles. There is a pile of hats behind him on the table. He does not answer my question. The next time we play, he is grinning and wearing the light blue hat. I’m flexible. I don’t make a big deal about it. Later, after the match, I ask him again, “Hey, that hat, for some reason, is really bugging me, can you rotate out to one of your other pretty hats?” He smiles.
The next week, sure enough, he’s wearing the hat. Now, it’s not really affecting our tennis. I’m still winning, but I’m irritated by the hat. I may or may not be clear about why the hat is irking me, that doesn’t matter. My request to my friend, “Please quit wearing the hat, it’s upsetting me,” is being met with humor and resistance. My friend has a ton of caps.
When he wears the hat the following week, I give him a firmer message. “Dude, if you keep wearing that hat I’m going to stop playing with you.” He wears the hat next week. I am pissed now. “Okay, that’s it. Next week, if you’re wearing the hat, I’m not going to play.” I’m serious. He doesn’t understand why his hat is upsetting me, he belittles my request each time and continues to ignore my request.
When my friend fails to honor my simple behavior modification request he is giving me several messages.
- your feelings don’t make sense to me, so I’m going to ignore your request
- your upset is a bit stressful, but you miss more shots when you’re pissed
- I like my hat more than I like you
- I don’t respect your boundaries
- I’m going to do whatever the hell I want
- you’re being a wimp
- fuck you
Now, some of these messages are conscious: he knows he’s fucking with me. We’ve been friends for over 30 years and psychological warfare is part of our game. This is different. I’m asking for what I need. I’m asking clearly and politely. Even when I escalate my request and make clear that I will quit playing with him if he keeps wearing the hat, he keeps wearing the hat.
In the end, I have to leave our friendship over the hat. Or, I can stay and “get over myself.” Or I can give him an ultimatum… But here’s the deal, we shouldn’t have to BEG for someone to respect our boundaries. If he’s a friend he should switch hats the first time I tell him the light blue one is upsetting me. He doesn’t, for whatever reason. Over time, I learn that he doesn’t care about my boundaries. And, while this is a made-up story, the illustration is real.
Your Boundaries Must Be Respected
In a friendship or a partnership, when you make a serious and clear request and that request is ignored, or worse, attacked, you are getting a powerful message. A bright red flag, flaming and flapping loudly in your face. My attachments (to the blue hat) are more important than your feelings. My needs are more important than your needs. I am meeting my needs, that’s all I know how to manage. “You do you and I’ll do me,” is a huge copout.
The underlying message in a coupleship is: what’s important to you is not necessarily important to me. And when you ask for a behavior modification and I ignore or argue with you about it, I’m trying to shame you into compliance with my bad behavior. It’s fine for your partner to express disbelief or misunderstanding. But they need to respect your request anyway. They do not need to agree or fully embrace your request (my friend my LOVE his light blue hat) but they respect you and care for you enough to join with you, and agree to your request. That’s how a healthy WE partnership works. “I may not understand it, but I won’t wear the light blue cap when we play tennis anymore.”
The WE Container of a Couple
Some people as they enter adult relationship building do not have much experience in trying to build and lovingly support the WE container of the coupleship. At the beginning of a partnership, the WE is weak. Both partners are exploring boundaries, desires, passions, and disconnects. If the relationship continues, the hope is that the WE of the coupleship becomes stronger and more important in each of their lives. This is how trust is built, this is how difficult conversations can happen without fear of abandonment or rage. Building and protecting the WE-partnership is the most important task of a long-term relationship. As a couple, you will grow to thrive in your partner’s WE, as they will grow and trust more inside your WE. It’s not codependence. The WE is two fully-functional adults making choices and priorities around their LOVER.
Violating the WE
When there are stresses on the WE from the outside world (old lovers, stressful work situations, depression, money problems) it is the couples’ joint responsibility to recognize the threat, to voice their “join” with their partner. And together the couple can design a response to the disruptions. The world, and people in your life, may be upset by your new partnership. They are going to get less of your time if you enter a primary partnership. When the couple establishes the WE together they are announcing to the world around them, if you violate our sacred partnership you will be held accountable. And if you can’t respect our WE partnership, in the long-run you will be dropped from our circle. It’s as simple as that.
Either someone or something supports the WE or it goes against the WE. There is no neutral ground. You are either IN 100% or you are OUT.
Losing Your Partnership
The WE is not an original concept. The idea of the couple’s container was first introduced to me by the Harvel Hendrix masterpiece, Getting the Love You Deserve. But the foundations of a couple begin and end with their ability to make the other person a priority in their lives. We all have mile-long to-do lists. If your partner’s requests for behavior modification don’t even make your list, there’s a problem. Especially if the “issue” is the number one item on their list.
People do what they want to do. Change is hard. Confrontations are hard, and most of us are conflict avoidant. So we postpone the hard discussions. We ignore the yellow cards and red flags. And we feel awful and resentful of our partner for not respecting our request.
When the WE is not even on your top-10 list when your partner’s emotional welfare falls down to the 20’s or 30’s on your list… Well, you are making a choice. By making a choice not to put some energy and joy into the WE container, you are putting your energy and joy outside the WE. You are going outside the WE for your needs. When this happens, your WE is at risk. To get to this point, the WE may already be crushed. There are interventions to stop and reverse the boundary violations, and disconnects around behavior modification requests. The goal is to be so into the WE that you never need to “work on it.”
The WE Always Comes First
When you put others’ needs above your own, your people-pleasing behavior may be a blindside that is killing your partnerships. Getting your priorities straight is one of our most important adult tasks. Not putting our individual needs on our priority list is a huge problem for many of us. Once, you get your priorities straight, the WE container becomes a behavior rather than a priority. If you tell me, “I would like to go out with my girlfriends next Saturday night, can you check if that works for your schedule?” You are not asking them for permission. You are not just making the plans and letting them lump it or leave it. You are telling them, “Hey, our partnership is important, and I’d like to check with you before I make plans for next Saturday night, without you.”your
- Your needs are the top priority
- Your partnership is number two on your priority list
- Your kids are number three
But if you’re ignoring numero uno, by not taking care of your needs, your health, your sleep, your boundaries, the crash will come for you. You cannot drink enough coffee or take enough anti-depressants to correct a lack of self-care. You can claim to be too busy, to have other priorities, to hold your kid’s appointments and sports and school and playdates, as your top priority. But even your kids are getting less of you. If you were at 100%, you would be a better parent, a better partner, and a better functioning whole adult.
Until you stop the burnout cycle, your energy to work and cherish your WE container is diminished. If the “time” for your love life is always the end of a long and stressful day, you can see how your partner is not getting the joyous and empowered partner they were hoping for. Stress is a killer. Stress and lack of self-care will kill you faster than just about any addiction or risky behavior. But we don’t give enough attention in our lives to stress reduction, to self-care, alone time, meditation, silence, rest. This is a major contributing factor to the stress in your life. It’s having an impact on your kids and your partner. When you are not at 100% everyone around you has a less vibrant parent, partner, friend.
Find Your Center
Stop right now. Center. Breathe. Are you taking care of yourself? Are you constantly putting other’s needs, emergencies, requests, “nice to haves,” before your own self-care? Is your semi-energetic behavior helping or hindering your parenting and partnership? What do you think? I know we’re all stressed out, all scheduled to the max, and feeling overwhelmed.
Guess what, you don’t get out of the overwhelm or anxiety by taking on more and more until you can’t feel anything but exhaustion. There is no trophy for burning yourself out. In fact, you’re shortchanging everyone around you. But, most importantly, you are shortchanging your happiness, energy, and contentment. You may feel needed, you may feel essential for a number of people in your life, but you’ve forgotten to make yourself THE NUMBER ONE PRIORITY.
You will learn this lesson over time. It’s a life lesson. Either you make yourself a priority, or EVERYONE ELSE WILL BE YOUR PRIORITY. Don’t let that happen to yourself. Those around you need you fully-empowered, awake, and enthusiastic.
John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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