Anne complained, “He’s always making us late”. “Whenever we have to be somewhere, he always gets himself ready at the last minute and I end up having to wait for him”. “We never show up anywhere on time!” “Never!”
Anne was clearly upset. Last night she and her husband Gary had been invited to attend a surprise party for a very close friend. Just at the time they should have been leaving together in their car, Gary predictably strolled in from the garden, a mess, then took twenty minutes to clean up and get changed. When they finally left their home and showed up at the location of the party, they ruined the surprise by arriving at the same time as the people for whom the party was being thrown. The other guests who had arrived on time and had been hiding ready to surprise the guests of honor, were clearly annoyed at both Anne and Gary for ruining the surprise. Anne was mortified and apologized profusely. She had been looking forward to this evening for months. Now her only desire was to forget everything to do with the previous night.
Anne was clearly angry. She blamed Gary for the entire situation. Her past attempts at trying to make Gary ‘smarten up’, only met with resistance and resentment from Gary who blamed Anne for being ‘controlling’. Anne felt frustrated and helpless. She believed that there was nothing she could do to change the situation and was tired of being victimized by Gary’s behaviour. What could Anne do?
Anne needs to set a boundary with Gary.
Boundaries are limits. They define personal responsibility and provide clarity regarding what is socially appropriate. Townsend and Cloud (1999) describe boundaries as being like a property line. “It denotes the beginning and end of something”. In a sense, they help to establish where we end and another begins. The old adage “good fences make good neighbors” illustrates this point. Boundaries let us know where we stand in relation to others, and are an essential part of all healthy relationships.
Anne, in the scenario described above, feels victimized by Gary’s behaviour and sees herself as being powerless to change the situation. All past attempts at trying to make Gary change have ended in frustration and conflict. Anne needs to change the focus of her attention. Instead of trying to change Gary, Anne needs to focus on her response to Gary. Anne needs to put her energy into what she actually has power over – herself.
Anne cannot change Gary, she can only respond to his behaviour in a way that limits the effect it has on her. One way she can do this is by using an “I Message” and provide Gary with a choice. “When we are late for appointments I feel very discouraged and embarrassed because I don’t like to keep people waiting. The next time we are invited out we can either leave on time together or go in separate vehicles. The decision is yours.”
Telling Gary how she honestly feels and what she intends to do differently the next time, focuses the attention on her own behaviour, over which she does have control; rather than on Gary’s perceived irresponsibility, over which she has no control. Gary may not like the boundary Anne has set in their relationship and may in fact suffer some discomfort as a result of her decision. Anne should not try to rescue Gary from this discomfort by going back on her decision when it comes time to follow through. The discomfort Gary experiences provides him an opportunity to reflect on his behaviour, which he might not otherwise do, should Anne rescue him.
The pain which results from being truthful and setting boundaries with one’s partner, provides the necessary conditions in the relationship for each to take personal responsibility for themselves and their actions. It also provides the relationship an opportunity to mature and grow in greater intimacy.
Done properly, enforcing a boundary can be one of the most loving acts one can do for another person.