How Much To Compromise In Relationships (Without Completely Compromising Who You Are)

Photo: unsplash / justin follis
How To Set Healthy Emotional Boundaries And Compromise In Relationships

Knowing how much to give and how much to take is a really tough line to draw.

If you don’t agree, it may be because you don’t realize you struggle with them. Because while some people are fortunate enough to understand emotional boundaries, many of us don’t. And even if we’re not giving or allowing too much, we may be doing the opposite, which is: asking too much of others.

The only way we learn boundaries is what we pick up through interactions — family, etc. — but because so few of us have any good understanding, we tend to perpetuate and pick up bad habits and poor boundaries rather than understanding good ones.

RELATED: 10 Compromises You Should Never Make In Your Relationship, No Matter What

There’s a lot of bad information on boundaries.

Even resources on boundaries beat around the bush, instead covering “how important they are” (duh) or “how to stand up for yourself” and “say no.”

But those aren’t the real issue we have, evidenced by the fact that most of us sway erratically from one end of the spectrum to the other in attempt to find balance. We find ourselves feeling “un-appreciated” so we get passive aggressive to get even. Just for example — one of many.

So far most resources fail to address the real issue in emotional boundaries:

We know that we’re supposed to say NO. We juts don’t always knew WHEN.

Much like “logic” or other types of self-awareness, it’s really hard to know when our thinking is “good” or “right,” and when it’s actually flawed and skewed, but we can’t see it. It’s really hard to know if our judgement is right.

Where do we draw the line?

Here’s what I understand:

Emotional boundaries are the distinction of self vs others; the limit of what we will accept from / put on others to protect our self. This doesn’t just mean “not putting up with their shit;” it also means meeting our own needs, rather than expecting others to.

Emotional boundaries include defining ourselves outside of our relationships with others (i.e., our jobs, marital statuses, etc.) and enables us to define our feelings separately from other people’s.

Healthy boundaries are taking responsibility for your own actions and emotions, while not taking responsibility for the actions or emotions of others. It’s understanding we are not responsible for what others think or feel, including how they believe we should think or feel.

Emotional boundaries are built on emotional health, and self-esteem, and self-love.

Emotional health (and self-esteem and self-love) are the number one most important thing in a relationship. It’s all one packaged deal.

Emotional boundaries are as important as physical boundaries. This means we are not “obligated” to share our thoughts or feelings — with anyone! — just like we are ever “obligated” to have sex with anyone, including our partner. (And we are no more entitled to what’s in other people’s heads, or them ours, than we are to each other’s bodies.)

Emotional boundaries protect us from intimidation, manipulation, shaming, and emotional abuse (which are always indications of unhealthy emotional boundaries.)

Emotional boundaries require emotion work, which is not the same as emotional labor. (Incidentally: frustration around emotional labor is a big, bright red flag for poor emotional boundaries.)
How to literally say “no.”

RELATED: How To Compromise Without Sacrificing Your Needs In A Relationship

Our feelings often aren’t “real.” So how do we manage them?

Yes, we are entitled to feel our feelings. But that doesn’t mean our feelings are always right, or reasonable, or anybody else’s responsibility. And without emotion work, they can’t define emotional boundaries.

Resources on emotional boundaries often advise the reader to simply “understand what upsets, hurts, or offends” us. One article said, “When you feel anger or resentment… determine what you need… then communicate assertively.”

That is terrible advice. In the sense that it skips a step: that being, solving our own problems for ourselves first.

We need to deal with our own emotions before putting them back on others. Our feelings are our own responsibility first. We’re in control.

Part of being an adult (and developing emotional boundaries) is also about being able to discern which emotions are yours alone to deal with, and not project on others.

Sometimes people struggle to stand up for their feelings. Sometimes people struggle to understand the world isn’t responsible for soothing everything they feel. Most people struggle with discerning the difference, and bounce back and forth between the two.

So: the question here is on emotion work, really. How to manage our own emotions, and being able to appropriately discern what’s ours to fix (hint: most of it), and what’s valid / for other people.

Here are my open questions:

1.) Who decides?

Often resources brush people off with advice like: “know your boundary and then say no.” Which leaves us like, thanks, Doc.

The problem is we’re all so biased and bad at it, so we can’t trust our own judgment yet. So: who decides? Or, better yet: how do we know when we can? What if we don’t care? Should we?

I grab fries off my partner’s plate and borrow his clothes all the time without asking. I moved across the country for him. I listen when he jumps straight to “problem-solving” when I share something.

Are those poor boundaries?? Even if neither of us cares, should we? Hell, even if we think we’re happy, should we be?

2.) Similarly: Where do we draw the line?

We are subconsciously socialized to empathize with other people’s feelings, but then we’re told not to take on other people’s feelings.

We’re told to “stand up for ourselves” but also “surrender to love.” We’re told to “say no” but never “shut down.”

We’re warned against becoming “emotionally exhausted” after talking to others, but we’re also warned against “withdrawing” or “walling others out.”

We’re told “the opposite of love is not ‘hate’ but ‘apathy’” (or maybe “fear?”), which means loving is caring — but what’s too much?

We’re not supposed to sacrifice our dreams for relationships, but most dreams are fantasies anyway. (Would you reeaally move to a cabin in Vermont??)

When it comes to others’ emotions, it makes sense: be open to others but don’t take on their emotions as your own. Fine. It’s not actually as clear it sounds, in practice, but it’s fine enough on paper. (Eat the cookie without becoming it. Eat the cookie without needing to identify as “cookie eater.” Fine.)

But what about our own emotions, thoughts, preferences, ideas? And how should those two come together? How do we make this all work? How do we discern and compromise?

Like: it’s always bad when people try to change their partners.

Except it’s not always bad, because there are caveats like: if their habit is objectively bad, like smoking. But what if it’s subjectively bad, or just sort of bad? Who gets to decide? Do they compromise? Should both have to give 50% if the habit is only regarding one person’s body or life? How much agency do we have over one another? And how does their agency affect our own?

What I know for sure

  • Emotional boundaries are incredibly important.
  • Emotional boundaries — and needs — are foremost our own responsibility

It all comes down to a better understanding of — and accountability for — our own feelings and thoughts and what we truly want most, and expecting the same of people in our life.

RELATED: What You'll Never Compromise For Anyone, Per Astrology

Kris Gage is a top relationship writer on Medium. Find out more on her website.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.