Dr. Romance writes:
Knowing how to set appropriate boundaries can make the difference in whether your relationship succeeds or not. The topic frequently comes up in my counseling office, and most people think boundaries are set by telling other people what the limits are. But boundaries are really something you must create within yourself. Having the confidence to say no to another is one important aspect of creating boundaries; but it begins by knowing what you do and don’t want.
The Tennis Match: Setting Boundaries and Taking Space
When one or both partners don’t get enough space or don’t feel heard, their relationship will develop signs of trouble:
- One partner becomes a resentful caretaker, while the other feels oppressed and belittled.
- One will be alert to the moods of the other—often walking on eggshells not to upset the other.
- One may threaten to leave in order to get his or her way.
- One wants more together time and the other wants more space.
These differences can create resentment, hurt, and power struggles.
When a couple struggles, the flow of love between them is blocked, even when they truly love one another. On the other hand, a couple who understands boundaries and who are committed to equality and mutual satisfaction are far more likely to create love and partnership they deeply treasure.
Each person has individual needs for closeness and personal space as well as other needs to feel nurtured, understood, and autonomous within a relationship. Some want the freedom to be close and comforted, others want the freedom to be autonomous and unfettered. It’s essential that you and your partner each know your own needs and wants, communicate them, and then understand each other. Knowing what you want and what you feel are skills essential to creating a mutually satisfying intimate relationship. In counseling, I use the tennis-match metaphor to help couples understand and honor each others’ needs for space.
To keep your relationship in balance, especially if it’s new, neither you or your partner should do all the calling, all the planning, all the talking, all the giving, and all the chasing. Instead, you need to learn to toss the responsibility and power back and forth like a tennis ball.
This can begin in the earliest stages of dating or making a new friend. Begin by making a move to show the other person you’re interested in being close, then sit and wait for your partner to make a move in return. For example, make a phone call to invite him or her for coffee, or to join a group going to the movies, and then, wait for your new friend to make the next invitation. You can do the same thing in an already established relationship: if you feel taken for granted, just back off a little, without drama or a big announcement, and your partner will move toward you. If you feel overwhelmed by your partner being too aggressive, step up and take the lead, or say a simple “no, thank you” (see below).
The idea is to establish a balance in your relationship, which can be difficult to do if you have a strong interest in the other person, or the two of you have developed an unbalanced interaction. Coming on too strong in the relationship may push the other person away, or may disguise a lack of enough interest on the other person’s part. Don’t keep hitting balls over the net if they’re not returned. On the other hand, if you never hit the ball, but always wait for the other person to do it, you aren’t playing a very good tennis game, either. It’s essential that you do your part, because passivity is easily interpreted as a lack of interest, and can shut communication down. If you compare what has gone on in the relationship so far to a tennis game, you will quickly see if you’ve been either too passive or too aggressive.
The Tennis Match: Volleying the Conversation
Mutuality is so central to balancing all your relationships so they can find their appropriate levels that I’ve developed some guidelines you can use to understand and promote intimacy. Following these suggestions will help you and your partner understand each other’s needs and wants, and create natural boundaries that feel comfortable. It will give both of you the space and balance needed to show you are interested in what each other is saying, and want to hear more. Whether you’re online, on the phone, or face to face, you need to keep your conversation going back and forth—what I call the tennis match.
Tennis-Match Guidelines for Understanding Your Partner
- Take Turns: Leave room for your partner to open topics, to express opinion, to gather thoughts and express opinions. Don’t jump right in to a silence if it’s not your turn.
- Concentrate: Listen carefully to what your partner is saying—don’t wander off mentally into what you want to say next.
- Volley (Respond): After your partner says something, respond directly to it, letting him or her know that you heard and understood what was said, and, if possible that you have similar thoughts or experience.
- Don’t Argue: There is definitely a place for spirited discussion in good conversation, but be careful not to get too oppositional. Your objective is to establish understanding.
- Return the Serve: At the end of whatever you say, invite a response by adding “Don’t you think?” or “What do you think?” or, make your response a question.
- Serve Again: If your partner drops the ball, ask a question about something that was said before, and give your partner plenty of time to express his or her opinion.
If your tennis match goes on long enough, you’ll learn a lot about each other, and you’ll both feel you have “so much to talk about.” The tennis-game approach is not rigid, but a flexible attitude that you can adapt to almost any situation.
When you encounter a partner who is too aggressive, and overwhelms you with too many words, too much emotion and drama, or too much attention, you need to learn to set limits. If you’re interested in keeping the relationship going, you also need to learn to step up and hit the ball in your partner’s direction. Learning to say no or even to be silent in a neutral way is not necessarily easy, but is essential for avoiding uncomfortable situations. Be polite, but firm when you say “no, thank you,” and you will stop the other person from imposing on you. Often, saying nothing is the best tactic. Wait until your blustery partner runs out of steam, and then you can make your statement.
If no question is actually asked, you needn’t volunteer, no matter how sad the story is. If a direct question is asked, you can learn to be polite, and say, “I’m so sorry, but I can’t.” If that’s too difficult, say you have to check with someone else (your calendar, your spouse, your kids, your boss, your pets) or think about it before you answer. If you have trouble saying no in person, use email or call when you know the other person will be out, and leave a polite refusal on their voice mail. Often, saying no is an unconscious test. If you feel unsure about whether you’re being respected, valued, or cared about, you may feel like saying no. After you say no, if your refusal is handled with respect, caring, and consideration, your questions may disappear, and you may change your mind.
Run through a scene of a situation in which you want to say no, for example with a demanding neighbor, partner, or relative, and practice saying no several different ways in your imagination. Watch in TV and movies for examples of people saying no with grace and dignity (you can find them, if you look) and imitate them.