In many instances, I’ve found myself at the receiving end of conversations that go something like this,”(Enter name) treats me terribly. I have crushing anxiety when I have to be around her!” When I inquire if there’s an actual reason they have to be around this person, and ask if they’ve ever confronted the situation, rationalizations and excuses often follow. What I’ve learned is that many keep themselves in borderline abusive situations for years believing they must tolerate mistreatment, specifically when the perpetrator is a relative.
This response is in opposition to the way many would see fit to handle other life situations where there are unhealthy relationships. When people commune there will always be times of tension or disagreement, but if exposed to a hostile work environment most of us would actively seek another option. If we had a loud,rude neighbor we’d avoid him or her like the plague. Yet, when it comes to family members, we often feel forced to endure mistreatment, and hesitant to draw the line.
Having come from a large close-knit family, I was blissfully ignorant that some have relatives who are quite cruel to them. It wasn’t until I married, and found myself having to protect myself from a member of the family I married into, that I learned there existed somewhat of a societal expectation of tolerance placed upon me to maintain an unhealthy relationship solely because of relation through marriage.
Distancing oneself from an unsavory character if they’re somehow related, is often viewed as daring, disrespectful, and scandalous. I beg to differ with this line of thinking. There is nothing disrespectful or scandalous about protecting ourselves. I’m of the belief that when we honor ourselves through boundaries, space is created for allowing positive and nurturing people and relationships into our lives.
Boundaries are what we build in order to teach others how they’re to treat us if they want to be a part of our lives. When boundaries are out of balance we run the risk of alienating people or leaving ourselves open to maltreatment. In my experience, boundaries are too commonly viewed in black and white when in reality there are many grey areas. I urge readers to consider the vast options between allowing themselves to be abused and being combative or removing people from your life at every turn.
Barring extreme circumstances, it’s probably unwise to cut someone out of your life because of one snide comment or spiteful action. There’s often value in attempting to work things out. People will disagree in relationships. Where mutual respect and the desire to connect and get along nicely is present these disagreements are worked out, perhaps even chalked up to a communication error or other misunderstanding. The relationship is saved, even strengthened.
At the other end of the spectrum are those who repeatedly place themselves in the presence of someone who berates, criticizes, verbally attacks, releatedly manipulates them or other’s opinion of them, and/or refuses to respect the boundaries they’ve set. In such cases, removing themselves from the relationship becomes a practical option.
I’ve observed the latter countless times, and don’t believe it’s a coincidence that many of of the people I meet who’ve found themselves on the receiving end of repeated mistreatment have something in common: They’re very kind and accepting, peacemaker types who view setting a boundary as an act of aggression.
This is a misunderstanding of epic proportions, as healthy boundaries are an act of self-love and assertiveness, not aggressiveness and hatred. Boundaries aren’t one size fits all Those who dread verbal confrontations sometimes have other options. I have a friend, Sarah*, whose mother-in-law would constantly criticize the way she raised her daughter. This went on for about one year usually occurring at family dinners. I asked Sarah if she could directly state, “I’m aware of your feelings,but child rearing decisions are between my husband and me. If you want to maintain a relationship with us I expect the criticism to stop here.” Sarah turned beet red at my suggestion. “I wish! I’d be terrified to say that; I wish you’d call her and say it for me!”. My calling her mother in law would not only have been inappropriate, it would have continued to keep Sarah in a state of victimhood.
Instead Sarah decided, the next time her mother in law began with her criticisms, she and her husband would not respond or argue. They’d make eye contact with each other, express appreciation for dinner, get the baby from her high chair, and simply leave. It didn’t matter if the criticism occurred mid-dinner, they’d place their forks down and leave. I forewarned Sarah that she may be confronted in the moment, or at least receive a phone call afterward. I was nervous for her, and waited by the phone to hear what happened. Sarah told me her heart was pounding as she made eye contact with her husband and they rose from their chairs, but they’d made a statement without saying much of anything. When Sarah’s mother-in-law asked why they were leaving she simply responded by thanking her for dinner and wishing her a good night. She got lucky. The message was received, and the criticism has stopped completely. Although, I may have handled the situation differently, it surely proved the effectiveness of actions over words when Sarah’s mother -in- law realized her off color invasive comments on how her granddaughter was cared for wouldn’t be tolerated.
Not every situation resolves itself so simply. In my personal situation, I was dealing with a narcissistic woman. The first step I took was verbal confrontation. I did this in a respectful way, but also with the awareness that when someone has narcissistic tendencies there’s no hope for being safe or valued in a relationship with them. The narcissist wants to play games, and the only way to win is to remove oneself from the game completely, which I did. I felt no stress protecting myself from this ill-intentioned person.
It was almost too easy until a few months afterward, when I was questioned through social media by a friend of this woman from whom I’d removed myself. I remember shaking as I read this long and accusatory facebook message which advised me to be “more forgiving”. After all, this person was my “family member through marriage”. Initially, I was enraged, but I took to my journal. Early the next morning, I responded to the email:
” I trust my discernment as to who earns a place in my life. I harbor no ill will towards your friend, and I’m capable of forgiving people without hosting them in my home. I can accept differences without being the martyr who allows herself to be abused. I can learn from a negative situation without keeping myself immersed in it. It seems you’re offended by my decision to protect myself, but all the lectures and questioning you may dish out will not weaken my loyalty to my own well being.”
It had clicked. In that moment I realized maybe for the first time that I was capable of loving myself without hating or fighting with others. I had shared my values, and honored my greatest good without disrespecting anyone. As I see it, this is the cornerstone of setting healthy boundaries.
I leave you with a few questions to ask yourself when struggling to set boundaries, and encourage you to exercise patience with yourself in the process. If you feel triggered or offended by any of the following questions, know to stick with that question until the answer comes.
1. What do I gain by remaining in this situation ?
This is by no means an easy question to ponder, and you may find it brings to light some uncomfortable truths. Perhaps deep down you tolerate maltreatment from the family of your significant other because you stand to gain financially upon their passing. Maybe the way you’re spoken to echoes the treatment you received in your own family of origin and you’re somehow accostomed to this pattern. Maybe you revel in the feeling of victimhood and use these situations to gain sympathy and avoid accountability, and therefore empowerment.
2. In what ways does this relationship honor me?
Good relationships are reciprocal in that each person uses their respective strengths to support and care for the other.
3. Do I believe myself to be deserving of the same respect I give others?
Showing compassion to others while denying oneself the same care is an act of self-betrayal. We attract and are attracted to what we, often unconsciously, believe we deserve.
4. What has held me back from setting limits with this person? Do I fear losing this connection? Do I feel guilt setting limits? Why?
There’s always a reason we tolerate things, and it’s not always immediately apparent. If a friendship dissolves because you’ve honored your own well being, that’s a sign it was unhealthy to begin with. True friendship is rooted in mutual love, not fear.
5. How do I best communicate, and what will it take for me to set healthy boundaries in a way that’s respectful and non-aggressive?
Once you decide to set boundaries, it’s important to connect with your strengths regarding communication.
6. In which ways do I feel most comfortable expressing my needs and feelings as they pertain to this relationship?
There are various options. Some feel best writing a letter, while others find comfort speaking over the phone, physically distancing themselves until they’re asked what’s wrong, or talking in person. It depends on you. However, I’d advise against aggressive or passive aggressive handling of these situations. You’ll want to respect yourself through this process.
7. What do my boundaries look like?
I like to think of my own boundaries as ocean waves allowing what serves me and washing away what doesn’t. Depending on our circumstances and personality types, each of us has our own vision for ideal boundary setting, and how soft or firm we need to be in order to remain true to ourselves.
8. Who can I turn to for support?
You don’t have to do this alone, and it’s recommended that you turn to someone for support through this process, particularly if you’ve struggled in this area repeatedly. In extreme instances, the help of a professional may be ideal.
Relationships hold the capacity to enhance our lives and inspire us, or hurt and harm us in deep and lasting ways. Having tolerated abuse or mistreatment yesterday in no way means you must continue to attract and accept such relationships tomorrow. Here’s to a future of sharing in relationships that serve to beautify our existence.