Boundaries: Choosing Change

By Jim Selman | Bio

We’ve all experienced a situation—whether in a marriage, friendship or business relationship—where we find ourselves thinking about the other person and saying, “I love you, BUT…”. It’s in that moment we realize a particular behavior of theirs is not acceptable to us and has become a source of stress and resentment. For many, resentment almost always leads to a downward spiral of self-destructive behavior and the eventual destruction of the relationship.

I was coaching a friend recently who is in such a dilemma. She is and always has been the primary breadwinner in her marriage. Her husband is a charming, lovable, creative man who is prone to spending binges whenever he is traveling or working on various short-term projects. This usually leads to an ‘explosive’ encounter when the credit card bills arrive. These angry eruptions are followed by his characteristic pattern of apologies, remorse and promises followed by feelings on her part of being ‘used’.  This cycle has been going on for a number of years.

I pointed out to my friend that she is in a classical ‘double-bind’: she is attempting to have her husband change his behavior without risking losing him or breaking up the marriage. When a habitual (or addictive) behavior is out of control, most partners will attempt to control it or react to it. Whether the ‘issue’ is spending, alcohol, gambling or ‘other partners’, the more either resists the behavior, the more it persists. “Recovery” has less to do with the behavior than it does with “being” responsible for boundaries and recovering the capacity to choose.

The recovery process can be summarized by these 5 ‘Cs’ :

Commit  – Be clear where you stand. Where is the ‘line’ that makes someone else’s behavior acceptable or not acceptable? If the line is not clear, then inevitably the conversation will become a constant process of negotiation and rationalization. Moreover, if we are not clear where we stand (who we are), then it is difficult to be responsible for the relationship and to design ground rules that work for both partners.

Communicate  – Assumptions and expectations are always dangerous bedfellows.  I say, when in doubt, always err in the direction of over-communication. This means to clearly express your commitments to what is and is not okay and to not react. When we are reacting, we are resisting and, in doing so, becoming part of the pattern we want the other person to change. Ideally, the person will change their behavior because they are committed to changing it—not because we ‘pressured’ them to do so.

Confront – It can be uncomfortable to confront other people, particularly when they are important to us. Yet, without the willingness to say “No” and challenge what is happening, we are complicit in the status quo and will often suppress or hide our complaints (that in turn will grow into resentments). But confronting doesn’t mean to blame or accuse the other person. It means to express our boundaries in unequivocal terms and not to tolerate whatever it is that is unacceptable.

Choose – In the final analysis, the foundation for any healthy relationship is for both partners to ‘choose’—to accept the relationship to be the way it is. If either party is a victim or is over-reacting or needs to dominate, then the relationship cannot work. To choose is to commit. Choice is the ultimate expression of ‘self’. Choice is only possible when we have the freedom to have the outcomes and the consequences of our choice be whatever they are. In this sense, choice is the opposite of control.

Consequences – Life is consequences. The status quo is the consequence of past choices, just as the future will be the consequences of the choices we make today. When we are clear about our boundaries and what is and is not acceptable, we are also willing for the consequences of our ‘stand’ to be whatever they are. In the case of my friend, her husband will or will not change his spending habits. If he doesn’t choose to change his spending habits, she is now clear that he won’t be spending at her expense—psychologically, emotionally or economically. She will still love him, but will not bankroll his habits.

This may sound easier than it is. What makes it difficult to draw boundaries and to take a stand is that we can doubt ourselves and lack the confidence that we will be ‘okay’ no matter what the other person chooses. It is true that there is a risk: we may lose the relationship. But there is also the possibility of creating a relationship without resentments that is based on the freedom to choose, authentic acceptance and commitment.

© 2009 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.