Knowing how to set appropriate boundaries can make the difference in whether or not your relationship succeeds. 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.
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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.
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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 understand 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 nor 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, let him or her 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, 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).