I have noticed there seems to be way too much advice about relationships. If you struggle in your relationship, the conflicting opinions can feel frustrating and overwhelming. John Gottman’s recent article, “Debunking 12 Myths About Relationships,” is a helpful resource in sorting through advice that is actually helpful from the advice that causes harm. Over the past 30 years, John Gottman has studied extensively the practices that actually makes relationships thrive.
“I’ve found many myths about relationships that are not only false but potentially destructive. They are dangerous because they can lead couples down the wrong path, or worse, convince them that their marriage is a hopeless case. The notion that you can save your relationship just by learning to communicate more sensitively is probably the most widely held misconception about happy marriages, but it’s hardly the only one.” (John Gottman, Debunking 12 Myths About Relationships)
Check out John Gottman’s article by clicking on this link: Debunking 12 Myths About Relationships
I often walk alongside couples struggling to understand what happened to the love they shared early on in their relationship. I find it comforting to know that all couples go through times of disorientation and that moving through this experience together can actually foster deeper love. Michael Fulfiler’s article “The 3 Phases of Love,” explains the transitions that promote growth in love relationships. The good news is that times of conflict and turbulence is a common experience for all couples:
What do you do if you love your partner, but you are no longer in love with your partner? Does the feeling of love transform or change over time? In his new book Principa Amoris: The New Science of Love, Dr. John Gottman explains that there are actually three natural phases of love. His research has shown that being in love is a very complex experience, and he has identified choice points in the life course when love may either progress to a deeper place, or deteriorate. (excerpt from The 3 Phases of Love)
For more, click on this link: The Three Phases of Love
If the title of this blog resonates with you, know that you are not alone. Many couples are currently navigating how to adapt to new technologies in a way that balances with their relationships. I have personally pondered this issue for a long time in my own experience with my husband. Our relationship began long before the advent of emails and texting. Like most couples in America, we acquired our first smartphones several years ago. We were thrilled at the ease of instant availability and connection. Then, our relationship subtly began to change. Often after a long day at work, we found ourselves mindlessly checking texts, playing a game, or messing with Facebook. We started to notice moments of irritation and even sadness seeping into our time together. What was happening? There was nothing wrong with playing a harmless game or checking work emails, so why did we find ourselves feeling frustrated with each other?
Around that time, I listened to a podcast where Sherry Turkle described the new challenges devices bring into the interactional patterns between partners, as well as parents and children. My husband and I began to take notice of the subtle impact our phones had on our interactions. We were not as attentive to each other, a little distracted, during down times and unstructured moments. We decided to experiment with ways to balance our technologies within our relationship in a way that protected the closeness we desired.
What are interactional patterns in relationships?
An interactional pattern happens when we make “bids” for connection, and those bids are either received or missed by our partners. A successful interaction happens when partners are emotionally responsive to each other’s bids. These unsuccessful interactions, these “missed bids,” begin to create little nagging insecurities and uncertainties about the relationship that can build over time.
What is a bid?
“Bids” are the active ingredient in a relationship. Gottman shows how people make bids in the fine grain of everyday life, often without knowing they are doing it: “Did you hear about…,” or “You’ll never guess what my sister told me today.” Much is happening all the time in the form of these signals that partners are often unaware they are sending. These signals—these bids—are nonverbal as well as verbal: a wink, a smile, a shoulder rub, a gentle shove, or a mutual look of understanding about a friend’s quirks. What matters, Gottman suggests, is not depth of intimacy in conversation, or even agreement or disagreement, but rather how people pay attention to each other no matter what they talk about or do. What matters is the quality of attention.” (Dan Wile, 2010)
What is emotional responsiveness and why is it important?
According to Sue Johnson, the key indicator of a secure bond is the presence of emotional responsiveness. In essence, emotional responsiveness is the ability to respond to our partner’s bids for connection. We need to know that our significant other is available and willing to be there when we need them. A useful tool to understand emotional responsiveness is the acronym A.R.E:
Accessibility – Can I reach you? Are you there for me?
Responsiveness – Can I rely on you to respond to me?
Engagement – Do I matter to you? (Johnson, 2008)
The fabric of our relationship is built on a consistent flow of checking in, often in tiny unstructured moments. Is my partner accessible? Can I count on him/her to be there when I need them? Do I matter? Our devices can impede the interactional flow between bids for connection and emotional responsiveness. We miss the subtle shifts in tone and nonverbal facial gestures that offer vital information. Relational interactions get out of sync when bids for connection are missed. Over time partners experience missed bids for connection as indifference and may stop bidding altogether. Multitasking connection can lead to disaster. Relationships thrive on full presence.
Smartphones are not going anywhere, and they serve many important functions in current life. However, I am reassured that my husband and I are not alone in navigating this new relationship with technology. Over the past couple of years, research has validated the potential problems that phone use can create with our emotional responsiveness to the people we love.
The most recent issue of Psychology Today explored some of the current challenges couples and families are facing in relationship with their technological devices; technoference, Iphone Effect, Absent Presence:
- Technoference (term coined by Sarah Coyne) – 70% of couples report that face-to-face conversations were stopped in their tracks by partner’s phone use or even active texting.
- IPhone Effect (term coined by Shalina Misra): The mere presence of a smartphone degrades private conversations making partners less willing to disclose their deep feelings and develop understanding.
- Absent Presence (term coined by Kenneth Gergen): smartphones fragment human consciousness and lower quality of conversation. The diminished empathy comes about through our habitual use of devises. Communication becomes marked by delayed responses and lack of eye contact. The rhythms of responsiveness and synchronicity of feelings degrades. What comes across is indifference. (Psychology Today)
How can I create balance between my relationships and my devices?
Smartphones may pull our attention, but we can implement changes that create the balance and closeness we desire. In my own relationship, we have found that it is essential to maintain awareness between the use of our phones and our ability to be available to each other. We continue to negotiate changes as needed any time we notice we are out of sync in our relationship or with our children.
I have also taken some time to talk with friends and family about their own challenges with balancing their relationships and technologies. I have learned some terrific ideas of things to try:
- Implement “cell free” zones at family meal times, running errands, and coffee time. My husband and I love our “cell free” coffee time every morning. We start off the day connected and in sync.
- Tech Sabbath (http://www.onbeing.org/program/tiffany-shlain-growing-up-the-internet/8545) – Take a day off each week from checking emails. Enjoy cooking together, folding laundry with the kids, running to soccer games, etc.
- Vacation responder – Set vacation responder while on vacation to protect the time with your partner/family.
- Airplane mode – A friend of mine who is a medical doctor set her phone on airplane mode during her family vacation. She was able to turn work off and soak in her time with her husband and children. When she turned her phone back on, she was inundated with texts and emails. But, she said it was worth it to be free of distractions and feel connected again with her family.
- One of my friends told me that he exchanged his smartphone for a flip phone for a couple of years. After time at work all day on a computer he wanted to create a break from emails and Facebook at home. He found that his time away from a smartphone now helps him use it when he needs it and set it aside more easily.
A great way to experiment and implement changes is to talk openly with the people you love. Psychology Today has a helpful list of discussion points to get you started on creating balance in a way that best fits your relationship:
- What are your expectations about tech use by your partner and by you?
- Exactly what kind of contact does each partner regard as cheating?
- What is appropriate to disclose about the relationship; about your spouse?
- Do you exchange passwords or not?
- Do you tell your partner whom you are texting?
- When is it okay to be anonymous online?
- What, if any, places in the home are off-limits to electronic devices?
- What are some potential times to set tech free zones?
- What are the rules for the car?
- When is it okay to post photos of your children?
- How much checking on each other is okay?
Some people, friends or coworkers, might not understand why you would turn your phone off or set aside times to be unavailable. That is okay. You are setting a protective boundary around those little moments of emotional connection with the people most precious to you. Remember you are not alone. These technologies are new and all of us are navigating how to adapt in a way that balances our relationships with the precious people in our lives.
I recently had the honor of facilitating a class about healthy relationship practices. During one discussion about the importance of anger as an emotion, we examined how anger in relationships can be detrimental if we are not gentle with those we love. Anger is neither good nor bad. In fact, it is an essential emotion for our health and safety, and part of a healthy human experience. Anger can alert us to unjust treatment, and gives us needed energy to address harmful behavior.
“Negative emotions most likely aid in our survival. Bad feelings can be vital clues that a health issue, relationship or other important matter needs attention. The survival value of negative thoughts and emotions may help explain why suppressing them is so fruitless. Even if you successfully avoid contemplating a topic, your subconscious may still dwell on it.” (Negative Emotions Are Key to Well-Being, Scientific American, 5/1/13)
But anger is not a thinking emotion. Our ability to think clearly is diminished when we are angry. The front part of our brain goes dim. In the midst of conflict we can say and do things we later regret. We can protect our relationship when we first cool down and then seek to understand each another.
Seek to Understand
The goal of conflict in a relationship is to understand each other. The relationship loses when someone has to win. During times of conflict, relationships can actually grow and become stronger when our conversation focuses on understanding and care. If you argue well, it is even possible to feel closer. Unfortunately, people are often more focused on “winning” than understanding. This often occurs when the intensity of the anger becomes greater than the desire to seek meaningful solutions. With this in mind, we need to develop strategies to decrease the intensity of the anger and increase our ability to listen to one another.
Learn to Cool Off
Learning to control your emotions rather than allowing your emotions to control you is an important skill to develop. Instead of allowing your anger to build up until you “explode,” it is more productive to disengage until you are able to think clearly and feel at the same time.
Once both people in an argument have “cooled off,” it is easier to re-engage and reach resolution. Unfortunately, many people want to “finish” the argument immediately, rather than allowing “time-outs” to occur. Frequently, this results in one person pursuing and the other person running away until they feel cornered. When this occurs, the argument often becomes destructive. Remember, in a relationship, you do not have to resolve everything “right now.” It is appropriate to cool off and re-engage when the anger has subsided.
Boundaries that Protect
Creating safety is essential for a relationship to thrive. The behaviors listed below are destructive and will harm the relationship. When we draw the line at these behaviors, we create a foundation that protects and respects the relationship.
- No hitting
- No cursing
- No name-calling
- No yelling
- No throwing
- Stay focused on one issue at a time
Commit to Resolving Issues
It is important to remember that calling a “time-out” does not mean that you never have to talk about the issue again. A designated time needs to be established to re-engage in the discussion. If you do not create a time to return to the discussion, the anger tends to re-emerge in later arguments. “Time-outs” only work if both people are committed to continuing the discussion until true understanding is reached.
A number of communication tools are available to help couples communicate with understanding and care. One of my favorite tools is L-O-V-E Conversations. If you are unable to work through issues without anger dominating your relationship, couples therapy can provide support, as well as healthy alternatives to address conflict.
In the following video, Bruce Muzik uses the metaphor of a game of tennis to illustrate healthy communication skills. His video is informative, witty, and fun to watch. Many of the couples I work with in my therapy practice have found this useful in their efforts to improve their communication skills.
Many of us want “happily ever after” relationships. How can we cultivate relationships that stand the test of time? Many marriage vows are based on commitment to the marriage that includes phrases such as “til death do us part,” and “in sickness and health.” Before marriage we often assume that we all know what “commitment” means. Oftentimes, however many people differ in their opinions about what it means to be “committed” in a relationship. Unless we talk openly about our assumptions, as well as the possible pitfalls that hinder a committed relationship, we can set ourselves up for disappointment.
First, it is important in any relationship to begin by building a healthy foundation that includes protective walls around the relationship. Actively work to build trust, emotional connection, and intimacy with one another. A healthy marriage does not come naturally. It takes investment. A number of resources are available like books, videos, retreats, classes, couple’s counseling, and marriage seminars that offer great tools to cultivate love and also increase awareness of behaviors that damage trust and intimacy.
Second, talk openly about how to protect the walls around the relationship. What are some “red flags” that can alert each partner that the marriage is in need of attention? Talk about how to approach one another when feeling disconnected or taken for granted. If we receive emotional support from someone outside the marriage other than our spouse, cracks begin to form in our walls and weaken the relationship. If it is difficult to approach one another, seek professional help to work through challenges or obstacles together.
Third, talk openly about the potential of temptation outside the marriage. Just because we are committed does not mean that we will not find someone else attractive. This is perfectly normal. How can we protect our relationship when we find someone else attractive, or when someone makes advances on us? Shirley Glass, author of “Not Just Friends,” offers a brief list of suggestions to consider:
- Know that attraction is normal. But just because you feel it doesn’t mean you have to act on it. Being attracted to someone else doesn’t mean you’ve chosen the wrong person. One of the measures of true commitment is that you don’t allow yourself to be pulled away from your priorities by distractions.
- Don’t let yourself fantasize about what it would be like to be with that other person.
- Don’t flirt.
- Avoid risky situations. (Glass, 2004)
Above all, keep communication inside the walls of marriage. If outside support is needed, make it a rule to confide only in someone that puts the marriage first.
In her book, “Not Just Friends: Rebuilding Trust and Recovering Your Sanity After Infidelity,” Shirley Glass has several quizes that offer warning signs that a partner may be on the slippery slope to an affair. The book also offers great insights on how to build healthy walls around the relationship and close cracks or openings that appear.
Quiz: Is Your On-line Friendship Too Friendly?
What are the warning signs that you (or your partner) are on the slippery slope to an on-line affair? Take this quiz and see:
- Do you find yourself coming to bed later at night because you are chatting on-line?
- Do you ever exit a screen because you do not want a family member to see what you are reading or writing to a chat room member?
- Have you ever lied to your spouse about your personal Internet activities?
- Would you feel uncomfortable sharing your Internet correspondence with your spouse?
- Have you ever set up a separate e-mail account or credit cared to carry on personal correspondence with an individual on-line?
- Has your Internet correspondence had a negative effect on your work or household tasks?
- Have you ever lied in response to a question from your spouse about your e-mail correspondence?
- Have you ever exchanged photos of yourself with a secret e-mail correspondent?
- Since beginning a secret e-mail correspondence, have you ever experienced a loss or an unusual increase in sexual desire with your spouse?
- Have you made arrangements to talk secretly on the phone with your e-mail correspondent?
- Have you made arrangements to meet with your secret e-mail correspondent?
Two or more yes answers to questions 1,2,3,4 indicate a potential Internet romance developing. It is time to either share your on-line correspondence with your mate or break off the correspondence and begin to examine how to improve your marriage.
A yes answer to any of questions 5,6,7 indicates you are crossing a boundary from an Internet friendship to an Internet romance. Acknowledge this relationship for what it is about to become and take action to preserve and enhance your marriage.
A yes to questions 8 or 9 indicates you have begun a fantasy romantic relationship with your on-line correspondent. Even if it never moves to a physical stage, this relationship has great potential to damage or destroy your marriage.
A yes to questions 10 or 11 indicates that you have taken positive action toward initiating an extramarital affair. Consider the impact this will have on the marriage and your children and take steps to sort this out with a professional. (Glass, 2004)
A “happily ever after” relationship goes through a number of ups and downs. It takes investment, a willingness to be open, and a good amount of courage. Healthy walls take work and need to be maintained daily in order to grow a life-long relationship.
In his recent article, “The Difference Between Passive, Aggressive, and Assertive Communication,” Guy Harris discusses the impact communication has on the health of relationships. He offers helpful insights into the difference between passive, aggressive, and assertive styles of communication and to create healthier conversations.
“Communication breakdowns are a common cause for conflict, and poor communication strategies can lead to rapid escalation. Likewise, effective communication strategies can help you correct these miscommunications to move conflicts quickly towards resolution.
One idea that can help you choose the best communication strategy for the situation comes from what I call the communication continuum.” (Guy Harris, The Difference Between Passive, Aggressive, and Assertive Communication) Read more….
“Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.” Melody Beattie
I have so many reasons to be thankful:
- My husband and I sipped coffee together before we started our day.
- I enjoyed a long walk by myself at Memorial Park.
- Our teenagers have found their groove at school and are enjoying soccer pre-season.
- I am currently savoring a bite of dark chocolate as I type.
In 2012, I decided to incorporate an intentional habit that did not depend upon my mood or daily circumstances. I started a gratitude project and began experiencing the powerful benefits of an active practice. My husband and I have both been amazed at the positive impact a gratitude habit has had on our marriage and other relationships over the past three years.
I can tell you from personal experience that gratitude will change your life. The following list, compiled from a growing body of research, describes the powerful impact an active gratitude practice can have on your health and relationships.
Seven Ways Gratitude Will Change Your Life
- Gratitude boosts health and wellness: “ “Grateful people take better care of themselves and engage in more protective health behaviors like regular exercise, a healthy diet, and regular physical examinations. Grateful people also tend to be more optimistic… studies link optimism to better immune function.” (Elizabeth Heubeck, Boost Your Health With a Dose of Gratitude)
- Gratitude protects against depression: “Gratitude supports the neurochemistry of well-being, and protects against depression. It builds resilience, so we get less rattled by events and bounce back faster. And gratitude turns us toward others as we appreciate the people we care about.” (Rick Hanson, What Are the Health Benefits to Thankfulness?)
- Gratitude increases happiness: “In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.” (Harvard Health Publications)
- Gratitude can help you through hard times: “Expressing gratefulness during personal adversity like loss or chronic illness – as hard as that might be – can help you adjust, move on, and perhaps begin anew. Although it may be challenging to celebrate your blessings at moments when they seem least apparent to you, it may be the most important thing that you can do.” (Sonjia Lyubomirsky, Eight Ways Gratitude Boosts Happiness)
- Gratitude increases satisfaction and longevity of relationships: “It starts within our own self. When we consciously foster feelings of appreciation for our loved ones—whether by doing a gratitude mediation about them every morning or by deliberately focusing on specific things we love about them—our relationship improves.” (Cristine Carter, A Surprisingly Simple Way to Feel Madly in Love)
- Gratitude increases satisfaction of parenting: “I am happy and proud to say that my relationship with my teenager is better than ever! Now he seeks me out to tell with me stories and jokes. He listens to me intently when I give him guidance. I can’t tell you how much this simple practice has changed our relationship. In retrospect, while teaching my family about this principal it also affected me positively. I noticed how my attitude towards him changed and softened because I started seeing him through a gratitude lens.” (Debbie Lyn Toomey, Gratitude Tip for Positive Parenting)
- Gratitude increases self worth: “Grateful people have a higher sense of self-worth. I think that’s because when you’re grateful, you have the sense that someone else is looking out for you—someone else has provided for your well-being, or you notice a network of relationships, past and present, of people who are responsible for helping you get to where you are right now.” (Robert Emmons, Why Gratitude Is Good)
Create Your Own Gratitude Practice
- Start a gratitude journal. Write down three items each day that make you grateful.
- Share gratitude at the dinner table. My family shares “Highs and Lows” every night during our evening meal to stay connected through the week. If not with your family members, pick a friend and share a high point and low point each day.
- Say “Thank You” often: Look for ways to express gratitude to those who cross your path every day. Express thanks at the grocery story, gym, at home, or just about anywhere.
Communication breakdowns happen so easily in relationships. We often try really hard to be what our partner needs, but our efforts seem to miss the mark:
“Stop trying to fix it, I just need you to listen to me.”
I know a couple that created a plan to address this issue head-on. Whenever “Mary” asks “Sam” if they can talk about something, Sam asks, “Do you want me to fix this, OR do you need me to listen?” Mary lets Sam know exactly what she needs.
Sam can stop guessing and relax. He knows when:
- Mary wants his advice. So, Sam puts on his “fix it” cap and they get to work.
- Mary needs a listening ear. So, Sam can let go of the need to fix and practices listening skills.
This little intervention has done wonders for their relationship. Together Sam and Mary work collaboratively to create the best possible communication between them.
The following video is a humorous account of this common communication struggle. Enjoy!
“Friends can help each other. A true friend is someone who lets you have total freedom to be yourself, and especially to feel. Or, not feel. Whatever you happen to be feeling at the moment is fine with them. That’s what real love amounts to: letting a person be what he really is.” Jim Morrison
My life has been a constant stream of transitions. I have lived in more places than I can count. I do not even know where I went to kindergarten. By the time I landed in college, I could list numerous towns and cities in seven separate states as well as Kenya, East Africa. I was ecstatic and relieved when I finally celebrated a major milestone of living four entire years in the same location during college.
The concept of developing close friendships was a mystery to me. I was perpetually the new kid on the block. The only tools I knew to navigate constant transition were either fit in or stay as invisible as possible. If you have ever seen The Princess Diaries, I was much like the main character, Mia, at the beginning of the movie, doing my best to hide so that I could protect myself from unpredictability. But in order to do this you have to master some pretty uncomfortable skills. When you look up related synonyms to “fitting in” and being “invisible” this is what pops up:
- don’t make waves
- don’t rock the boat
- bear with
- defer to
- play the game
Ouch. Not a very whole-hearted approach to living life. Over the years, the exhausting effort to fit in and remain invisible made it challenging and even made it seem dangerous to learn the skills related to authenticity and risking intimate relationships.
I craved deeper connection, but was unsure how to go about making friends. Thankfully, meaningful friendships did happen organically over the years, but I wondered if I was missing something. I could not figure out how to be friends with everyone and still be myself. In the search for friendship, there were times I ended up hurt and confused… times when I tried to open up and be myself, but instead ended up as material for someone’s gossip.
Time For Some Boundary Work
Then, I had a daughter.
As Reese began to navigate the friend arena, her challenges gave me extra incentive to learn more about how to create deep meaningful friendships. In my search for understanding, I began to notice the important connection between relationships and boundaries.
When Reese was in fourth grade she went through a period of several painful months with one particular girl. I will call her Cindy. Reese wanted to be friends with everyone, and Cindy was no exception. Each time they got together to play, Cindy would ask Reese personal questions like: “What boys do you like?” or “What do you think about the new girl in class?” and Reese would tell Cindy all of her “secrets.” Each time Reese confided intimate details, Cindy would turn around and tell the kids at school. This happened on several occasions. Reese would end up devastated and confused about friendship, and she began to wonder if she could trust anyone.
As a mother, it hurt to see my daughter hurting. I wanted to offer some insight that could help her be her unique, authentic self while also providing protection from continued exposure to harm.
Gratefully at the time I was listening to Brené Brown’s “ITIWJM (I Thought It Was Just Me) Read-Along” podcast. In one of the podcasts, Brené explored the idea that connection is something that is built over time. She used the metaphor of “Marble Jar Friends” to explain how family and friends earn the right to be in meaningful relationships.
What is a Marble Jar?
Some teachers use a marble jar with their class as an incentive for good behavior. When the class behaves and works hard, the teacher adds a marble to the jar. When the class misbehaves, the teacher removes a marble. When the marble jar fills to the top, it is time to celebrate! The kids win something special like a pizza or ice cream party.
Likewise, when you meet someone for the first time, you start off with an “empty marble jar.” You do not have any experiences together. You cannot know whether or not this person will be trustworthy and treat you with care. As you spend time together, you begin to “collect” experiences. With each positive interaction, marbles are added to the jar. For each negative interaction, marbles are taken away. When you have a hefty marble jar of shared experiences with someone, you have a good sense that it is okay to be yourself with this person.
“Whenever someone supports you, or is kind to you, or sticks up for you, or honors what you share with them as private, you put marbles in the jar. When people are mean, or disrespectful, or share your secrets, marbles come out… Trust is built one marble at a time.” Brené Brown
Room for Forgiveness
Another thing I like about the metaphor of the marble jar is that it leaves room for mistakes. All relationships are imperfect. We will occasionally mess up and experience misunderstandings. I do not have to cut off every single person in my life to protect myself from hurt. When I have a hefty marble jar of shared experience with someone, but then experience conflict, I might take out a marble or two. However, there are still plenty of marbles left to indicate that this person is worth giving a second chance.
But… if you only take “marbles” out of the jar and continually experience harmful interactions, this person is treating your relationship as disposable and will not treat you with care. If you are vulnerable and open in this relationship, you will be exposed to harm.
“The bottom line: if the friendship feels good, it is good. But if a person tries to control you, criticizes you, abuses your generosity, or brings unwanted danger, drama, or negative influences into your life, it’s time to take a hard look at the value of the friendship. A good friendship does not require you to act against your own values, always agree with the other person, or disregard your own needs.” (helpguide.org)
The marble jar illustration helped Reese to understand that she would be exposed to harm if she continued to confide in Cindy. She also learned that she does not need to close herself off from everyone. Over a period of time, friendships built on trust can be a place to express your own unique, authentic self.
I Cannot Be Friends with Everyone
I learned from experience that it is not possible to be friends with everyone and still be myself. The truth is, everyone cannot be my friend, and that is okay. Meaningful friendships are precious and rare.
The best part of going through this with my daughter is what I learned about myself. I realized I already know how to have wonderful friends… friends that like me for me. And, it is okay to be me. I can relax and give myself permission to enjoy those precious relationships and not worry about the unrealistic expectation of trying to fit in and please everyone.
Marble Jar Boundary Exercise
Remember every relationship starts off as an empty “marble jar.” The following questions from helpguide.org are helpful in determining when to add marbles and when to take them away. When you have a hefty marble jar of shared experiences with someone, you will have a good sense that it is okay to be yourself in this relationship.
- Do I feel better after spending time with this person?
- Do I feel free to be myself around this person?
- Do I feel safe, or do I feel like I have to watch what I say and do?
- Is the person supportive of me? Does he or she treat me with respect?
- Is this a person I feel that I could trust?
Brene Brown’s TED talk on Vulnerability is another excellent resource for building deeper, meaningful connections in your relationships:
Life keeps getting faster. I have so much going on with my two teenagers, my husband, work, friends, volunteering… the list just never ends. It is all good stuff. I love my life. But I have learned over the years that I cannot do it all, even though it feels like I have to learn this lesson over and over again. I am not sure how many times I have turned to my dear husband with my Wonder Woman outfit in one hand and some dark chocolate in the other: “I am so tired. I just need a break!”
Friend: “Jennifer, can you help with ___________?”
Me (As I wipe the sweat off my brow and stand in my super pose): “Sure! I would love to pitch in!”
And, then I check my calendar. Oh no! I already have sixteen other things that need to be done.
My Wonder Woman ways get me into trouble. The real problem is that the important stuff, the stuff I value and cherish, gets pushed out of the way to make room for all of the “yesses.”
- Time sprawled out on the carpet with my daughter watching silly Vines.
- Peacefully chopping vegies and other food prep for a relaxing dinner.
- A quick game of Smash Bros with my son.
- Coffee with my husband.
- Dessert with a friend.
- A good book and a cup of tea.
What Can I Do?
One of the most challenging and beneficial practices I continue to learn is setting boundaries. I need to remember I have limits and the only way to protect those limits is to learn to say “no.” When there is not enough of me to go around, it is time for some boundary work.
What Are Boundaries?
In our physical world, we have fences and walls that create clear defining lines. We can easily tell where one room ends and the other begins. We understand what belongs inside and what does not. Boundaries serve as a noticeable protective barrier that creates order.
Think about the Houston Zoo for a moment. We have a number of exotic and dangerous animals right in the middle of a densely populated area. But we are not afraid. Imagine what it would be like if the zoo walls suddenly disappeared. The result would be chaos. The people and animals would be in harms way. The walls around the zoo protect and create order for the animals and the surrounding areas. The walls inside the zoo also protect each species of animal from the other. We are able to enjoy the animals and feel safe because of boundaries.
The zoo also has a front gate. The gate opens to allow people in and out of the zoo. It shuts to prevent anything harmful entering or leaving the zoo at the wrong times.
What Do Zoo Walls Have to Do With Me?
Just like the zoo walls, you have a protective barrier around your physical body. Your skin serves as a defining barrier from the external world. Your internal cells also have membranes that protect and define each individual cell.
Like the zoo gate, you have the ability to let things in and out of your body. When a toxin enters your body, you get sick. You will get very ill if you continue to ingest the toxin. So, you “close the gate” and stop allowing it into your body. You also have the ability to let things into your body that nourish you.
Along with physical boundaries, you are also equipped with psychological boundaries. Have you ever been in a group of people when someone starts getting too close? It feels awkward. The natural reaction is for you to move to create distance. But the person may not notice and move toward you again. What is the deal? Wired within, you have a sense of appropriate distance between you and the other person. When they cross the “line” and move into your space, they have crossed your psychological boundary. Your psychological boundary lets you know where you end and where they begin.
My psychological space is my space. It is the space where I belong and it defines what is and is not my responsibility.
Some of us have very rigid psychological boundaries. If you experienced physical or emotional abuse as a child, you learned quickly to build fortress-like walls around yourself. You learned that it is not safe to let anyone into your space. Unfortunately, fortress walls do not have doors or gates to let in good things. Everything is walled off. When someone you care about tries to come close, they too may be blocked. Fortress walls are protective, but they can also be isolating.
Diffuse boundaries are permeable and barely exist. If, as a child, you were not allowed to have your own feelings, personal space, opinions, or even your own sense of self, boundaries are underdeveloped. When you have poorly defined boundaries, you may not have a clear sense of who you are, what your personal rights are, or what others rights are.
Back to the zoo example: What if the walls around the zoo suddenly disappeared? Chaos would erupt and someone would get hurt. Diffuse boundaries open us up to harm. There is no protection from being controlled and manipulated by others.
Healthy Personal Boundaries
Healthy boundaries protect your self-concept and allow you to be your own unique self. Your thoughts and feelings are separated from the thoughts and feelings of others. Healthy boundaries also include “gates” that allow you to let in good things like:
- The people you care about
- Your values and feelings
Healthy boundaries help close the gate on things that do not belong:
- A harmful relationship
- Needing to do everything that is asked of you
- Aversive words or actions
I recently discovered an exercise that helped me have a better understanding of my own personal boundaries. A great way to start this exercise is to slow things down enough to pause and think. Have you ever seen the movie, The Matrix? The main character, Neo, has the ability to perceive bullets moving at a much slower speed than reality. What if you could use your imagination and slow down the words that seem to come at you with bullet-like speed? You could give yourself time to think and choose what you want to let in and what needs to stay out:
- Imagine you can see your psychological boundaries like a protective barrier around you. I like to think of a clear plexiglas wall around me.
- Imagine a little gate or door situated in front of your heart area. I have found it useful to pretend I am holding up a stop sign in front of my heart.
- Now, as you read the following phrases, give yourself space to slow down the words, put up your imaginary stop sign, and ask yourself; “Does this fit with me? If I let it in, will it harm me? Does this fit better for someone else?
- You love to go art museums every weekend. (Does this fit for you, or not?)
- You are a kind person. (How does this fit?)
- “If you cared enough, you would volunteer for every event this year.” (This one’s tricky; you may need to pause and pull this one apart: “I care! Even if I am unable to volunteer sometimes.”)
- “If you love me, you will go to the movies with me every Friday night.” (This one is also tricky and a boundary violation. “I love you AND I am not free every Friday night.”) I will talk more about boundary violations in future posts.
- You can cry when you feel sad. (How does this fit?)
- For the phrases that fit, you can put down your stop sign and open the gate to let them in. If the phrases are harmful, you can close the door.
- Real life practice: Notice the words coming at you from the people around you this week. Slow them down and use your imaginary stop sign.
I realize this can be a challenging exercise. It is very difficult to say “no” when you fear that someone you care about might walk away or you might lose your job. But, it is also exhausting to say “yes” to everything and ignore your own limitations and needs.
My Wonder Woman outfit squeezes the energy and joy right out of me. I try to remember to pause, put up my stop sign, and access if something fits or not.
Friend: “Jennifer, can you help with ___________?”
Me: (Pause. Take a deep breath. Slow down the words) “Let me check my calendar and I will get back with you tomorrow.”
I fold up my Wonder Woman outfit and put it away… until the next time I find myself exhausted and over-taxed. Then it is time for some more boundary practice!
In future posts, I will continue to explore healthy practices and obstacles to creating boundaries:
- Boundaries in difficult relationships
- Boundaries and trust
- Boundaries around marriage
- Boundaries and work
- Boundaries and social media
- Spiritual boundaries