Good relationships begin with well-defined boundaries

I’ll always remember my favorite clinical supervisor as Wild Bill, though I never called him that to his face. But he had a long, shoulder-length mane and mustache that recalled my favorite boyhood Old West hero, Wild Bill Hickock.

More than anyone, it’s Bill’s fingerprints on my actual craft of talk therapy. He had a way of crafting questions that would dismantle a patient’s way of seeing a problem. I’m saying the question alone would give pause, even dumbfound, making it impossible to conceptualize the problem in the old ways. This would make room for new ways of thinking and seeing that were more useful and effective. The door would open to change.

I once saw him (through an observation mirror) encounter a wife who was a repeat victim of domestic violence. The woman recounted assaults. Twice hospitalized. She loves her husband. Her family doesn’t understand. He’s actually a really nice guy (when he’s not hitting her). Etc.

“Everybody tells me to leave him.”

“I’m not going to tell you to leave or to stay,” Bill shrugged. “I can only assume that your husband hasn’t yet crossed a line with you. He’s made you unhappy, he’s injured you, frightened you, but he hasn’t yet violated your core values.”

“Core values?”

“Yep. Everybody has core values about what justifies divorce. Some women leave if the man doesn’t like to go dancing. Others if a man cheats. Others if a man ever hits her, even once. Everybody sets the bar in different places.”

Then I watched him, without irony, lead the woman in a discussion about where her bar was set. Where she wanted to set it. He kept presenting her own freedom to decide how she could and would measure love. Did verbal slurs cross the line? Did grabbing, shaking and pushing? Slapping? Hitting? Bruising? Welting? Bleeding? A broken bone? Was there a particular broken bone that would cross the line? (Metacarpal? Orbital socket?)

The woman was engaged in the conversation like an avid student. Her energy increased and became more focused as the conversation went on. She found her outrage. Then, suddenly, incredulity. Her head popped up, eyes wide: “I decide where to set the bar!”

“No argument from me,” Bill said.

It was stunning to watch. Bill later explained that the woman’s surge of “better energy” is the predictable consequence of being respected. Respected? Yes. Bill believed that “raising the bar” for patients was the heartbeat of respect.

“Why would I tell her to leave him?” he asked, rhetorically. “She’s heard that from all her family members, several police officers, and a carousel of social workers. Why would I think she’s been waiting all this time for me to say it?”

She had to answer the question for herself. She had to decide where to set the bar.

Oddly enough, this column isn’t about domestic violence. The setup was an elaborate illustration of the point: We get to decide. We do decide. Even not deciding is a way to decide.

Where have you set the bar?

There is no meaningful definition of relationship that does not include boundaries and accountability. Period.

We don’t set healthy boundaries by navel-gazing about self-esteem. When I encounter someone with absent, variable or poorly conceived interpersonal boundaries, I challenge them about self-respect. And that’s a question we each answer for ourselves: “What is the self, in this exact circumstance, that I would most respect?”

Self-respect is a gift to ourselves, yes. But it is also a gift to our relationships. This is why I tell parents of unruly, loud, disdainful, name-calling adolescents and post-adolescents to stop reacting and start self-examining. Where have you set the bar? Does it help you or your wayward child to keep proffering yourself up as a willing pinata?

This is why I tell couples: “Always fall in love with someone who has the strength to leave you.” Because that’s a person with self-respect. With healthy boundaries. Not to mention this is precisely what will give meaning to the fact that he/she stays.

Love as an endearing, affectionate feeling is, strangely enough, erosive to healthy boundaries. It keeps feeling like, if we can generate enough warmth and happiness, people will stop treating us badly.

It’s actually the other way around. Affectionate feelings emerge from well-defined, consistently asserted boundaries of mutual respect, honor and decency.

We decide. Each individually.

Take a look at your most important relationships. Where have you set the bar?

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 702-227-4165 or skalas@reviewjournal.com.

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