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Monday, September 26, 2016

Boundaries in Dating: Some Practical Things

Esmeralda and Phoebus fighting. Image source.
So here's the last chapter of Boundaries in Dating: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Relationships (not counting the "Conclusion" section, which we will talk about next week). Since it's the last chapter, it deals with some very general stuff about the theory behind boundaries and how to apply them. The majority of it is really good advice, and I'll be typing up a bunch of quotes for you all to read, because PEOPLE NEED TO KNOW THIS. Seriously. But... every now and then, there's a bit that just makes me, like ... why did they have to write that?

Speaking of "why did they have to write that", take a look at how the chapter starts:
I love music, lots of types. But I confess that there is one type of music that I really can't stand. It is a kind of love song where someone is in love with someone who is not treating her right. That part isn't the problem. It's the mistreated person's position in the relationship, and how she is responding to the mistreater. She passively complains, whines, and hopes things will get better, with statements like:
  • I'll wait forever (while you look for someone better).
  • Time will heal things (while you never make a commitment for years).
  • Please come back (simply because I ask you).
  • Why do you treat me so? (because you can).
  • I'll make you love me (even though you aren't capable of loving anyone but yourself).
Wait. Oh my god. Read this part again:
It is a kind of love song where someone is in love with someone who is not treating her right. That part isn't the problem.
Holy crap. Throughout this entire book, there have been many many things that raised small red flags for me because they sounded sort of victim-blame-y. I really have tried to give them the benefit of the doubt. But what the hell is this? "That part isn't the problem."

What are they saying here? That it's okay to mistreat someone if they don't have good boundaries? It's totally okay to take advantage of people if they're good little evangelicals who were taught that their own needs don't matter? If someone is hurting another person, and the victim doesn't know what to do or how to stand up for themselves, then no injustice is being committed, everything is as it should be- oh, except the victim's lack of boundaries is a problem, right?

Ugh. What the hell is this. Why did they have to write "That part isn't the problem"? Like why the hell did that sentence have to be there?

Two paragraphs later, we have this:
Though no one has the power to fix anyone else, you do have the power to respond in healthy ways to your date when problems arise. And those type of healthy responses, which often involve the careful, caring use of boundaries, can go a long way toward a better relationship.
See, THIS IS GOOD. Why couldn't the whole chapter be like this? Why did they have to have that nasty victim-blaming language in the first paragraph?

Moving along, they talk about how it's important to have boundaries from the very start of the relationship- they're an important part of a healthy relationship, not something you bring out only in huge crisis situations. This is pretty similar to what they said in chapter 16. You have to communicate clearly about little problems so they don't grow into bigger and bigger things. You don't want a situation where one person just totally CANNOT STAND the other one's behavior, and the other has no idea there's a problem at all.

Then this part, which is REALLY REALLY GOOD:
Many people are afraid that when they begin saying no and establishing boundaries and consequences, that is a sign the relationship is over. Actually, boundaries help diagnose the character of your date and of the relationship. If you are in a relationship that ends when you disagree, it is not a healthy relationship.
Yes! This is so important. I can definitely relate to that fear, not wanting to tell a boyfriend that something was a problem for me, because what if he decides he doesn't want to be with me anymore? But the reality is, if you're not able to honestly talk about things, the relationship is shallow and superficial. You don't want a relationship like that anyway.

And they gave this example:
Think about the future. How can a man who refuses to listen to his wife's truth ever truly give himself up for her as Christ did for the church? (Ephesians 5:25). If your date can't hear the word no, the boundary is not the problem. His character is the problem.
Amen to that. And I found it delightful that their example is about how husbands have to submit to their wives. Sort of the opposite of all those purity-culture warnings about "how can the man be the leader of their marriage if the woman is the one to make the first move in dating?"

Anyway, the point is, having boundaries, saying "no" and expecting your date to respect that, is a sign of a healthy relationship. This is SO SO SO IMPORTANT. And it's not really something you see in pop-culture/media representations of dating and marriage. (Although if you know of any examples of this healthy dynamic being shown in TV/movies/etc, please leave a comment and tell us.)

And then this part, which I REALLY REALLY LIKE:
Whatever problem you are dealing with, the essence of it is probably that someone is sowing a problem and not reaping the effects (the boundary buster), and someone else is reaping what he never sowed (the boundary bustee) (Galations 6:7). That is the nature of a boundary problem in a relationship. The solution is the restructure things so the sower is also the reaper.
Well that is a really logical way of putting it. And I like how it's not about blaming anybody, it's just looking at the situation realistically and saying here is what's happening, person A is doing something that hurts person B but person A isn't really experiencing any bad consequences, so we need to change that. I would say we don't even necessarily need to blame person A- maybe they didn't realize they were hurting B, maybe there's no way they could have known. I think if it's some small, run-of-the-mill problem, it's not really necessary or helpful to decide "whose fault it is". Just work together and figure out how to stop the problem from happening again.
As you think about approaching your date with the problem, adopt a stance of love, respect, and mutuality. Let him know that you are not punishing him or getting revenge over past hurts. Your motive is love and reconciliation. You want to solve the problem because it is getting in the way of love's growth between you. Remember that the reality that you are even going to the trouble of dealing with the problem shows that he is important to you. This is the world of dating, where you can abruptly break off a relationship, no harm, no foul. Let him know that you are bringing up the problem because you care.
Yes. Good points, all of it. And let's just pause for a second while we wait for the purity-culture readers to recover from reading the sentence "This is the world of dating, where you can abruptly end a relationship, no harm, no foul." ^_^

But... then there's this part:
Many times, the one who has been trangressed against needs to apologize to the boundary violator for her own contributions, such as:
  • Not speaking up when she should have
  • Excusing, minimizing, or rationalizing the behavior
  • Telling others her complaint without telling him
  • Withdrawing or becoming passive as a form of protest
  • Threatening consequences and then not following up with them
These in no way excuse the behavior, but they do allow both parties to own their fair share of the abuse.
Okay, I was sort of on the fence about whether this was victim-blaming, able to see from a practical point of view how it could make sense and be reasonable advice, until I got to the last word there. "Abuse." What the hell?

They're not talking about abuse. (Or, rather, if they are talking about abuse, then HOLY SHIT this book is way less healthy than I thought, talking about how an abuse victim needs to apologize for how they react, oh my god.) Honestly, this reads like the authors were trying to use a wider vocabulary so they broke out their thesaurus and said "what's a word that means someone did something bad to someone else? oh how about 'abuse'?" I'm beyond shocked by how careless this word choice is. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS "both parties [owning] their fair share of the abuse." If that's not victim-blaming, I don't know what is.

They're not talking about abuse here. They're talking about situations where, for example, person A always shows up late and person B really hates it but doesn't really say anything about it to person A, and then one day when person A is late, B totally blows up at them and A has no idea why. Now see, both A and B made mistakes that are pretty understandable. They probably weren't trying to hurt each other, they just weren't thinking about the other's feelings/ didn't know how to communicate about the problem. This is something that can be solved by teaching them about better communication.

But let's replace the word "abuse" with "problem" and talk about the idea presented there: that "the one who has been trangressed against needs to apologize to the boundary violator for her own contributions." I'm not sure how I feel about that- actually, I have sort of complicated feelings about the whole concept of apologizing- because of hell.

I used to believe that every little sin that a person committed deserved an eternity of suffering in hell. That's what I was taught. I didn't "misunderstand" anything. So, to me, the word "sorry" meant "I sinned," which meant "I deserve to go to hell for this." So you can understand why I would be really really hesitant to say the word "sorry"- only saying it if I truly believed that I made a deliberate decision to mistreat someone when there were non-sinful options I could have chosen instead.

I don't believe that anymore, and actually now I believe it can be good to say "sorry" even if I don't really think I did anything wrong. For practical reasons. In that sense, I can agree with what "Boundaries in Dating" is saying here. If your partner wrongs you, but you want to reconcile and heal the relationship, it can be good for you to also say sorry, even though your reaction was totally reasonable and way less bad than what they did. Even if you don't really see anything you should have or could have done differently. If you want to continue the relationship, it can be good to pay lip service to the idea that you both did something wrong but you still accept each other. On the other hand, if you don't want to date them anymore, there's absolutely no reason you would need to apologize for having a totally normal reaction to someone's hurtful behavior- even if that reaction gets judged as "too emotional" or whatever so you're not a perfect victim.

Maybe my line of thinking here sounds dishonest, saying sorry when you're not actually sorry and you don't think you've done anything wrong. Or you could think of it as "I'm the innocent victim in this but I'm willing to pretend I'm not, because I care about you and I don't want you to feel that bad." Sort of sacrificial- we could even compare it to the idea of "Jesus taking our sins." [I don't believe in that particular view of atonement, but for Christians who do, maybe it helps my "say sorry when you don't think you've done anything wrong" sound more reasonable.] I'm not sure. I'm trying to figure out what "sorry" is supposed to mean, since I no longer believe it means "I deserve to go to hell for this." Anybody have any insight about it?

Anyway, back to "Boundaries in Dating." There's this really really good bit about how you should be specific when you talk to your partner about problems in the relationship:
Your best approach is to be very specific about the boundary problem with your date. Have specific events that you can draw from, what you felt when they happened, what was the problem with what happened, and what you wished had happened instead. If your date is a growing person, she will benefit from the information and want to know more, so that she won't hurt you again. If your date is resistant, the specifics will help nail down the issue in reality so that she has less room to rationalize, blame, or deny.
Yes! Totally agree.

The next part is about consequences. You have to have some kind of consequence when people violate your boundaries- otherwise the problem might keep happening and they won't be motivated to change. It's likely that the boundary-violating behavior is a habit, and it's not something that will suddenly change just because you tell your partner you're not okay with it.

The writers give some advice about how the set an appropriate consequence. This part is good:
Think of your consequences as protecting you and giving her a chance to change. They are not about making anyone change, nor are they about showing her how she made you feel when she hurt you. Leave revenge to the only One who has the right to it (Romans 12:19).
Wow. Boundaries "are not about making anyone change"- this is SO IMPORTANT and really should be emphasized more. A lot of Christian/ purity culture/ complementarian advice I've heard about relationships is along the lines of "here are the God-ordained steps you need to take in order to manipulate your partner into treating you right and have a godly relationship." "Boundaries in Dating" is COMPLETELY DIFFERENT from that.

Instead, boundaries are about keeping yourself safe from people and situations which hurt you emotionally. When you set a boundary, it's not because that's how you force somebody to stop being a jerk- no, instead, it's about diagnosing whether this person will always be a jerk or if they're willing to change. If they change and treat you right, great! If not, then at least now you know you probably shouldn't date them- you can make choices such that you don't have to interact with this person and be hurt by their jerkiness.

Boundaries do not make people change. Instead, they allow you to diagnose whether someone is the kind of person who treats you right, and put restrictions in place so that bad people won't get close enough to hurt you.

Also, the part about revenge is really important too. In my experience, it doesn't work if you try to punish your partner in a way motivated by revenge. You're hoping for some certain kind of response from them, to show they really understand how they hurt you and they really feel bad. If they don't respond that way, you still feel bad and keep punishing them, and make them feel worse and worse too. It's just not a good strategy.

Next, the writers tell us to "avoid the Ultimate Consequence"- ie, don't threaten to end the relationship over every minor issue. (They do say that breaking up can be a very good thing in certain cases though. Yes.) And then there's this:
However, when you chronically threaten to leave someone, and that is your only consequence, that threat can lose its power. The other person can easily begin thinking, Whatever I do wrong, you'll leave me. I will give up. It's the same idea behind the law: you are condemned for disobeying anything and everything, so you feel disheartened and wrathful (Romans 4:15).
Interesting.

So... what are they saying here? That is just doesn't make any sense to say God is loving but continually threatens us with "the Ultimate Consequence" for every little thing we do wrong? Or that it would be really bad for a relationship between people to work like that, but with God it's totally fine?

Because yeah, this would make a really good argument for why "every little sin is infinitely bad and you deserve hell" is just totally wrong. If people treated each other like that, all our relationships would totally suck and we would feel awful about ourselves. (Oh, and we would think it's not a big deal when someone molests children- we're all sinners, don'cha know?) But I don't think that's the point the "Boundaries in Dating" writers are trying to make here- if they really want to question such a huge tenet of evangelicalism, they need to be much more explicit about it.

Anyway, next there's a list of possible consequences you can use. (They tell us "set consequences prayerfully" and I'm pointing that out because I cannot remember any other places in this book which advised us to pray about making decisions. I really can't remember any. Makes me very confused about what kind of Christianity the authors subscribe to.) I'm typing up the whole thing for y'all to read because dang, this just makes so much sense and people need to know this stuff:
  • Emotional distance: limiting the depth of emotional access you can be vulnerable with
  • Physical distance: leaving the room or an event if the problem occurs again. Take separate cars to events in case you need yours.
  • Time: limiting the time you spend together until the problem is resolved
  • Third parties: requiring someone to help, such as a friend, pastor, or counselor
  • Progression of commitment: stopping or decreasing the commitment level
  • Giving up exclusivity: seeing other people until the problem is resolved
Keep in mind the function of a consequence: to protect you, and to help your date face the realities of his destructive pattern.
Next they talk about how it's hard to enforce boundaries and consequences because we don't want to see people we care about unhappy, and we desire to be close to our partner, even if we know we need to put limits on that closeness. The writers advise us to stay connected to our friends, who can support us- not "reactive friends" that take sides, but friends who care about both partners and hope the relationship can be healed.

Also this:
If he is responding to your boundaries, that is a good thing. But make sure of why he is. It is important that he be changing because of his relationship with God, because it is the right thing to do, and because he doesn't want to hurt you. It is less important that he be changing because he thinks that is what it will take to get you back. There are so many sad stories of abused wives who let their husbands return prematurely because the husbands manipulated them into taking them back, without making true heart changes.
Okay, yeah, so this time when they use the word "abuse", they're actually talking about abuse. This is a real thing that happens in abusive relationships- for more information, go read about the cycle of abuse.

So anyway, the point is, you don't want a partner who views your boundaries as "here are hoops I have to jump through in order to get the kind of relationship I want." Instead, they should care about your boundaries because they actually care about you and don't want to hurt you. (But I'm kind of thinking that, in real-life situations, it's hard to tell the difference- or even to understand your own motives.)

And another piece of advice they give: "provide a way back to normality." The consequences are not permanent. Be clear about what exactly you expect from your partner and how the relationship can get back to normal again.

Next there's a sort-of-bizarre section on "spiritual growth." They are addressing this question: Is it enough that you set boundaries and your partner respects them, or should you also require them to be in a spiritual growth process? I don't really get it- I think what they're trying to say is, usually boundary problems are a sign of a deeper character problem- so should you try to get your partner to deal with that character problem, or is it good enough if they just don't have that behavior when they're around you? But their use of the term "spiritual growth" is pretty weird- seems like what they're actually talking about is character growth, maturity, etc (and yes, in this section they also use terms like "emotional growth" and "character growth"). Why use the word "spiritual" at all? Why bring God into it? (They talk a bit about how God wants everyone to always be in a spiritual growth process.) How does a person's character have anything to do with whether or not they view goodness, morality, etc, as coming from an intelligent supernatural entity?

Anyway, that's all for this chapter. Overall, this one was really really good. It was about general principles for why we need to have boundaries, and how to apply them. Lots of very important and healthy advice in this chapter, and I typed up so many bits for you all to read because they're things that nobody really ever explicitly taught me about relationships. People need to know this.

Next week will be the conclusion. Stay tuned, lovely readers~

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A blog series reviewing the book Boundaries in Dating: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Relationships (introduction post is here)

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